Little Apartment on the Middle East Side

I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

There I said it.

I not only own the whole series (unremarkable), I reread them annually. Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a tradition of cranking the A/C up super high and hunkering down under a blanket during the peak of summer to re-read The Long Winter, in which Laura’s family barely survives a very long, very cold winter, when the trains are unable to bring food to the small, isolated town she lives in.

It’s a lesson in gratitude.

When we went to visit my mom in Walla Walla at Christmas, it started snowing on Day 2 and kept snowing until the day before we left. The snow on the trees and yards, lit by Christmas lights, turned the small town into fairyland, and it stayed beautiful throughout our trip (unlike snow in New York which quickly turns black and evil looking). When we were driving to the airport on the last day, the rural route that connected the town to the freeway back to Portland stretched through farmland that rolled gently off to the horizon, dotted only sparsely with farmhouses and silos. Covered in the white of snow, it blended together and distances blurred and, for the first time in my life, I got a feel for how Laura and her classmates might have felt the day they were trapped in their schoolhouse just outside town when a blizzard swept in, and they groped their way through the white wind, barely locating town when someone accidentally bumped into the outside corner of the last building between them and open prairie. Having always lived within sight of forests, mountains, or city, I suddenly had a new appreciation of her prairie experience.

I know, you don’t have to tell me, that her books are fictionalized, crafted to simplify and whitewash her life. I’ve read all the biographies and collections of her later writing, and I know her families migratory route mapped out in the books leaves out certain, unflattering experiences – they are children’s books after all. And I agree that the books include racist incidents: Ma’s fear of Indians colors Laura’s descriptions of them even into the later books, and Laura’s temper-tantrum of wanting a papoose made me uneasy even as a child; to say nothing of her delight in Pa’s participation in a minstrel show. If you are reading the books with children, there are teaching moments throughout.

Although I wonder if anyone does read the books with children any more. I gave Little House in the Big Woods to a friend’s child and she said her daughter refused to go any further after the family slaughtered the pig. One of my nieces had a similar experience, another wasn’t interested, and I didn’t even try with the third (an adorable child who was obsessed with those horrible Fairy books – you know the ones, Peppermint Fairy, Puppy Fairy, Sunshine Fairy, each exactly the same, each dripping with treacle – thank goodness she’s finally outgrown that phase, though it does make it harder to shop for her). It seems Laura has fallen out of favor.

This surprises me because the books so spoke to me and to so many women of my generation. A friend from Roslyn, NY – far more removed from the prairie experience than my western upbringing – whose family barely survived the holocaust, told me once how she had owned a sunbonnet as a little girl, a sunbonnet that she wore faithfully every week as she sat before the TV to watch Michael Landon’s travesty of an adaptation of the books. (Maybe that series is what killed the books?) There’s even a book – The Wilder Life – by a blogger who retraced Laura’s route, learned to churn butter from survivalists (obviously she didn’t live in Brooklyn, where she might have had more options these days), and faithfully recorded her exploration of her own obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Sidenote: while trying to recall the name of The Wilder Life, I discovered four more books about LIW that I haven’t read – oh my groaning bookshelves!)

What drew me to these books? Was it the descriptions of her fiery jealousy of her perfect sister, Mary, which so perfectly captured how I felt when I wanted to slap my own sister (ironically, also named Laura)? Was it her family’s perambulations from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to the Dakotas and finally to the Ozarks as an adult, to Ma’s heartbreak as they left home after home and community after community, so like my own childhood journey from California to Washington to Arizona to a different area of California to a different area of Washington and finally to New York as an adult, leaving behind pet’s graves and good friends with each home? Was it her description of the bullying that she experienced at the hands of Nelly Oleson, both as a child and later as teen, and her oh so enviable revenge on her tormentor. And her eventual realization that she needed to let go to grow up.

Or was it her descriptions of a child’s experiences? The delight of collecting beautiful pebbles as a child on their visit to town, the weight of which ripped the pocket of out her best dress, her shame at having destroyed something of value, and her relief when Ma said she could fix it, look the pocket was just a little bag sewn into the seam of the dress… Something about this reminds me of the time when my grandmother wanted to buy me a pair of shoes which my own mother couldn’t afford, my delight in finding the perfect pair, and my mortification when I realized that they cost almost $40, and my firm refusal of the gift she could so easily afford because it was so much money (oh I l wanted those shoes).

Clearly something about LIW has influenced so much of who I am, city girl though I have turned out to be. She has certainly shaped my reading preferences to some extent, and not just because I love to read historical books about people moving west in covered wagons, even Rinker Buck’s story about recreating the journey with mules, The Oregon Trail, tugged at the place in my heart where Laura resides. [Side note: The Oregon Trail ends with a story of the Whitmans, who founded Walla Walla, as much as an pioneer could “found” an area already populated by an indigenous people.]

Several years ago I read an article by a librarian in Seattle who was known for her ability to recommend the perfect book to readers, and who revealed her technique: you don’t just ask someone what the last book that they read and liked was; you ask what it was they liked about it. I think the example she used was Harry Potter (which I did not like but sold a lot of): you might say that you like Harry Potter because of the plot, the inventiveness of the sequence of events that keep you dialed in and propel you through the book; you might say that you like the characters, the different personalities and how they grow and change; you could say that you like the world it takes place in, discovering new things in the house of Hogwarts or in the woods nearby, the train; or – most unlikely in my opinion with Rowling – you might say that you liked the language, the way the author tells the story, the words and phrases themselves, the beauty of the craft. Once you know what the reader liked about the book, you can then recommend another book that recaptures that preference.

From Laura, I learned to love books that are about settings, especially books in which people are pitched into remote settings and forced to fend for themselves to create a life of their own. This is what I love about Tolkien, who would probably prefer to be loved for his language (as he was a linguist and only really created LOTR to show off the languages he had created) but give me a break, it’s just too much sometimes, and even I who faithfully reread LOTR every year, skim the poetry he crafted so lovingly. It’s also what I love about McCaffery and Heinlein and Durrell (Gerald not Lawrence) and DeLint, authors who create vivid worlds where you discover something new around every corner. [Possibly also why I like regency romances, golden age mysteries, and Angela Thirkell’s novels, all of which have no other redeeming value than a strong dependence on setting.]

And I also learned to love books about words and how the story is told, Ackerman and McKillip who write with chewy words, words you want to roll around in your mouth and savor as you read, and images you could fill a bathtub with and submerge yourself in, the same way that I roll myself up in The Long Winter ever summer.

Someone must still be reading Laura’s books, because they still sell in hardcover, paperback, and E, and the publisher still brings them out in boxed sets every holiday. I suppose it’s possible that they sell because those of us who loved them as children are buying them aspirationally, along with Anne of Green Gables, for the little girls in our lives who let them gather dust and consider them with the same disinterest that my niece accords the 1960’s teen problem books that I inherited from my favorite aunt’s collection and that await rediscovery on the bookshelves in my mother’s upstairs hall (wait and see, kid, some day you’ll be so bored and desperate for something to read that you’ll crack one of them and then you’ll realize what you’ve been missing!).

I’m not quite sure how to finish this. I feel like I need a huge finish, a singing around the table as we feast on the turkey and cranberries that spent all winter frozen into a boxcar, waiting for spring to thaw the tracks enough for delivery. A walk in the soft twilight with my beau and the whuf! as the horses lay down in the hay, and a dog at my feet. A snuggle down under the quilts with my sister, listening to Pa’s fiddle and gazing at the firelight off Ma’s dark hair, reflecting to my very young self with a new awareness of the world, “This is now.”

“This is now.” I’ll leave it at that.

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