Some children's book authors are so good they become a part of you—forever. Each generation has its beloved writer(s), but for me and my sisters, Laura Ingalls Wilder was who we wanted to be. And if we couldn't be her, at least we wanted to know her. But since she died before we were born, we had to make do with what she wrote and where she lived.
This fall, my sister had occasion to get close enough to the town of De Smet, South Dakota, to justify a trip to Laura's girlhood home. Now a shrine to Laura Ingalls Wilder, De Smet was backdrop to the The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Little Town on the Prairie, which spanned my favorite years in Laura's growing-up life.
The long winter was too short for me. I wanted to get up every morning and bust the ice off my wash water, like Laura. I also wanted to teach in a one room schoolhouse. (Laura hated it, by the way.) My future husband would ride up in a sled—or cart, depending on the weather—and pick me up after I rang the cast iron bell. School's out! And of course, Nellie Oleson would just happen to be passing by, furious that she wasn't the one riding shotgun in whatever sweet ride Almanzo had chosen to bring.
I wanted to wear dresses made of organdy, which I pictured being the orange color of those marshmallow peanuts you have to hold your nose to eat. I wanted to make those dresses. Me, a wooden bench, a sewing needle and yards of fabric on my lap—cascading to the floor—is what I dreamed of.
I wasn't alone in this. If you've read this far, you're probably one of the thousands of children—now grown—who was smitten by a plucky pioneer girl named Laura.
Children's Book Author Laura Ingalls Wilder: De Smet, South Dakota, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So my sister rides into town in a rented car. While De Smet is home to only 1,200 residents, it boasts a tennis court, a swimming pool, a nine-hole golf course and a nursing home. In other words, you'll need to squint if you want the little town on the prairie to actually look like one. That said, many of the old homes and buildings are still in use, and some people might describe modern day De Smet as a 'one horse town.'
But others might describe it as All Things Laura. Devotees are strategically situated throughout the town to reveal tidbits about Laura and her family that you might not have heard before. (We want them all. Every single one.) The First School of De Smet, where Laura was a student, is still standing, but the Brewster School, where she taught, is a replica. There are all kinds of staged scenes in each of Laura's dwellings with period furniture, clothing and toys like the ones Laura 'might' have used.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described her early years as being full of "sunshine and shadow." The books were about the sunshine—the shadow, not so much. My sister was surprised that Pa had to abscond with his family in the middle of the night from Burr Oak, Iowa, due to the landlord 'not being reasonable.' And apparently, while Almanzo Wilder saved the starving town by making a dangerous run in a blizzard to buy some harvested wheat, the Wilder home MIGHT have harbored a false wall, behind which the family was secretly hording its own stash.
But the biggest surprise was that the entire Ingalls family lived in South Dakota until they died—either together in one home or within spittin' distance of each other—except for Laura. Laura settled in Mansfield, MO, with her husband, Almanzo, and only saw her parents once before they passed away many years later.
What?! Only see Ma one time over a period of 35 years? Good, kind, gentle Ma (even if she was a bit stern)? And Pa, who played the fiddle that Laura so loved? What are we missing here? As kids, we wanted to live with the Ingalls, yet Laura appears to have left them behind in De Smet, no hurry to go back.
We may never understand this. But living was hard on the plains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Ingalls bore their share of tragedies, many of which were not included in the books. If the pioneering life wore them down, we can only imagine the toll it took on their family.
A Children's Book Author Pilgrimage: Letting Go of the Story
If you're thinking about visiting a favorite children's book author's home town, brace yourself. You may end up feeling sort of sad. Your journey through the books was yours alone, and adding facts to your memories might not play out the way you think it will.
But if you're OK with reframing your childhood fantasies, have at it! Just be aware that you might alter forever the part of you that was formed by a complete stranger who felt like a friend.
In other words, think long and hard before you buy those tickets to Edinburgh. I'm just sayin'.
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