Fans of classic television remember Karen Grassle from her time on Little House on the Prairie. She played Caroline “Ma” Ingalls, the loving matriarch of the Ingalls family. Throughout the course of the classic show’s nine-year run, she showed the world what a kind, giving, and pious pioneer mother looked like. She and the Ingalls family encapsulated the spirit of the pioneer life for millions of viewers.
When someone plays a role as well and as long as Karen Grassle played Ma Ingalls, many start to believe there’s a similarity between the two. It would be easy to believe that Grassle possessed some of Ma’s character traits before she took the role. However, that’s not true. She’s just that good of an actor.
Recently, Karen Grassle joined John Cowan on his New Zealand-based show Real Life with John Cowan. During their chat, they discussed Grassle’s new book, Bright Lights and Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma. As the two dove into her past, one thing became crystal clear. Karen and Caroline were two incredibly different people.
Karen Grassle Has Lived “Anything But” the Little House Life
John Cowan mentioned that he had just finished reading Karn Grassle’s memoir. He, like many others, believed that he would find a book that could have come from the pen of Ma Ingalls. Cowan admitted to expecting “Homely little homilies and stories like you’d expect from Ma in Little House on the Prairie. But your life has been anything but, hasn’t it?”
Karen Grassle immediately agreed. “Well, yeah. You know, I was a woman who gained her maturity in the sixties. We were breaking things wide open, ya know? With the pill, with –all of the sudden- no fear of pregnancy. So, there was the sexual revolution. And, I was in Berkley and there was the Free Speech Movement. That led right into the Vietnam anti-war movement. So, there was a lot going on, ya know?”
Karen Grassle found herself at the center of history-making movements. So, when she joined the Little House cast, it was a bit of a culture shock. As a theatre actor, Grassle thought the television format was a “small canvas.” More than that, though, she realized that the stories on Little House were small. Those stories, she said, “…were designed to not be realistic. They dealt with problems, but in a certain tone and a certain way.”
Karen Grassle stepped into a role that was her polar opposite and played it for nearly a decade. She did so well enough to make us all believe it. So, no, she was nothing like Ma Ingalls. This just shows how fully she embraced her character when the cameras were rolling.