Sunday, May 31, 2015

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me


I have been reading the only recently published Pioneer Girl, the original memoir penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Although written for adults, this document was eventually the basis for all her children’s stories.

There is a long introduction by Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of Pioneer Girl, that I found to be fascinating and amazingly resonant with my own writing life. I will be writing a number of blog posts about this. Before I continue, I’d like to give you my “bona fides” regarding my sixty-three year relationship with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

First of all, I read all seven of Wilder’s books at a very young age. There were no bookstores in our small Illinois town at that time (and certainly no Amazon.com). Every few months, however, my mother, a professional cellist, would take the Santa Fe train to Chicago. There she would always go to three places.

First was Kagan and Gaines, a fine instrument repair shop (quite close to the El, as I remember) that took good care of her fine old Italian cello. I loved going there with her once in awhile.  They had tiny violins and cellos on display that I thought were “babies.”

Second was Berghoff’s, a German restaurant with authentically German (and quite stern) elderly male waiters.  Females were not allowed in the main dining room, but only in the “Ladies Annex”.  When I was lucky enough to go with Mom to Berghoff’s, this segregation didn’t bother me.  I was more interested in the sauerbraten and the spaetzle, thank you very much.

Finally, and most important to me, Mom visited Kroch’s and Brentano’s, a big-city bookstore.  Every time she went there, she bought a book for me. When I was in second grade, the books she started bringing home were Wilder’s Little House books. These were the hardcover editions newly illustrated by Garth Williams. I devoured those stories, reading them over and over, usually under the covers of my bed with a flashlight or in my closet away from the noise of a five child household. I loved Laura because she wasn’t a “goody two-shoes” but a girl who occasionally lost her temper and was NAUGHTY.  (I was happy that my Pa didn’t punish my occasional bad behavior with a “whipping”.)

When I read the seventh and last one, These Happy Golden Years, I was in the third grade. My teacher at that time was Mrs. Cooper.  (I always felt as if we had a close bond because her name was “Dorothy”, so close to my own name.) The day after I finished reading this book, my mother happened to bump into my teacher. Mrs. Cooper told Mom that I had been crying all day because I had finished the last of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and was grieving over the fact that there were no more to read.

I took my friendship with Laura Ingalls very seriously indeed.