I had an epiphany in Iowa and it wasn’t the stunning revelation that in a diner in Iowa meat is a serious subject. It also wasn’t that the land I thought would look hopelessly boring was surprisingly beautiful, with gently rolling green hills and wide open space. Nope. None of that. I was at a rest stop, near the Nebraska state line and there were historical markers—one describing the Hungarian utopian community founded not too far away and one detailing the Trail of Tears. I knew I was in Laura Ingalls Wilder country. In fact, I had driven right through Mansfield, Missouri on my way to this Little Rest Stop in Iowa. I’d spent a few nights in Independence and I drove home through northern Illinois and Wisconsin. I wasn’t following Laura; I was doing genealogical research and was following my family. I hadn’t thought about the Little House books in years but there in Iowa I was vividly reminded of the chapter where Laura describes the days and days of weary people, forced from the land of their grandparents, walking past the Ingalls cabin out there on the edge of the westward expansion. The Trail of Tears. Until that very moment Laura’s books had been a favorite childhood read but I didn’t have a visceral connection to them. I stood stunned in front of that bronze sign in the golden October sun, the understanding of my family’s history and their place in the history of the very land on which I was standing no longer an academic exercise in fact checking but a bone deep fact. All thanks to a connection made for me by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
My relationship with Laura and her books is complicated. She traveled hard on a difficult road to make a good life for herself, excelling at a time when women seldom did, but there are so many questions about her that leave me conflicted. There’s the question (covered in Ghost in the Little House: a life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz) of exactly how much of the books Laura actually wrote for starters. There’s the fact that her books are fiction yet most folks believe in their deepest souls that they are biography. I lost track of the how many times I had to explain why the books were in the fiction collection—this is also a problem with the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines. There’s also the overt racism, which I didn’t notice as a child but I found appalling while reading to my own child a few months ago. Fortunately, she can’t read very well yet (never thought I’d say that!) so she has no idea how much of the text I skipped or changed. People will argue that Laura was only parroting what was appropriate for the 1870s but you know what? I don’t care. That was not a conversation I’m ready to have with my child.
All this and I’m still fascinated enough to go off on a Laura Ingalls Wilder research binge. However, I’m not the only one. There’s a scholarly collection of essays (Constructing the Little House: Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder by Ann Romines), there are biographies (my favorite, by Daniel Zochert is out of print and unfortunately long gone from our collection), and there are also collections of other of Laura’s writings: The Little House Reader: a collection of writings, Little house traveler: writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s journeys across America and West from Home: letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, SanFrancisco, 1915, all by Laura and all non-fiction. My current favorite of all of the fact based Laura books is The Wilder life: my adventures in the lost world of Little house on the prairie by Wendy McClure. It’s a wonderful book, not only for Wendy’s open admission of her geeky obsession but also because, without her, I never would have known that there are folks out there who have canned butter and Velveeta in preparation for the coming end of the world.