Beloved American author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born on February 7, 1867.
Her books are so much a part of my childhood that they don’t even feel like books, they feel like actual memories. I was 7, 8, 9 when I read them, and I LIVED them. Not only did I live them, but my mother made me a sunbonnet out of lilac-flowered material that I actually wore around the house (like Naomi Watts in I Heart Huckabees). Of course, at the same time that I was LIVING these books, a television series based on them came on the air, and the confluence was like a dream come true. Despite its bizarre and explosive ending, reviewed by my friend Betsy, the series captured some of the simplicity and beauty in the books. Laura, Mary, Nellie Oleson – we used them as reference points as kids. Whispering to each other about a classmate: “She’s such a Nellie Oleson”. Even now, that particular description would work for me. It would tell me everything I needed to know about a person.
Now, of course, a movie is a-comin’. The first person I needed to tell the news to was the aforementioned Betsy. There is one legendary moment in our friendship when we were in high school, at her house, long grown out of our Little House phase, we had moved into the B-52s and Devo, and we ended up watching an episode. We treated it like Mystery Science Theatre. Someone had fallen down a well, that I remember. We were actresses, even then, and we commented on how Michael Landon appeared to be working hard to squeeze out a tear. Listen, I love Michael Landon, but Betsy and I knew what we were talking about. As the episode came to its close, we both fell silent as we were watching. So-and-so was pulled out of the well, and I found myself quietly in tears. Betsy glanced over at me, and laughed in my face. I was like, “It got me! I can’t help it!”
Not only do Ingalls’ books work as great stories in and of themselves, but they portray the pioneer experience in such an immediate and first-hand way that it came to life for future generations. There I was, frolicking in the dirt of my backyard in Rhode Island, in the tired days of the late 1970s, with gas lines and Iranian hostages and tired-looking Presidents making weary speeches on television, that was my world, but because I had read those books I knew about the great plains, and covered wagons, and how medicine was different back then and what it was like to have no money so that one Christmas they each got a cookie, a shiny penny and a peppermint candy for presents. And the girls were thrilled about these presents, which seemed insane to me, but the way the book was written meant that I went into THEIR world, rather than expecting them to reflect mine. A huge gift for a young kid, better than a history lesson in school. Laura Ingalls Wilder described that one blizzardy Christmas so well, the snow piling up, the beauty of those simple hand-made gifts, that I, as a child, really learned something about the world reading that section. I remember thinking, (I must have been 8 years old): “They only got a candy-cane and a cookie? And a PENNY??? How could they have been happy with that????” But the WAY she wrote it made it clear that the entire thing was magical and exciting as the snow pounded against the log cabin windows. And so I got to have a realization when I was in third grade: “Wait. This is their Christmas. Times were really tough for them, and life was different for them. They were happy. They were happy.” I still remember the quiet realization I had, learning a lesson about … oh … materialism, and gratitude. I learned that my world was not the only world. That my time was not the only time.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was encouraged by her daughter (also a writer) to write down stories of her childhood. To get a glimpse of just how intense that relationship was, check out this fascinating New Yorker article about Rose Wilder. Quite a family psychodrama, and it seems far far removed from the fresh windy air and wide open spaces that make up the landscape and world of the Little House books. By the time Laura Ingalls Wilder started publishing, the entire world she described in the books had disappeared. Her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1930. Lindbergh had flown across the ocean. There were railroads criss-crossing the country. Autmobiles. Telephones. Laura Ingalls Wilder straddled an enormous generational divide. Her books are the bridge.
My favorites were By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter.
I’ll close with an excerpt from Little House in the Big Woods that captures the home-spun evocative magic in these books:
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
Happy birthday to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and thank you for making me see, as a young child, that things like log cabins and Pa and Ma and firelight “could not be forgotten”. Thank you for making that “long time ago” come to life for me, a young East Coast girl at the tail-end of the 20th century.