I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.
In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.
My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.
Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.
My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.
If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.
My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.
(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)
The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.
Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.
Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.
Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.
We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.
Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.
What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.
So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.
When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).
We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.
For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.
Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.
Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.