Back to the prairie
'Little House' books offer unique window to past that fans adore
I approached my poor, unsuspecting grandfather in the kitchen while he was innocently drying dishes.
“Pops,” I said — we called him Pops — “did you ever play with a pig bladder when you were a kid?”
He was far too courteous to give me the “Huh?” I so obviously deserved, and instead just looked politely quizzical.
I sallied forth: “Well, in ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ after Pa and Uncle Henry killed the pig, Pa blew up the bladder and tied the end so it was like a little balloon. Then Laura and Mary could toss it around and kick it and stuff.”
Pops, who sadly never read the “Little House” books, grew up in a rural area of American Fork, Utah, so as my other connection to The Agricultural Life besides my dad and the books, I figured hey, that’s what country kids do. They play with pig bladders.
After a rather strained pause, he replied (a little tersely, I might add), “We had toys.”
That was disappointing. As a 9-year-old with very little concept of time — Pops was born in 1918, which could have been olde tymey like Laura Ingalls, what did I know? — I was deep in the throes of an obsession that significantly shaped my world view at the time.
I read the “Little House” books over and over and over, to the point I could mentally access Garth Williams’ beautiful illustrations and wander through the accompanying story whenever I wanted a little daydream. Which was often.
The Ingalls family’s life was so different from mine — sure, my parents have always been “let’s make it ourselves and do it ourselves” types, an attitude I gladly inherited, but we lived in a neo-Victorian on West First Street in Palisade, not a lean-to in the Dakota Territories. I learned to sew because I wanted to, not because I had to. I have never once butchered an animal or churned butter.
But these books! This obsession! I’m not alone in it. (My editor at The Palm Beach Post, Nicole Piscopo Neal, and I could have entire conversations consisting of “Little House” allusions. My former Daily Sentinel colleague, Shannon Joyce Neal, said she wasn’t allowed to give a toast at her best friend’s wedding because she would have mentioned that her friend had always planned to marry Almanzo.)
In celebration of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday Tuesday, fans worldwide are remembering what they love about dolls named Charlotte, dresses made of floral lawn and evenings at the Literary.
“Lots of people are obsessed with Laura, and they probably have different reasons,” explained Sarah Uthoff, a former board member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and Iowa-based host of a “Little House”-themed podcast (blogtalkradio.com/trundlebedtales). “One of them is that the books are just so well-written. The more you read them, the more layers you find, and it’s just beautiful language.
“I think also there is a real solid family at the heart of the story. I hear people talk about that, both people who had that and a lot of people who never had that, their family had splintered or they didn’t have extended family close, and the Ingalls (family) sort of became a substitute for that.”
Nancy McCabe, a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and author of “From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood,” said that for her, a large part of the books’ appeal was their sense of adventure and expectations defied.
Growing up in Kansas, McCabe said, with extended family near and embodying traditional roles of marrying young and having children, “the books simultaneously instilled in me the idea that you wanted to go have adventures and not settle for too little. But at the same time the books honored those traditional values.”
While she was researching her book, traveling to Laura’s homesites and revisiting the books as a single mother of a daughter adopted from China, “I was finding that maybe, I’d spent a lot of my life traveling from one state to another getting different degrees, and I think the books sort of inspired me in a way to have courage to do that.”
“Laura did cool things and she described them well,” Uthoff said, “and you’d get feelings after reading the descriptions in her books that you could go out and do that. When you finish reading how Pa built the door with the latch string, you feel like you could build a door with a latch string.”
For Pamela Smith Hill, the Oregon-based author of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life” and founder of The Pioneer Girl Project (pioneergirlproject.org), Laura is the key: “The fictional Laura Ingalls is a compelling, timeless character,” Hill said. “She’s smart, she’s courageous and strong, but she’s flawed, she loses her temper, she holds grudges. She has this wonderful combination of traits that so many young women identify with. On a subconscious level, she not only appeals to young readers but encourages them. She makes young readers feel they can grow and change.
“I believe that the reason the books continue to be read today is because of the characters. Today’s young readers can still identify with the feelings, challenges, difficulties that Laura Ingalls faces. Granted, we don’t churn butter and we don’t ride in buggies and we don’t wear calico, but there’s still something about the way Laura faces her challenges and the way the family interacts with each other. This is a very affectionate, loving and supportive family.”
