I’ve been an avid reader from as far back as I can remember. In fact, I think one of my first words was newspaper. Today I still remember those books like old friends. When I was in the first grade, I’d already read my way through all the first grade reading books when my teacher, Sister Mary Tobias read us a chapter of Little House in the Big Woods during story time. I was enchanted by the story of Laura and her sisters living with their parents in rural Wisconsin in the nineteenth century. I couldn’t wait to get my own copy of the book from Scholastic. Here was a story about a little girl like me, someone I could relate too even though we lived in different centuries. Little House in the Big Woods was the first ‘real’ book that I read over and over again. I even tried to make maple syrup candy with snow like Laura and Mary!
As I grew older, Laura did too as I devoured the rest of the books in the series, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, By the Shores of Silver Lake, and finally These Happy Golden Years. I even enjoyed Farmer Boy, even though it was about Laura’s husband Almanzo and his childhood growing up in rural upstate New York. I remember how sad I was when the series ended and how happy to find out that there was one last book, The First Four Years about Laura’s marriage to her beloved ‘Manly.’ Reading these books opened a whole new world to me, and started my life long love with American History.
I learned what a harsh life it was on the Prairie in the 1880’s, and how easily things could go wrong. I sobbed when Mary went blind; bit my nails when the Ingalls family suffered through the long harsh winter on the South Dakota prairie, I was fascinated by her struggles as a sixteen year old school teacher in a one room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere. Laura and her family became my friends. I knew them as well or better than I knew my own family. Although other writers and stories captured my attention, Nancy Drew, the stories of Madeleine L’Engle, I never forgot my initial infatuation with Half-Pint and the Ingalls family. I read every biography that I could find on Laura, to learn more about this woman who’s books first captured my imagination.
I later learned that Laura had been in her seventies when she finally set down the stories of her family on paper. She wrote simply to preserve tales of a lost era in American history, the pioneer period, which she lived through and wrote about vividly. By the time she finished writing the nine volume series, she had left us an invaluable portrait of life in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Kansas at the turn of the century. Since her death in 1957 at the age of ninety, the Little House books have never been out of print and have continued to entertain readers for over fifty years.
Carolyn See in her marvelous book Making a Literary Life (a must read for every writer) suggests writing a note every day to a writer you admire and you inspires you to write. If I could write a note to Laura Ingalls Wilder, I would tell her that she made me want to be a writer, to tell stories that were as exciting as the Little House books were for me.