Before Alison Arngrim became a gay icon for her portrayal of Nellie Oleson on TV’s Little House on the Prairie series, ranked the number one female villain in TV history by Vanity Fair, a rainbow beamed its way across the Ingalls family. Author R. Lee Ingalls is continuing in the footsteps of his great-grandfather’s cousin, Laura Ingalls Wilder. He recently released his second book, The Prairie Has a Rainbow, where he draws upon his personal memories of growing up to be an average American gay man who was born in the mid-1950s and was an adult during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“I always felt, all my life, that at some point someone in our family would write additional stories about our family,” says Ingalls. “Once I got into my forties and nobody was doing that, I thought, ‘Okay, so it might have to be me.’”
His readers may be surprised to discover that his book about his parents’ lives wasn’t where his writing journey began. “My first thought was to write my own story,” he admits. “As I began writing my story, I realized I should really write my parents’ book first, which is how I got to that.”
Fans of the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder will find a similar storytelling style in The Prairie Has a Rainbow. “It takes an average American experience and shares the details of the impact of national and international events on a normal family,” explains Ingalls. Yet, the big difference is that we get this installment of the Ingalls family chronicles through the lens of growing up gay during a time when it was exceptionally hard to be gay.
As audiences read The Prairie Has a Rainbow, they will encounter watershed moments that hold historical significance for the author and his experiences. “In my generation, there was no social media, there was no internet, and parents and adults did absolutely control what was put in front of us and what we could see and know about. So I was 19 before I realized that the gay community existed. In the book I talk about how I found that to be,” says Ingalls. “Then, absolutely, you can’t be a man of my generation and not talk about AIDS. I talk about my three long-term boyfriends (two of whom tested positive during our relationships) and the impact that AIDS had on our relationships. When one partner is positive and one is not, it definitely shakes the foundations of your relationship.”
The Prairie Has a Rainbow also includes Ingalls’ memorable experience at the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam. “I competed in the two dance genres and took first place in both,” he says. “While getting ready for the Gay Games, we did not have any exposure to any other competitors. We had no idea what our competition looked like at all. Then to get over there and take two gold medals was just overwhelming.”
The narratives within the Little House on the Prairie novels and their adaptations for film, TV, and the stage are often recognized as being decidedly conservative, which could seem to complicate adding a gay narrative to this well-known family catalog. “Some of the foundations of Laura’s books were honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing when given the opportunity to do that. Adding the gay element does not change any of that,” says Ingalls. “I wanted to illustrate that in my book. It’s still honesty, integrity, and doing the right thing that are at the forefront of what our family is all about. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or not.”
In today’s current political climate, though, many queer coming-of-age narratives are being hastily removed from libraries across the country. “I think that will impact my book—simply because it has a gay theme, despite nothing in it being explicit,” Ingalls admits. “Intimacy should be part of everybody’s story, and I think that I share mine in a respectful manner for all audiences. But at the same time, I let people know that those relationships do exist, so I know that I’m going to experience that. I look forward to having the conversations with those people that would try to debate that issue with me.”
R. Lee Ingalls’ The Prairie Has a Rainbow is available on Amazon and other outlets. Follow R. Lee Ingalls on Instagram at both @ThePrairieHasARainbow and @IngallsOnThePrairie. For more information, visit ingallsontheprairie.com.
WHAT: The Prairie Has a Rainbow book launch
WHEN: Saturday, November 4 at 4:00 p.m.
WHERE: Michael’s Outpost