Karen Grassle, known to Little House on the Prairie viewers as the beloved Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, has made her own contribution to the ever-growing collection of cast memoirs. Her new book, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust, is a tell-all memoir that reveals information that some fans of the series may find unsettling. The Prairie Review sat down with Karen to discuss her book and the disturbing allegations she makes against Michael Landon.
In the book, Grassle reveals that she believes that the Caroline character should have waited to have kids and instead focused on her career first. In the shocking revelation, Grassle tells of her struggles to get Michael Landon to grant any allowances in this regard.
“I think it’s really important that women learn that they don’t need to depend on anyone else,” Grassle tells us. “I just really would have loved to see Caroline focus on her career first. Viewers of the show will of course know that Caroline taught school before she married Charles, but she had to give it up for marriage and her family. In the “School Mom” episode we get a real glimpse of her passion for teaching and we know that she really missed it when her short term was over. I just really think the character regretted not developing her career further before having children.”
As it turns out, Grassle had proposed this idea to Michael Landon in the beginning. As Grassle tells us, “I asked Mike if Caroline really needs to have three kids already. I mean, she isn’t that old, so that was red flag number one for me. I asked about her ambitions, what she wanted out of life. Mike just brushed it off and that didn’t really sit right with me.”
The show proceeded with Landon’s vision of Caroline Ingalls, the established wife, homemaker, and mother of three. This grated at Grassle, however, who found herself increasingly displeased with the terms of her contract. “Let her have a career now,” Grassle pleaded with Landon, “and let her really work on herself.” As Grassle tells us, this began a years long battle between Landon and herself.
“It really strained our relationship,” Grassle acknowledges. “I used to find Mike funny, and I still do think he was a strong creative force who carried a lot on his shoulders. I just don’t think it’s fair that Caroline had to put her career ambitions aside to have her family.” As it turns out, Landon kept bringing more kids—both through birth and adoption—onto the show. “It almost seemed like he did it just to spite me,” Grassle comments.
While Grassle feels very strongly that Caroline should have been given the option to pursue a career and then decide later in life if she wanted to have kids, she does recall a conversation in the early days of the show where Michael Landon frustratedly pointed out that Caroline had to have kids. “‘It’s just the facts, Karen,’ he told me,” Grassle relates. “They had these kids. It’s actual history. We can’t change it for any agenda.’ When I pointed out that the show took many liberties with actual history, Mike really doubled down. ‘Laura has to exist,’ he said, ‘she’s the one who wrote the books!’ I still don’t think actual history should have taken precedence over the Caroline character’s empowerment and well-being, and that’s really where our relationship soured. It wasn’t really the same between us after that.”
Unfortunately, this was far from the darkest it got on the set. As Grassle’s book reveals, Landon used to wait to film the scenes of Charles and Caroline in bed until late at night, when most of the rest of the actors had gone home. “It was then that he really opened the floodgates,” Grassle says. “He would make jokes about how he thought Caroline should have even more kids. Really sick stuff.”
Finally, after years of strained negotiations, Grassle was granted a small concession: Caroline would become employed at the new restaurant in town. However, Grassle still lamented that her career had been stunted by having children at a young age. “It was really too little, too late,” Grassle says. “The damage was already done.”