Monday, March 9, 2009

Why Laura?

Mention "Little House on the Prairie" to most people and they'll immediately think of the 1970's TV series starring Michael Landon. Or they'll remember reading the books when they were kids. Or they'll be like my voice teacher and give you a blank stare because they've never watched TV and children's books about pioneering are apparently not intellectual enough to be on their radar.

Voice teacher aside, most people have a passing knowledge of Little House and Laura Ingalls, although they might not know the names of any of the other books and have no idea she was a real person who lived the life she fictionalized in her books. They have no further interest and often wonder why I would. Why would an adult woman spend her free time reading and researching a little girl who lived in a log cabin over 130 years ago?

It's a fair question, so let me try to explain.

First of all, yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in a log cabin back in the 1870's and it's the pioneering aspect of the books that originally drew me to Laura. I loved the idea of sleeping on a trundle bed (well, until I knew exactly what that was ), playing with a corncob doll, watching your father smoke meat in a tree stump, drinking out of a little tin cup, making your own bread and butter and yes, playing with a pig's bladder all blown up like a balloon. I couldn't get enough of that stuff. Remember, I was essentially an only child and I had a LOT of time to play on my own and use my imagination. When I was 11 or 12, long past the time I *should* have been playing Little House, I guess, we moved to an isolated house in the country on an acre of woods. There were no sidewalks to ride my bike anymore, no swingsets or playhouses and no friends down the street so the woods became my playhouse and Laura became my best friend. It was real easy to imagine you were living in a log cabin in the Big Woods when you were surrounded by trees.

In high school the Little House on the Prairie Cookbook came out, inspired by the success of the TV series, and I fell in love with the idea of baking my own bread from a sourdough starter and making pancake men for breakfast. I loved that cookbook (and it was a thrill for me to finally meet the author last summer), practically loved it to death. I've tried most of the recipes in there. One of the only ones left to try is Ox Tail soup and that's only because I never knew where to buy ox tails until just a couple of months ago.

But I guess that doesn't explain why I'm still attached to, some would say obsessed by, Laura today. Am I still a pioneer girl wannabe? I chuckle at the thought. You would chuckle too if you could see me. Somehow I doubt that pioneer is the word that comes to people's minds when they meet me. I don't have long hair kept in a braid, I don't wear calico dresses, my biscuits resemble hockey pucks and I haven't baked my own bread in years. I like to think of myself as rather trendy and quite modern (with a retro sensibility) so while the log cabin/pioneering stuff still is interesting to me, it's not what draws me to Laura anymore.

During the 70's a book came out that was the first biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder that I had ever come across. For the first time I saw pictures of the real Laura....and the real Pa with his very scary beard. Laura stopped being a character in a series of books and became a real person, a person who grew up and lived a full life. I wanted to know more about this person, what happened to her after the books ended and she and Almanzo, the boy hero of the series, rode off into the sunset and set up housekeeping in their little gray house in the west? Did they live happily ever after? Did they have lots of children? Did they live in South Dakota forever? The fact that the answer to each of these questions was a "no" didn't stop me from wanting to dig further. Laura became a real, flesh and blood person to me and I liked the person she became.

Even more than liking her, I admired her. Laura Ingalls Wilder had grit and determination and she needed every bit of that determination to make it through the trials of her first years of adulthood with illness, drought, poverty, fire and death dogging her heels. She and Almanzo moved around quite a bit in the first 10 years of marriage, trying to find the place where they belonged. They finally found it in the Ozark hills of Missouri. But even then life wasn't easy and Laura spent her 30's taking care of boarders in town while helping her husband clear and build up their 200 acres of farmland right outside of the town limits.

In her 40's, with an established farming business and her dream home finally becoming a reality, she embarked on a new career - author. But not the author of her famous book series, that would come much later. She became a published newspaper and magazine author, finding fame in her local environment, leaving national fame to her globe-trotting daughter. Laura's articles, full of homespun farm wisdom, still resonate with me today. I can frequently find the perfect quote to match what's going on in our world from articles that were written almost 100 years ago. Now that's some good writing. I am inspired by her change of career so relatively late in life and now that I'm in my 40's I hope to follow in her footsteps. In fact I frequently use her as a way to buck myself up - "Laura didn't even start writing till her 40's and look where that took it's not too late for you."

Book Laura had few posessions. When she married and moved in with Almanzo, she barely filled up one trunk with all her wordly goods - a quilt, old rag doll, china box, and a couple of dresses. I definitely don't relate to that girl. However I've been to Laura's house in Missouri and I've seen all the stuff she ended up with. ;-) Laura liked stuff. She especially liked dishes and there are at least 4 sets of good china on display at the museum and in her house. That's not counting the everyday dishes and the depression glass sets. Girlfriend had a serious dish collecting addiction. As the daughter of a dish addict who has shown definite tendencies myself, I can completely identify and I love her for it. From what I understand, she loved fashion too, along with jewelry and accessories. You can see hints of it in her books when she goes into great detail about each of her dresses and hats. Now that's a woman after my own heart!

In her 60's, when she and Almanzo were starting to think about retirement from the drudgery of farm work (maybe they didn't think it was drudgery, I could be projecting my own lazy opinion there) another career, the best career, was right around the corner. The Depression hit them hard because their nest egg had been invested in a fund that went belly up during the stock market crash (sound familiar to anyone?) and their daughter Rose encouraged her mother to write down memories of her pioneer childhood and attempt to get it published in order to make extra money. No one was interested in the adult memior but when the material was reworked into a series of childrens books, they struck literary gold. Children of the 1930's loved hearing about little Laura and Mary's adventures - first in the big woods of Wisconsin and later on the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota and South Dakota. Suddenly, Mrs. A. J. Wilder of Mansfield, Missouri became Laura Ingalls Wilder of the world. I can't even imagine what it must have felt like to go from local farm wife to international superstar but I imagine she had a lot of fun with it. A lifetime of frugality gave way now that money was no longer a constant problem and worry. This is actually when she started most of her dish collection, I believe, and it must have been so much fun to finally indulge yourself and order anything you'd like from the wish book.

She churned out book after book during the 1930's and 40's until she finally brought book Laura's childhood to a close at the age of 18. She and Almanzo had left the Dakota prairies in defeat, only too happy to say goodbye to the wide open spaces and the eternal wind and drought that had ripped their dreams apart. But I like to believe that she recaptured her early love of the prairie while writing her books, remembering the beauty of seeing the sun set behind the far off hills and gathering violets and wild roses by the armful during her Sunday afternoon buggy rides with her beau. If she didn't recapture all that emotion, she did a wonderful job of faking it through her writing because she instilled that love in me and I never even saw the prairie until I was an adult.

And that's the main reason I love Laura - her words. They paint pictures in my mind and inspire me every day. I am fascinated by how an ordinary girl could become an extraordinary woman who made a rich life out of what most people would consider very little. I love how she didn't give up, how she didn't stick to the role prescribed for her by society in the mid-years of the 20th century but rather forged her own path and by doing so, touched the lives of millions of people around the world.

Really, when you think of it, why wouldn't I spend my free time reading and researching about Laura? I'm only surprised that everybody else isn't doing it as well!

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