Last week I made a pilgrimage to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Mansfield, Missouri home en route to the annual AP Calculus reading. What follows are some of my refections on the visit, the Little House books, the author, and how each of these has shaped my current perspective.
I probably read my first Little House book in 1973 around age 7 and finished the first five in the series within a year. I know this because I looked up the date of the TV show and it ran from 1974-1983. By the time I saw Michael Landon as Pa (where was his beard?) in the town of Walnut Grove (weren’t the books about always being on the move?), I already had well-formed images of the Ingalls, their travels, and their travails. So, I wasn’t really a fan of the TV show, though Melissa Gilbert did a great job as Laura.
I was a fan of the books and reread them several times over. If Laura were still alive in the early 1970s, I would have written her fan mail (she received around 50 letters a day and answered them all herself). If you asked my child-self why I liked them, I am not sure I would have been able to articulate exactly what drew me to them. Probably the spirit of adventure, looking forward to new places, and always keeping a positive attitude when things aren’t going your way would have been on the top of the list.
When I first started teaching, I read the books again. I read in particular the classroom scenes. How did those teachers manage all of those students of different ages and abilities? And what about the time when the big boys came to school only to antagonize the teacher and disrupt learning (read Farmer Boy)? The teacher in Farmer Boy wasn’t going to let that happen to him, so he borrowed Mr. Wilder’s bull whip. It was life or death for those teachers — some of them died at the hands of their students. How about Laura getting her teaching certificate and first teaching job (lump sum payment of $20 for the term) at AGE FIFTEEN? And she had to board with the family where the mother pulled a knife on the father one night. Talk about the Wild West and cabin fever. Pioneer teaching put my daily classroom struggles in perspective.
Decades later I discovered the books for a third time as I read them with my children. I can now articulate yet another reason why I am drawn to them. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing is flawless. It is smooth, clear, descriptive and beautiful. As an amateur writer, I know that simple, captivating prose is the most elusive kind. Laura didn’t just crank out those books over the course of a few years. Similarly, a teacher does not achieve master status with just a few years of experience. Laura did not simply sit down at age 65 and start writing award-winning literature. She had been observing, describing, and writing for a long time. Laura’s sister Mary lost her sight from scarlet fever and Pa told Laura to be Mary’s eyes. So, Laura spent hours verbally describing everything to Mary from the vast expanse of prairie to the detailed scene on a brooch. Laura began writing as a teen and one of her essays, “Ambition,” though hastily written, won great praise from her teacher. Laura wrote letters home and kept a journal as she and Almanzo moved from De Smet, SD, to their eventual permanent home in Mansfield. And, in order to earn money, Laura wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles about farming.
In the 1930s, Laura made her first attempt at autobiography (Pioneer Girl). No publisher picked up this manuscript, likely because it was too brutally real. The pioneer life was harsh and Laura experienced extreme loss. An annotated Pioneer Girl was published in 2014 and I purchased a copy at the Museum gift shop but have yet to start it. Laura worked hard on a narrative that would be as she said, “appropriate for children.” She admitted, “the books are true stories but, but it is not all of the truth.” Again, the real stories contain too much violence for young readers. If you (re)read the teacher scene from Farmer Boy, for example, it is likely that you will be shocked by the brutality, so you can imagine what the real story was like.
My final thought on why I admire Laura Ingalls Wilder is that she managed to record her life so that she is still living and bringing inspiration, entertainment, and joy to millions of readers through her stories. She is still leading by example in that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Her life was long (90 years), but as her daughter Rose observed, “The longest lives are short, it is our work that lasts longer.”
NOTE: There is no photography permitted in the houses nor in the museum. Hence, this blog post contains either pictures I took or pictures I got from the website.