Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wilder Life

My mother in law recently sent me a book.  Not just any book either  - perhaps the perfect book.

See, I am one of an absolutely astronomical number of women approximately my age who have spent - and still do spend - time in what Wendy McClure affectionately titles 'Laura World'.  

A good chunk of those of us in the approximately 35-45 age group grew up having read the Little House books, probably before 3rd grade.  And then there was Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon on television every week, living somewhere in Walnut Grove (never mentioned by name in the books, but the Ingalls family did in fact live there).  

But then we all grew up, and Laura Ingalls Wilder faded into the haze of girlhood, along with 3 months off every summer, a part of another time.

Until my older sister bought all the books, and the Little House Cookbook.  And during sporadic visits to her home, I reread them.  And then got the series for myself, ostensibly for the day I had a  daughter to read them to. And bought the same cookbook.  And made fried apples n' onions (which are brilliant, by the way, and will be on the table for every Christmas dinner until I can no longer cook).

But still, I never truly realized how many others around me lived in Laura World too.  And how mild my fascination seemed in comparison to Ms. McClure's, despite the fact that I've received more than one raised eyebrow for having given my daughter the middle name of Rose, after Laura's daughter.  Yeah, so my kid is named after the daughter of a now deceased author, who was a successful author herself.  

The books are fictionalized - based around historic experiences, to be sure, but fiction nonetheless.   They skip over unpleasant facts like the time that Pa and the family skipped town in the middle of the night because he was too broke to pay a debt, that one of the reasons the family left the 'Big Woods' of Wisconsin was that a hunter's bullet narrowly missed Laura when she was outside the house, that Nellie Oleson is a composite of several girls that Laura encountered during her life - including one that was briefly competition for Almanzo's attention, and an entire segment of Laura's life in Burr Oak, Iowa, that was probably a little too unpleasant for her to want to write about.  Or want to remember.   

But unlike for others who have a foot in Laura World, the realities don't bother me.  I tend to think I would have loved to meet she and Almanzo in old age, and wander around the farm in Mansfield, Missouri that they built up - even though they never really made a go of farming, eventually retiring in comfort due to other income, including that of the books.   I doubt I would have agreed with them politically.  The racism in the books is pretty icky too - especially that of Ma to indians.  Given that reportedly a local american indian saved Caroline Quiner Ingalls' family from starving one winter when she was a little girl, that racism is especially repugnant.

None of us would want to live through what Laura did, mostly in houses the size of a refrigerator box.  When the adorable one is older, we'll work our way through the cookbook, even grinding Long Winter bread.  We'll talk about what it all means.

And it does mean something.  The period in US history called "Westward Expansion" fascinates me.  It's the, well..manifestation of Manifest Destiny (what probably morphed into today's view of American Exceptionalism).  Read through the eyes of a historian, it's easy to apply that worldview to the Ingalls family.  

Still, there's magic in Laura World, all the more so because the places are real.  You can actually still visit the now-caved in dugout on Plum Creek.  You can see the Wilder farm in Malone, NY, the setting of Farmer Boy, and one of the few original structures mentioned in the books that still stand.  Laura World is part of our own history.  It is a place where love, a fiddle, and sheer force of will win out over - well, everything.  It's a catalogue of skills most of us no longer share, and a catalogue of a life most of us would be scared to have to lead.

Laura Ingalls Wilder passed away in 1957, just after her 90th birthday.  Almanzo died at 93, 7 years earlier.   None of Laura's sisters bore any children, and Rose Wilder Lane had no descendants, and so that line has passed on.   Few who knew Laura and Rose in any meaningful way are still amongst us, and there are as many questions as there are answers about the stories - the real ones, and the other ones too.

I'm not sure why Laura World is so compelling, but it is, and I was glad to find a kindred soul in Ms. McClure.   For those of us who visit Laura World, it is a must-read, even if the illusion-bubble gets burst along the way.  In a couple years, with my daughter, we'll start the Laura pilgrimage too, starting in Malone.  Because we have to, even if I can't quite explain why.

Thanks for the book Jean.  And for everything.


Emily said...

I loved the Little House books as a kid. I am a bit younger (turning 30), so most of my peers weren't into it. This post has inspired me to catch up a little bit...I had the cookbook as a kid, but never actually made a recipe in it (blackbird pie??), and while I knew a bit about Laura's actual age difference with Almonzo (and the fictionalization), you have provided some details to reality for me! I must know more :)

Amy said...

I loved (still love) the Little House books as well! I've been to many of the sites as well, but didn't realize there was one in NY! I'm definitely adding that to my list of places to see!