Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Little House

While I was at home, I re-read "These Happy Golden Years" which is the last book but one in the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was given these books by my grandma, at the rate of about one every four months when I was a kid, so I used to anxiously await the next installment. Sunday night I got through this book in two hours. (couldn't sleep, what can I say?) I was struck by not only how well the book portrays life on the American frontier, but also by how much it shaped my opinions and ideas when I was growing up. I always identified with Laura: we both have brown hair, an inherent dislike of shoes and love of reading are irredemably attached to our childhood toys. But beyond that, Laura really influenced my ideas of how the world was supposed to work--for example, in "By the Shores of Silver Lake" her bulldog Jack lies down to sleep and never wakes up again. It was a cruel shock to me to learn that sometimes people have to make that decision instead. Or, more directly, the idea that at some point in every woman's life, Almanzo Wilder would just appear and, after a decent interval, you'd get married and that would be it. (A recent conversation with a college friend confirmed my suspicion that I was not alone in thinking that Manly was, I quote, "hot") Again, a bit disconcerted to learn that's not always the case.
But Laura also helped show how women can be strong and independent: she's not afraid to work to help her parents, and she tells Almanzo flat-out that she will not promise to "obey" in their wedding vows. Heady stuff for a twelve-year old.

So after reading the book, I decided to learn a little bit about the "real" Laura's life: I knew that they had moved to the Ozarks at one point after the books ended, and I learned through the miracles of Wikipedia that she became a respected chairwoman of the Woman Farmer's Association and journalist. And, of course, in 1932 she started writting "Little House in the Big Woods" and the rest is history. (another trait we share: A Wisconsin birthplace.)

I was a little aggrieved to see, after a few more clicks, that the "Little House" universe has been expanded and exploited to include several other series of books that are ghostwritten by other authors. The books deal with Laura's family--her mom, grandmother, great-grandmother, and daughter--and tell each girl's story, designed to appeal to the readers of the originals. And, I suspect, compete directly with the American Girl market. We do love the stories of the feisty American girls overcoming bullies and history, but not when the dolls are being sold to us for sixty dollars a pop (additional outfits not included).

I guess my happy memories of these books are all wound up in the hazy, halcyon memories of my childhood, when Laura's adventures were easily re-enacted without the help of expensive toys. Not to mention my set of books--knocked about, dirtied, torn, chewed on and taped up--are a treasured present from my grandmother. I haven't decided if I'll let any potential future offspring indulge in the knockoffs of the original series, but I already know that I will buy them their own copies to knock about as much as they like.

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