When I first met Laura as a 9-year-old reader, there was a spark of recognition, akin to when I met Ramona Quimby, my spiritual twin, or Anastasia Krupnik. There’s a scene in “On the Banks of Plum Creek” in which Laura, expressly forbidden from going to the swimming hole alone, sneaks off to it anyway and ends up encountering a badger.
Tearing back to the family dug-out, Laura spots older sister Mary: “All that time, Mary had been sitting like a little lady, spelling out words in the book that Ma was teaching her to read. Mary was a good little girl.”
Oh, the curse of a wonderful older sister, a glowing, golden sunflower in the life of a younger sister who, in comparison, is a prickly sort of plant that makes cattle sick when they eat it, like horsetail or cocklebur.
But this is not why I loved the books.
I loved them because they were my stories, told specifically to me, never mind that on some level I knew other people had read or were reading them, too. I opened the books and joined the Ingalls family in the big woods of Wisconsin, on the sea of Kansas prairie, under the vast Dakota Territory sky.
As an adult, I can recognize and admire the deftness and beauty of Wilder’s writing, the artistic skill required to write stories of such layered depth that they feel personal to every reader, but as a child I knew only this: I could glance up from the book and out to my familiar horizon, but in my mind erase the houses, erase the cars and the roads, erase even the orderly orchards of fruit trees and fields of corn, and see nothing but sky and rocky cliffs and river — what would have been Laura’s world if the Ingalls family had made it this far west.
I’d feel a moment of glory followed immediately by a moment of terror — did I want to hear only the blowing of the wind and the inexorable menace of storms rolling in? Probably not.
I did like to think about it, though.
“While we love to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s world as being simple, I think it was really complex,” Hill said. “She added so much to the story and showed readers that life in the 19th century was not just full of hardship, it was full of pleasure and delight and wonder.”
Wilder’s words, combined with Garth Williams’ illustrations, made me think that playing with an inflated pig bladder, say, or bedding down in the prairie grass would be absolutely jolly. Even the tales of “The Long Winter” seemed like an adventure — a harrowing one, yes, but an adventure nonetheless.
In my childhood as an insatiable reader, I relied on my stories to smooth the rough edges of school, of the mean kids, of awkward realities of an introverted personality. I could drift away to the shores of Silver Lake any time I wanted.
As an adult returning to the books, I recognize just how hard-scrabble and tenuous the Ingalls family’s lives really were.
The long winter, which I read as an adventure, is almost Biblical in its suffering. Charles Ingalls put his family through a lot, though as a child I thought he was a figure of great romance and adventure, and Caroline, his wife, had patience beyond anything I ever could.
But in re-reading the “Little House” books now, I also remember what I felt as a child. There’s a scene early in “Little House on the Prairie” in which, crossing a dangerously swollen creek in their wagon, the family forgets about their devoted dog, Jack, and assumes that he was swept downstream and drowned.
Well. Obviously, I wept like my own dog had died, though I’ve never actually had a dog or tried to cross a swollen creek. I sat silently crying on the living room couch until my mom noticed and worriedly asked me what was wrong.
“They forgot about Jack and now he’s dead,” I tearfully explained. “And he was such a good boy!”
It was a miserable several pages until, in the next chapter, I learned Jack survived — though Pa almost shot him, thinking he was a wolf. Regardless, what joy was mine!
I felt these stories. Near the end of “These Happy Golden Years,” on the evening before Laura marries Almanzo Wilder, Laura asks Pa to take out his fiddle and “play all the old tunes, one after another, as long as you can.”
It’s a beautiful scene, Pa playing first for Mary, who was far away at school, and playing songs from the big woods, from the prairie, from the banks of Plum Creek and the shores of Silver Lake as “the sun sank from sight, trailing bright banners after it.”
I was maybe 10 the first time I read this, and couldn’t truly appreciate the poignancy of the moment the way I do now, but I remember feeling a tightness around my heart, a catch of my breath, some bittersweet recognition of life inexorably changing.
It took a full half hour of selective re-reading about sheep shearing and watermelon picking in “Farmer Boy” to make that feeling go away.
Probably what I should have done was gone and asked my dad if he ever did something like, I don’t know, fry vanity cakes in lard over a campfire or roll bundles of hay to burn in winter.
“We had electricity, you know,” he would have told me (a little huffily, like the time when, reading the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, I asked him if he listened to radio programs as a kid: “We had TV, you know”), but I wouldn’t have cared. For that span of years, the green prairie grass undulated to an enormous blue sky, and Laura’s world was mine.