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Friday, October 28, 2011

Rediscovering Laura

Laura Ingalls Wilder.  After my mom died almost three years ago, I found my treasured paperback set of the Little House on the Prairie Books.  These are my favorite books from my childhood which is really saying something because I read LOTS of books when I was a kid.  This particular set was so special - I wrote my name in every one.  Just looking at my writing brought me right back to age 8 or 9. 

This time around I'm reading them to Kenzie.  She loves it, but not nearly as much as I do.  To watch her learn about pioneer life from the perspective of a girl just like her is as exciting to me as it was when I was her age.  The best part for me is rediscovering the stories from a different stage in my life.  When I was young I could only see through young Laura's innocent eyes.  Today I see the harsh realities of their life.  Then I marvel at how an author in her 60s could look back and record the events of her youth with such clarity and authenticity.

In reading the books today I can see the "grown-up" stories beneath the memories of a little girl.  Laura worshiped her father as a great pioneer, but he endured a great deal of failure and heartache.  The family moved from Wisconsin to Indian Territory near Kansas, settled there, built a house and started a farm.  Unfortunately for them, the federal government closed Indian Territory to white settlers and they had to leave everything.  Again in Walnut Grove Minnesota, the family built a new home based on the expected earnings from a wheat crop.  The grasshopper hordes came and it was all gone.  Laura's beautiful older sister, Mary, lost her eyesight after a bout with scarlet fever.  They moved on again to DeSmet, South Dakota in time to endure one of the most difficult winters recorded at that time.  Despite all these family tragedies, Laura describes the trials of a pioneer family, with optimistic enthusiasm as if it were all a great adventure.

Kenzie and I are only on the fourth book of a nine book series, which culminates with Laura's courtship and marriage to Almanzo "Manly" Wilder.  The last two of the books describe the difficulties Laura and Manly endured during their first four years of marriage - a baby boy who died shortly after birth; loss of crops; a fire which destroyed everything they owned and debts that would take years to resolve.  In the end, they ended up at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where they eventually found success in farming.

For so many of my generation, exposure to these stories came from the popular television show "Little House on the Prairie."  It was mostly fictional and only scratches at the surface of an amazing life full of joy and sorrow.  To the extent that the television fans did not read the books, they missed out on the story of a determined and loving pioneer family who found joy and beauty in spite of their circumstances.

When I was 13, my parents surprised me during a camping trip to Arkansas with a detour to Mansfield, Missouri to see Laura's home at Rocky Ridge Farm.  I was overwhelmed to see the objects which were so integral to the stories: Pa's fiddle, Mary's rocking chair and the platter given to Laura and Manly as a wedding gift.  Best of all was touring the home.  Everything was exactly the way it was when Laura died, including the calendar on the wall from February 1957.  I was floored when I found out her birthdate was the same as mine - February 7 - and that she was born exactly 98 years before me.  It made me feel even more connected to her.

I can only hope that Kenzie gets the same joy of good storytelling that I received from these books.  It's turning into a shared experience we have that ties my childhood to hers.  Hopefully it also gives her a lifelong interest in reading.

Thanks again Laura - I owe you one.