Monday, April 14, 2008


Most serious readers I know can think back to their childhood and pick out that one book that made them into a reader. For me, that book was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. If you haven’t read the book, and chances are that if you’re male, you haven’t, it’s the autobiography of a young girl, Laura Ingalls, and her family’s travels in a covered wagon to different parts of the midwest. In fact, it’s a series of books, beginning from when Laura was very young and lasting into her first few years of marriage.

To say that I loved these books doesn’t quite do the feeling I had for them justice. I would read these books over and over again. When my parents would yell at me that it was time to turn out the light and go to bed, I’d huddle under the covers with a flashlight and read, again, about nasty Nellie Olsen or Lazy, Lousy Liza Jane. And because they were so important to me, I was obsessed with what they must have looked like. I’d study the front of the books and Garth Williams’s illustrations inside.

Yes, there were Laura and Mary, gazing out the back of the covered wagon. Laura was jealous of Mary's blonde hair and blue eyes -- she always got to wear the blue ribbons. Me? I hated Mary's blonde hair, too, because it was just like mine, and I wanted to be like Laura. I wanted to know everything about Laura, in fact. I studied her pictures. They were the only books I owned where I actually knew the name of the illustrator, I’d studied them so often. And then, the television series came out.

Melissa Gilbert was the perfect Laura, and Michael Landon made a mighty pretty Pa, but no: this tv family never matched the Ingalls family of my imagination. That didn’t mean that I’d miss a single episode, however.  Every week, somebody would yell, "ALHOP is on!" (we were too lazy to say the whole title), and the whole family would come running for the living room.

It was my Laura Ingalls fix, and I watched every minute even though I knew that half the stuff they showed on television never happened in real life. They never had an adopted brother named Albert, for instance. However, as time wore on and the girls grew older, that’s where the books stopped and the tv series continued. I couldn’t separate fact from fiction any longer. Did Mary really marry another blind man and found a new school for the blind? I didn’t know. I hoped so, because I really wanted Mary to end up happy.  And I wondered. Everything there was to know about this family I wanted to know.

Now, this was in the days before the internet and you couldn’t just find these things out. You had to go to the library and actually do some research. And lo, though I was a somewhat lazy kid, I did find a few things. The trouble was, the Hazel Crest Public Library wasn’t exactly teeming with information on the Ingalls family.
But I grew up, as people do, and my obsession for Laura went the way that children’s obsessions often go. That is, until Dawn and I took a trip to the Ozarks last week and saw along the way a tiny sign off US 60. That sign said "Wilder Family Home."

I knew immediately what it was. I turned to Dawn. I couldn’t help myself. Oh my god, I said. It’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home.

And really, if I’d thought about it before we took the trip, I would have known that it was there, because I read the book where Laura and Almonzo take their wagon and drive from Desmet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri to start an apple farm. I did know that. I did. But I was surprised by the reality of it nonetheless.

And the reason that Dawn is my best friend is that she immediately responded, "Well, we have to go."
And we really did. Have to go, that is. Dawn understood this by taking just one look at me. You see, this was my somewhat-forgotten childhood dream.

The old homestead is a tiny white house on the top of the hill. When you climb the hill, you enter through a small museum. And the first thing you encounter, the thing that I needed to see more than anything, were the pictures.

Standing in the back row are Carrie, Laura, and baby Grace. Seated are Ma, Pa, and Mary, Laura’s blind sister. I stood in front of the photograph and studied it a good long while. Christina, my niece, stepped up beside me. I pointed to each picture and explained who they were. I’m sure she didn’t understand why I knew so much or even why I thought they were so important, but she listened patiently. "Look at Mary," I said. "She how she’s not looking at the camera? That’s because she’s blind."

And I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at Mary. And Laura. And all the rest of them. I mean, check out Pa’s crazy beard. He looked nothing, I mean nothing, like Michael Landon.
But then, I saw something even better: Pa’s fiddle.

Honest to god, they had the real thing sitting right there. And only a geek like me would be excited about seeing it. The children were interested in the different parts of the fiddle and how they worked, but me? I was interested in the fact that it was Pa’s damn fiddle. For real.

I walked around it about ten times. I’d never studied a Picasso the way I studied this fiddle.

There were several pictures of Laura, also. I looked at this one and remembered the book where she’d tried to be different and fashionable and cut bangs into her hair, and there she was, with bangs. Everywhere I looked, I saw proof that even the smallest details were true.

She didn’t look like Melissa Gilbert, either, but oh, was she Laura. See that determined look in her eye? That girl could kick some major ass if she wanted to.

Now, besides Laura, I had a pretty major crush on Almonzo. I’m sure it started with the actor that they got to play him on the television series:

Isn’t he pretty? They always had him lifting things. Even when I was a child, I knew that I liked to watch a man lift something heavy.

But the photo archives had the photo I’d been longing to see: the real Almonzo. And girls, he’s just as pretty in real life:

Look at those eyes. Hubba hubba.

The rest of the museum had artifacts, like the jewel box Laura was given that one Christmas in Walnut Grove (I remembered that) or the writing desk where they found the hundred dollar bill that they thought they’d lost (I remembered that like I’d read it yesterday), or the clock that Almonzo (sigh) gave Laura on their second anniversary.

I remembered it. I remembered every word. I could hardly contain my memories.

We took a tour of their little house. Almonzo had built the entire thing for Laura, starting with one room and adding each additional room as they could afford it. The floors were covered with linoleum. I couldn’t get over that. They’d lived in that house until the early 1950s, you know.

We got to the end of the tour and the rest of the people filed out. I stopped to speak with my guide. She was of an age where she’d have known Laura, but just barely. She’d been a very young woman when Laura died at the age of ninety. I asked her about this Lane fellow. Whatever happened to him?

Lane, for those of you who aren’t insane like me, is the man that Laura’s daughter Rose married.
She leaned in. "Well," she said. "He was in real estate. Rose met him in San Francisco. They were married for nine years and," she paused dramatically, dropping her voice to almost a whisper, "then they divorced."
I gasped. She seemed to expect it. Rose never had any children, she said, so Charles Ingalls’s direct line died out completely. Of the girls, only Carrie ever married, to a man who had two stepchildren. That meant that Mary’s husband on the show was entirely fictional.

I was sad for Mary, and surprised at Carrie. She seemed like such a sour woman in that photograph.
And so there I was, finally separating fact from fiction, and wishing a little that the fiction had been the truth. I didn’t want to think of Pa’s girls as anything less than happy.

Then I stepped out on the porch with the kids and Dawn took our picture.

It was a dream come true. Accidentally, that is.

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