Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
There’s no sense of discovering a long-forgotten treasure when visiting a Laura Ingalls Wilder literary landmark. In most instances, it would be difficult to miss the place where the cabin might have stood or find the well from which Caroline Ingalls might have fetched water. Rather, Wilder sites are widely publicized and celebrated. In Pepin Wisconsin, visitors gather each fall for “Laura Days,” a celebration of pioneer life near the “Little House in the Big Woods” where Wilder was born. DeSmet, South Dakota offers Wilder fans a tour of not one but two former Ingalls homes as well as other buildings featured in the story, as well as a pageant each July that re-enacts a different book from the Little House series. Just outside Independence, Kansas, a replica of the Ingalls’ log cabin, the home in which Little House on the Prairie is set, is a prominent feature of the area’s annual “Lamplight on the Prairie” and “Prairie Days” festivals. Lots of places stake their claim to Wilder fame because the truth is that the Ingalls family moved around a lot. While much of Wilder’s youth was spent in DeSmet, and her adult life was lived largely in Mansfield, Missouri (where the house is now a museum), there are twelve U.S. towns that boast their connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder as a tourist attraction.
But in 1994, when my family set out from Maine in a blue Chrysler minivan to drive across the country, we only planned to visit three Laura Ingalls Wilder landmarks. I was twelve, and the trip was a mashed-together journey in which we would visit national parks, Wilder landmarks, and deliver my seventeen-year-old brother to a handful of college admissions interviews. I remember my Sony Walkman and tapes of Prairie Home Companion and Huck Finn, my delight at a whole new variety of chain restaurants that didn’t exist east of the Mississippi River, and a box of maps and guidebooks and AAA coupon books piled in the backseat (this was, after all, pre-GPS navigation) helping us along.
The Wilder component of the cross-country drive was propelled mostly by my mother, who taught language arts to sixth graders for twenty-five years. Wilder was not just the author of books my mother read as girl; the Little House books were also woven into my mother’s parenting and career. I don’t know how many eleven-year-olds my mother handed “Little House in the Big Woods” to, in the hope of sparking an interest in language and a long-ago way of life in her students. I do remember her sadness when, one year, much later, she gave me a boxed set of the 1971 edition from her classroom (this, the first time the eight original books were released the posthumously published “The First Four Years,” about Wilder’s early marriage for Almanzo Wilder). When I asked why she didn’t need them for her classroom anymore, my mother sighed, “They won’t read them. Harry Potter.”
While the Little House books may have fallen out of fashion in her classroom, they hold a distinctive place in my memories of my youth. The copies of Wilder’s books my mother sent home with students were beat-up paperbacks, but at home, the hardcover set with its Garth Williams color illustrations was featured prominently on the bookshelf. For two Halloweens, I trick-or-treated as Laura Ingalls Wilder, and each Christmas, my mother would read aloud from one or two of Wilder’s pioneer Christmas chapters. So the Wilder-themed vacation wasn’t didn’t really strike me as all that unusual until I was in college and realized the literary pilgrimage wasn’t woven into the family vacations of my peers.
I opened up the first two Little House books again this week to try to put my finger on the appeal. It doesn’t take long to appreciate the narrative voice, the celebration of simple pleasures and Wilder describes melting snow for Saturday evening bath time rituals or turning maple syrup into candy on the stove. Each scene feels warm with food, shelter and the loving care by Ma and Pa Ingalls lavish on their daughters, wild spirits full of curiosity. But also, the books deal often confront racism and war when they could flinch away. For me, the appeal is most deeply rooted in the removed nature of Wilder’s childhood. She describes the Big Woods as:
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.
Of the sites we visited that summer, it’s Mansfield, Missouri that I remember most clearly. And the things I remember are small; my disappointment at seeing an illustration of the Ingalls’ bulldog, Jack, that was nothing like I imagined him in mind; The fiddle Pa played after dinner, displayed in a glass case; the kitchen counters, which Almanzo had built especially low because his wife was quite small, which made it possible for twelve-year-old to imagine Laura Ingalls frozen at age twelve in this farmhouse for the rest of her life, happily squirreling away at her writing desk. I remember, too, a slight curl of jealousy that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a daughter who lived in the home with her parents, that there might have been children in the world more special to Wilder than those of us being read to sleep with her words each night and dressing up as her younger self come Halloween.
But part of what was so striking about the Mansfield home was how many other families there were. I remember being amazed at the number of retired couples, older people who had also chosen the Mansfield museum as their vacation destination, other families who were crossing the stop off their list of Laura Landmarks. For much of my adult life, I thought the Wilder-themed family vacation was a family oddity, something to tell my friends about over beers. But the year after my family made their trip, the road between Wilder sites were designated as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, and the internet has allowed for increased publicity of Wilder-related tourism.
The Sony Walkman gave way to the disc man, then the ipod and now the smartphone. In my family, the Plymouth Voyager morphed into an SUV. Little House on the Prairie has expanded, too, and the franchise continues to grow, eighty years after the first publication of the books and thirty years since the end of the spin-off television series; heirs of Wilder’s daughter continue to publish pioneer stories under the Little House umbrella. But I think there’s something about the isolated family fending for themselves in the wilderness that still appeals, something about the Ingalls family criss-crossing the west in their covered wagons that still sends families squabbling into over-loaded vehicles to do the same.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.