Showing Laura Ingalls Wilder Around

I really loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was growing up.  I used to imagine that she came to visit the late 20th century and I was charged with showing her around. Why she would want or even need to be shown my particular slice of the century–the outskirts of Redmond, the height of gentrifying Northwestern suburbia, with your tour guide, a book-aholic only-child with an already well-developed affinity for public broadcasting and history books (my grandma always said I was “born old,” like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. It only reinforces the point that I knew that reference even as a 10 year old)–was unimportant. All that mattered was that I loved Laura’s life and her story so I liked to imagine what would happen if she was dropped into my world like I was in hers through her stories.

Laura! Welcome to Redmond!

First stop, television. Then the car. If we were lucky, I might have been able to convince my dad to drive us to the airport. “Remember all those long weeks in your wagon moving to a new place?” I’d say.  I played “Oregon Trail.” I knew the dangers of wagon travel: people were always falling out and drowning, or getting bit by snakes. “We have flying wagons now. You’d be on the banks of Plum Creek in no time.”

I also imagined myself in her world. The dugout house in Minnesota held particular appeal. I couldn’t believe people could actually live in a hillside with walls made of dirt. I once tried to dig my own house in the side of a mound of topsoil my parents got to build flower beds. Let’s just say it didn’t quite work out.

I had a very vivid historical imagination.

In grad school, I met a woman from Japan who chose the University of Wisconsin history program, in part, because of its relative nearness to Pepin, Wisconsin, aka Little House in the Big Woods. She told me that people in Japan loved Laura and they especially loved the 1970s and 1980s television show. When she told her parents she had chosen Wisconsin for school, the only thing they knew about Wisconsin was that Laura Ingalls Wilder had lived here. A good enough reason as any for choosing a school, right? Once, my friend even dressed up as Laura and went to the Laura Ingalls Wilder festival in Pepin. She was concerned that she might look foolish–a Japanese woman in her 30s wearing braids and a bonnet–but instead she found people who loved Laura just as much as she did.

There’s just something about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wendy McClure has even written a book about the enduring appeal of Laura called  The Wilder Life.

Despite all the love for Laura, I’m probably the only one who saw herself as Laura’s tour guide to the future.

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