Laura Ingalls Wilder used to wake up in the little house in the big woods and hear the wolves outside. Now, 35 years after her death, the wolves seem to be circling again. This time they smell money.
The name of Laura Ingalls Wilder is loved worldwide for her evocatively written Little House books and for Michael Landon's long-running NBC series (from 1974 to '83), Little House on the Prairie, which they inspired. Now the name appears on a series of titles just out from Thomas Nelson, the world's largest Bible publisher: The multivolume ''The Days of Laura Ingalls Wilder'' series, which are fictional stories about her, was written in the name of ''family values,'' according to their author, T.L. Tedrow, who churned out a book a month for eight months this year. But Wilder's only heir, Roger MacBride, calls the books ''utter rip-off trash.''
Last year the Nashville-based Thomas Nelson released a book called Little House in the Ozarks. HarperCollins, which publishes the immensely popular original Little House series, sued the publisher for using ''Little House'' in its title. Thomas Nelson settled out of court, promising not to use the words in subsequent books. ''But Thomas Nelson learned its lesson,'' MacBride says. ''It has very cleverly come up with a formula where they can do it.''
This is how it works: Laura Ingalls Wilder is a dead historical figure. If somebody wants to write about her and call it fiction, neither permission from nor royalties payments to her estate are necessary, depending on whether her name is used for promotion. HarperCollins lawyer Chris Goff maintains that Thomas Nelson is using Wilder's name for promotional purposes and says that another suit is being considered. ''I'm of the view that it is quite actionable,'' he says. Thomas Nelson denies that there is a viable claim.
Meanwhile, Thomas Nelson has released 500,000 copies of each book in its new series Missouri Homestead, Children of Promise, Good Neighbors, and Home to the Prairie. And while the publisher is spending $500,000 to promote and advertise the series, Tedrow has been putting together a television deal through his FamilyVision Entertainment Corporation in Winter Park, Fla. His Canadian partners, in fact, are even now building a set in Vancouver where production of a TV series is scheduled to begin in February. The Family Channel and Disney, says Tedrow, are negotiating for the U.S. rights to the series.
''I knew Thomas Nelson was looking to go into the mainstream,'' says Tedrow, who wrote Death at Chappaquiddick in 1976. ''So I presented them with the idea. I expect we'll have a couple of billion in sales in the next two years.''
''I think it's outrageous that somebody would do this to turn a cheap buck,'' says MacBride, 63, who was befriended by Laura's only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, when he was 16. When Lane died childless in 1968, she left her estate and consequently her mother's to MacBride, whose book about Lane's childhood, Little House on Rocky Ridge, is due out next spring from HarperCollins. ''It is as authentic as I know how to make it,'' he says.
Tedrow doesn't claim authenticity for his own books: ''I made up all the stories about her,'' he says. ''It was a little hard to create the prairie staring out at these palm trees, but I tried to embody the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder without wearing a dress around the house.'' But MacBride isn't the only person challenging that approach. Another is Bill Anderson, a board member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association, which last year hosted 40,000 visitors to its museum at the Wilder home in Mansfield, Mo. ''I hope educators and librarians look carefully before they put the Tedrow books in the hands of children,'' says Anderson, who also has a Wilder book out Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography, published by HarperCollins. ''We have always been very careful with these true stories. This Tedrow series is a great distortion of the truth. Thomas Nelson is supposedly a religious publisher, but they've forgotten the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.''