The Three Faces of Nellie: The Real Story Behind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Nellie Oleson” by Robynne Elizabeth Miller

The Three Faces of Nellie200Whether you love her, hate her, or love to hate her, Nellie Oleson is one of the most recognizable literary figures of the 20th century.  But Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series in which Nellie appears, had a secret. . .Nellie wasn’t a real person! Instead, she was a composite character created from three girls Laura knew in childhood:  Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Estella Gilbert.

The Little House character of Nellie Oleson is one-dimensional: snobbish, selfish, and thoroughly unpleasant. But what about the real women behind Laura’s creation? They were an intriguing mix of the not-so-nice and the unexpectedly redeemable. In short, they were human.

Discovering the true stories behind Nellie, Genevieve, and Estella has been a fascinating journey. All three ended up on the West Coast at one point. . .true westward movement! One was widowed twice, one ended up divorced, and one died way too young. Two only had one child, and one had three, though she outlived her youngest by a very long time. There’s even some “Nellie-like” drama in there: Embezzlement. Lying on censuses. Shady land deals.

But there are some beautiful things, too. . .like the enduring love of a husband after his young wife died. Or the rare closeness of a mother and daughter who shared their lives as adults. Or the strength of a young widowed mother who not only cared for her son, but headed out west, in true pioneer fashion, while she did so.

Laura Ingalls Wilder did a masterful job of creating the character of Nellie Oleson. But the three real-life women behind that iconic character are, in my opinion, infinitely more intriguing.

Robynne Elizabeth Miller

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