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Little Library on the Prairie in a Legal Tangle

Laura Ingalls Wilder's will seems clear. But a beneficiary may end up in court.


MANSFIELD, Mo. — Laura Ingalls Wilder's instructions for a good life were simple.

No matter how much the world may change, she wrote, "it is still best to be honest and truthful. To make the most of what we have."

That maxim is being put to the test by a battle over Wilder's literary estate that is saturated with allegations of fraud and greed.

The dispute centers on Wilder's will. On the surface, the document seems a model of clarity, just like the novels that made her famous. Wilder bequeathed her literary estate--the enduringly popular "Little House" series documenting her frontier childhood--to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. "At her death," Wilder wrote, "I direct that said copyrighted literary property and the income from same be given to the Laura Ingalls Library of Mansfield, Missouri."

That straightforward request, however, has become tangled in the intricacies of copyright law--and may now, 42 years after Wilder's death, be headed to federal court.

Although royalties on the estate may be worth $100 million, the tiny library in this farming community--where Wilder lived her last 63 years and wrote her "Little House" books--has received just $28,000. For instead of turning the estate over to the library, Lane bequeathed it to her closest friend, Roger Lea MacBride. When MacBride died, the estate passed to his daughter.

Now the library is suing to get it back.

Certainly, it could use the money.

Crammed in an old medical clinic, the library looks dingy. The roof leaks "just about everywhere," director Carrie Cline says. The heater "puts out cold air when it puts out anything at all," she adds. And although a local company has donated six computers, most of the library's collection is woefully out of date.

"I went to look up something on raising milk cows, and I found one book on milk production, a scientific book from 1957," library user Cynthia Zimmerman complained. "Jeez O Pete, I could go to a big city and find books on raising milk cows, but I can't find them here."

The entire county library system runs on an annual budget of $160,000. If Wilder intended her beloved Mansfield branch to have more, Cline said, "we just want the right thing to be done."

But MacBride's heirs and HarperCollins, which publishes the "Little House" series, contend the right thing has been done--and that the library is not owed another penny.

They argue that Wilder's daughter had every right to renew the copyrights on her mother's works. When she did so, those copyrights became hers. They were no longer part of Wilder's estate and no longer subject to Wilder's will.

What's more, the defendants argue, even if the library had a claim, it is bringing it way too late. The lone royalty payout the Mansfield branch received, for $28,011 in 1972, came with a warning that by endorsing the check, the library was renouncing all further claims to any money from the estate. No one questioned that provision.

"We thought we had gotten all we were supposed to get," Cline said.

It was only last spring, when a volunteer looked at Wilder's will while brainstorming ways to raise funds, that anyone began to think the library was owed more.

The library's lawyers now argue that MacBride defrauded the library and bamboozled its directors into giving up their rights by passing himself off as Lane's adopted grandson--and thus, a rightful heir to the estate--when he was in fact only a friend. They accuse HarperCollins of aiding the deception. The defendants deny those allegations; both sides have produced fat legal briefs claiming that the fine points of copyright law back them up.

Although the dispute revolves around arcane legal issues, it has received tremendous publicity because it concerns some of the most popular children's books ever written.

The nine "Little House" novels, which recount the pain and the promise of life in the raw American West, have sold more than 50 million copies and have been translated around the world. From the fearsome sight of an approaching prairie blizzard to the simple joy in a tune from Pa's fiddle, Wilder captured the texture of pioneer life from a child's perspective--and enraptured generations of young readers.

The books spawned a hugely lucrative empire, including cookbooks, dolls, sequels, prequels and a hit TV series.

All in all, the estate is "one of the very most valuable literary properties," said Stan Soocher, a New York attorney who edits the newsletter Entertainment Law and Finance. Acquiring the estate, Soocher said, would be a windfall as great as discovering an unpublished Shakespeare play.

At Wilder's gracious farmhouse--a national historic landmark that attracts more than 50,000 tourists a year--curators are watching the dispute with one fervent hope: that all the talk about treachery and avarice does not sully the reputation of a modest woman renowned for her integrity.

As Jean Coday, who heads the nonprofit group that maintains the home, put it: "We just don't want her, or the books, to be thought less of because of this fuss."

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