Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Beloved American author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born on February 7, 1867.

LauraWilder.jpg

Her books are so much a part of my childhood that they don’t even feel like books anymore, 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 in the backyard, as I “played” Little House. A sunbonnet definitely helps you get into character. Of course, at the same time that I was LIVING these books, a wonderful television series based on them came on the air, and this helped me immerse myself in that bygone age even further. Despite its bizarre and explosive ending, the series captured some of the simplicity and beauty in the books. Laura, Mary, Nellie Oleson – all of these characters were woven into my childhood. 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, in terms of telling me everything I needed to know about a person.

Here’s a wonderful image of the kind of pioneer cabin that the Ingalls family probably lived in:

logcabin.jpg

Not only do her 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 had a realization: “Wait. This is their Christmas. They were happy. They were happy.” And I learned a lesson (all by myself) about … oh … materialism, and gratitude, and also that things were different in other times, not better or preferable or worse, just different. I learned that my world was not the only world. That my time was not the only time. And so landscapes of imagination opened up in my head.

Their lives were so different from mine and yet human beings themselves don’t change, and I found so much to relate to in those books. Getting into trouble, learning tough lessons about life, dealing with snotty school girls, the excitement of setting out on a journey with your family … these were all things I fully recognized from my own life.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was encouraged by her daughter (who was 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 there, 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 simple 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.

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18 Responses to Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    I was Lisa Ingalls, I lived it too…I bought the yellow boxed set for my 10th birthday and they still sit on the book shelf in my bedroom next to Baby Beans. My favorite was also The Long Winter. The illustrations by Garth Williams make is so real. My Grandma made me a granny night gown with a granny cap. I wore these for years.

  2. Jennchez says:

    I did the same thing too. At my grandparents we had a tree fort, in my mind though it was always out “little house”. I also have the yellow box set and have saved them for my daughter. Sadly she just is not interested. She did promise to try the first one after she finshes the last Sisters Grimm, I think just to get me off her back :)

    • sheila says:

      haha. A friend of mine was trying to get her daughter into the Anne of Green Gables series, and her daughter is so into vampires and werewolf slayers and teen-gothic-supernatural stuff that she was like, “Uhm, no thanks.”

    • Maureen says:

      My daughter was the same! Totally not interested! I am kicking myself I didn’t start reading them to her when she was really little-but I thought she would want the enjoyment of reading them herself. She is 19 now-maybe I could bribe her to read the first one??

  3. CheesyBee says:

    My mom taught me to read on Little House in the Big Woods, and I loved it so much my mother gave me the yellow box set for my eighth birthday. I read all the books by the time I was nine. Laura’s world was so far removed, but so close. I come from a large family and our Christmas loot was usually pretty humble, but still an exciting and magical time. I passed on the tradition and gave the books to my nieces when they were in grade school. My mom also introduced me to Anne of Green Gables and a lifelong love for L.M. Montgomery was born. I still have those books.

  4. rae says:

    We took a trip in grade school to see where their home was near Walnut Grove — and got to stand the big rock, which keeps sinking into the ground by the creek — and also attended an outdoor production (at night!) based on part of the story. It was magical!

  5. melissa says:

    I love these books. Especially the Long Winter. I still remember the shock I felt realizing that much in these books happened not far from where I lived in Southern MN. The difference from pioneer day to modern day made it feel like a different country, not just down the road…as opposed to the Betsy, Tacy and Tib books where I always knew that the books were based in my grandmother’s home town, where we’d go drive up the Big Hill and past the Chocolate house .

  6. allison bennett says:

    Remind me to tell you on Saturday about the woman I sat next to at a recent industry event….she is a direct decendent of Laura Ingalls Wilder….she was fascinating.

  7. My Yuhu says:

    When I think of her I marvel that her life spanned from shortly after the end of our Civil War, through all that history of war, scientific and technological advancement, Wright brothers up to ICBMs, and the topper– being alive to witness Elvis.

  8. Stacia says:

    I grew up in Missouri and felt especially close to Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was about 9 I finally got my parents (who were reluctant to do anything like this) to go to Mansfield, MO and see Wilder’s home after she married Manly. What I loved about it was how it looked exactly like all the other well-built 100-120 year old homes around us. It’s so huge on the outside, but with the typical thick Midwestern walls that make the rooms inside so much smaller than you expect. Pa’s fiddle is there, and it looked like a much nicer version of my own family’s hand-me-down fiddle (ours has been cracked for nearly 100 years, but we still have it). At the State Fair one year, probably 1979, one of her quilts was on display, this sturdy, solid, tasteful quilt right next to all the fancy and gaudy ones on competition (the 1970s were not a great time for tasteful quilts!) and I couldn’t stop staring at it.

    Wilder was hugely influential on me. Her stories and her life showed me that all of these little things I was used to because of familiarity were still wonderful, amazing, and came from a long history. The books are mostly from her life in the upper Midwest (and a short time in Kansas IIRC) but she ended up in Missouri where I was! Just plain old Missouri, but SHE had lived there, and was far from plain. She made life seem boundless.

    • sheila says:

      Stacia – what beautiful details you’ve shared. Thank you so much. I love the bit about the quilts.

      And: “she made life seem boundless”. Yes, yes, yes.

  9. Maureen says:

    I also have the boxed set, and I re-read the series every couple of years. Sheila, you made the point so eloquently-I read these books over and over as a child, and they do seem like my memories in a way, instead of things that happened in a book. Sometimes I wonder how much of my life was shaped by them, I grew up in an urban area but majored in Agriculture in college-lived and worked on farms for years after. Moved to Alaska which is called “the Last Frontier”, and where people do still live that kind of subsistence lifestyle like Laura did. I haven’t gone that far, I live in Anchorage :) I do enjoy my comforts, like running water! If I hadn’t read those books, would I still be in the same place I grew up, like my siblings are? Hard to say, but they opened my mind in ways I don’t think any other books have, and most importantly I think they taught me that contentment is found in the little things in life-a lesson I am most grateful for!

    • sheila says:

      Beautiful, Maureen. The books do have such a charm to them, a quiet homey charm. They really made such a huge impact on me and it sounds like they did on you, too. Wonderful.

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