Over the years a number of people have had a positive impact on my life, but I don’t think anyone has affected me more – as person and as a writer – than Laura Ingalls Wilder. (I’m talking about the real Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Laura of the Little House books, not the Laura of the TV show. Though I’m pretty sure I encountered the TV Laura before the book Laura.)
I first met Laura Ingalls in Mrs. Patricia Ziegler’s second grade classroom. Every day, after recess, Mrs. Ziegler would read to us for about half an hour while we calmed down from playing. As an avid lover of books since before I could read, this was my favorite part of the school day.
I will never forget the day that Mrs. Ziegler held up a book featuring an illustration of a little brown-haired girl cradling her ragdoll. Behind the little girl was her smiling family – mother, father, sister, and the baby. Mrs. Ziegler told us that the book was about a little girl named Laura who lived many years ago. The best part was that it was a true story – the little girl grew up to write books about her pioneer life. The book was Little House in the Big Woods.
I was hooked from the first page. But, looking back, I can’t tell you exactly what it was that drew me into Little House and has yet to let me go. Was it Laura herself? The Ingalls family as a whole? The history? The pioneer life? The writing? The story? Or a combination of all of that and more? Whatever the power was, it still has a grip over me.
It’s the reason I am a writer.
Mrs. Ziegler was partway through reading the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods when the rest of the classroom just faded away, leaving me with the book. Just me and Laura. That’s when I sat up a little straighter and thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a writer.” It was more than a childish wish. It was a revelation and a declaration. A promise to myself that I spent years striving to fulfil.
After a week or so, Mrs. Ziegler finished reading Little House in the Big Woods and prepared to move on to another book. I was distraught that the book was over. At seven, I knew that all books have to an end at some point. But why did this book have to end? I wanted it to go on and on, just like the Big Woods of Wisconsin – stretching farther than the five-year-old Laura could imagine.
Just when I thought that all hope was lost, Mrs. Ziegler announced that there were more books about Laura and the Ingalls family! Little House in the Big Woods was the first book of the series that followed Laura and told her story. I was ecstatic that there was an entire series about Laura Ingalls! Little House in the Big Woods was just the beginning! “The End” didn’t really mean THE END! There were more books! Laura’s story was far from over! Hope springs eternal!
After Mrs. Ziegler set me on the path to Little House, there was no turning back. I can still vividly remember going to the used bookstore with my dad and finding Little House on the Prairie on the shelf. The next book in the series! The next adventure! I believe my mom wound up buying me the rest of the books in the series except for The Long Winter. Mom felt that the fictional Laura was getting a little too old for me to be interested in and put off buying me the next book. So I snagged it from the bookshelf in my third grade teacher’s classroom and then “accidently” forgot to put it back. (Sorry Mrs. Loht…I swear I’ve never stolen anything else in my life!) I might not remember how, where, or when I got the rest of the Little House books, but I do remember holding them in my hands for the first time. I remember looking at each cover, and then opening the books to the first page. Overall, it took a year or more for me to get the rest of the Little House books and read them in order. And then I kept reading them – returning to Little House in the Big Woods as soon as I had left The Last Four Years.
Over the years, I have also snatched up every book I could find either by Laura, about Laura, or in some way related to Laura. Whenever I get a new book concerning Laura or Little House, I am overcome with the same sensation of pure joy I had that day in second grade when the world of Little House opened up before me.
But it wasn’t just the books by and about Laura that filled my young life. Laura became my childhood imaginary friend, and my backyard transformed into places like the big woods of Wisconsin and the prairies of Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota – places so far removed from south central Pennsylvania that I wasn’t even sure that they were real. I dressed my four dolls up in prairie-style dresses and renamed them Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace. I spent hours playing Little House with the dolls. I also built a log cabin out of Popsicle sticks and a covered wagon out of a cardboard box. I then bought miniature dolls to represent the Ingalls family, and miniature furniture and food to fill the house and the wagon. I would spend hours loading and unloading the wagon, moving in and out of the Popsicle cabin, and acting out the pioneer adventures of the Ingalls family.
One of my biggest wishes was (and still is) to go back in time to hang out with the Ingalls family. I don’t think I would want to stay for long – I really enjoy indoor plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning, and I’m positive that bras are more comfortable than corsets – but I would like to pop in to frolic around the prairie with the Ingalls girls for a little while. And then pop back out before chore time…
By the time I started fourth grade, I had read the entire Little House series. I knew the Laura from the books was a real person and that she grew up to write the books. But I didn’t quite comprehend her realness until the first day of fourth grade. Early on during the first day of school, my new teacher was in the process of handing out the reading textbooks that we would use throughout the schoolyear. Having a name at the beginning of the alphabet meant that I got my book before the majority of my classmates. To pass the time, I scanned the table of contents to get an idea of what I was in store for. As I glanced over the list of authors and story titles, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name jumped off the page.
Eagerly, I flipped to the pages containing chapters from Little House on the Prairie and came across something unexpected. A full-page photograph of Laura with her sisters, Mary and Carrie. There was also a picture of Laura and Almanzo not long after they got married, as well as a picture of Ma and Pa Ingalls. The only one missing was Laura’s youngest sister, Grace. I remember just sitting there, staring at those three pictures in awe. Here they were – the Ingalls family. Not the illustrations, but that actual living, breathing, prairie-conquering people. They were real, and this was what they looked like. Like I said, I knew Laura was a real person. But seeing that picture in the textbook proved it. Laura wasn’t just a character in a series of books. She wasn’t just my imaginary friend. She was real.
I was still staring at the photo of Laura and her sisters when the teacher finished up handing out the textbooks. Deciding to get a jumpstart on the school year, the teacher immediately gave out a reading assignment. When I kept staring at Laura, lost to what was going on around me, the teacher brought it to everyone’s attention that I was on the wrong page of the textbook. Instead of turning to the assigned page, I pointed at the photo and said, “But . . . it’s Laura.”
“Who?” The teacher glanced over at the photo and then said, “I don’t care. Turn to the right page.”
It was then that I knew fourth grade was going to be a long year. But I also knew that, when I needed her, Laura would be right there in my textbook to get me through it. She had survived Eliza Jane Wilder as a teacher, I could survive this teacher.
And I did survive fourth grade and moved on to fifth where I had another Laura Ingalls moment that would change my life. One of our projects in fifth grade was to do a report on the history on one of the fifty states. I was one of the last few students who got to choose, and there were only about half of the states left. And none of them were the ones that I had originally wanted. I glanced over the map and saw that Missouri was left. It wasn’t that I was overly interested in Missouri – but Laura and Almanzo spent the last sixty-or-so years of their lives there. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me!
While doing research on that state of Missouri, I looked up some of the more popular travel destinations in the state. And that’s when I found out that people can visit Laura and Almanzo’s farm! Rocky Ridge was a tourist attraction! And so were all of the other Little House sites where Laura had lived! Twelve years after making that discovery (fifteen years after first meeting Laura), I drove down State Highway A in southwestern Missouri and pulled into the parking lot for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum. It was the first stop on my Little House Pilgrimage that I took the summer after I graduated from college. It was the first stop on my journey home to Little House.
Now, over twenty years after first meeting Laura Ingalls Wilder, she is still one of the most (if not the most) influential person in my life. When I was seven, she helped me figure out what I was meant to do when I grew up. She helped me realize that I was meant to be a writer. She shaped and guided my young life, and ushered me into adulthood. Laura used to be my imaginary friends. Now she’s my muse.