Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you don’t know who she is, that’s ok, but you best get to the library lest you one day endure the sneer of any young girl in your life. Laura’s life on the prairie is well known the world over, and millions will continue to be transported to The Little House in the Big Woods for decades to come.
When my mom and I read The Little House books, all borrowed from the basement of the historic Wallkill Public Library, I didn’t know that I’d one day live in the same state depicted in many of the stories. Instead, I was mesmerized by a primitive life unlike my own. We read the tales of her life with shiny pennies and juicy oranges to celebrate Christmas, long walks to the school house and endless days working on the farm with increasing interest. We’d visit my grandparents once a month, and on the drives my mom would read aloud; even my dad became entranced with the tales, eager to hear yet another chapter.
The first time I drove to Sioux Falls on I-90, my hopes were raised and shattered in an instant when I read the sign for De Smet, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had a chance to experience a bit of childhood fantasy come to life, but Kevin was unwilling to make the turn—a visit would bring hours of detour to our already long drive. A tour of De Smet and memory lane would have to wait for another day. I’ve lived in South Dakota for almost five years now, passing that sign many times, but still I have not visited.
Although I have yet to pay due homage, the South Dakota landscape itself wraps Laura’s world around me and brings me closer to those stories of the past. Living on the tree-dense East coast for most of my life, I didn’t have a true sense for endless grasses, howling winds and chilling colds until I moved here. We have harsher winters here in South Dakota than most of what I experienced in New York, but we had months more of snow days than I’ll ever see here as a teacher in Pierre, where school is rarely called off for snow, and the concept of a morning delay is unknown. As I trek the few minutes from my house to work on those mornings with snow and ice, I like to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder—here in South Dakota we just have a desire to keep pressing on with life regardless of a capricious mother nature. There are things to learn, work to be done, and fires to keep burning.
I’ve seen some fierce snows in the past few years, and people like to categorize in a way that attaches significance, so surely ‘The Long Winter’ is a title I’ve heard to describe certain recent seasons. Come to find out, however, long isn’t the adjective Wilder wished to describe the winter of 1880-1881.
A few weeks ago I received an email invitation from a friend to attend the 150th birthday celebration for Laura Ingalls Wilder held at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center here in Pierre. Given how small our little city on the prairie is, my friends and I have vowed to attend and participate in as many gatherings as we can, not only to support local efforts of education and entertainment, but to also brighten our sometimes mundane evenings. I’d attended an author talk last year at the Heritage Center that I enjoyed (featuring William Kent Kruger, with whom I was less familiar), so an event to celebrate a woman whose work I’ve known most all of my life seemed to be one I shouldn’t miss.
The sun had been down for a few hours already when I pulled into the parking lot shortly before 7 PM, and I drew my coat closer as I walked into the “building in the hill” that is the Heritage Center here in Pierre. It’s a cool place even from the outside.
The gallery lights were off, but I signed in at the front desk and proceeded to join the folks gathered in the Education Room. I was expecting to be joined by three friends, so I grabbed a seat on the far wall where we could sit together. I wasn’t the youngest in attendance, but my presence did help to bring the average age in the room down. The thirty or so folks who’d arrived before me were already feasting on coffee and desserts straight from The Little House Cookbook. My friends arrived soon, and the program was underway as we, and folks using the Dakota Digital Network (DDN) in De Smet, listened to a live lecture from The New York Times Bestselling author, William Anderson. Perpendicular to the audience from my seat on the wall, I had the delight of watching facial reactions as everyone viewed a slideshow of images and listened to Anderson’s details on Wilder’s life after the chronology of the stories she told in her books. We learned how he became interested in Wilder’s life, and he shared excerpts from his newest book, The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I particularly enjoyed watching two girls as Anderson read letters from students to Wilder that referenced plot lines and characters from books these girls had obviously recently read. It was as if I was watching how I might have reacted at their age to such information. I wish my memory was as good as theirs. Although I couldn’t make such specific connections, I enjoyed Anderson’s reference to boys and girls of the 1930’s waiting for Wilder’s newest prairie installments such as recent generations have waited for the release of the Harry Potter series.
Despite my love for Wilder’s stories, I’ve never considered following up on the literature exploring her life as an author. My fandom certainly paled in comparison to Anderson’s and others seated around me (except for my friend to the right who’d never read a single volume—she’ll be remedying that soon.) Still, I listened intently. When the topic of The Long Winter came up, however, my interest was piqued.
Earlier today I told my mom that I’d be attending the program this evening, and we reminisced about reading Wilder’s stories and the day I declared we would not finish reading The Long Winter. Wilder’s town became stranded when trains we unable to bring necessary supplies, and life was hard. Given the human’s struggles, Wilder’s dog had to fend for himself, and it was this sad description that turned me off. Having no desire to wait around for the death of the dog, The Long Winter was returned and we jumped ahead to book #7.
Anderson revealed that through letters to her editor, it was apparent that Wilder wished to title the book The Hard Winter, but the publishers believed this might be too harsh for young readers; I would have appreciated the warning.
Yes, the blizzards of 1880-1881 did drag on (as later in the evening we saw documented in period newspaper headlines), but it was the hard nature of life within each of those long days that Wilder wished to convey. I’ve experienced some hard winters myself, and I can commiserate with Wilder’s desire to share reality.
For a few years during high school and college, it seemed like winters—Decembers in particular—were unrelenting. My grandmother died one year, I had a hip replacement surgery during another, and we had our own candlelit Christmas during an ice storm during yet another. We weren’t twisting straw to fuel the fire, grinding wheat in a coffee mill or letting our dog to his own devices, but my family and I felt our own stresses. Still, we had each other and a tenacity to persevere—this response is one not unlike that shared by South Dakota communities during that hard winter.
In that windowless little room at the Heritage Center, I was reminded that it is our shared experiences that make the biggest impression on events we recall for years to come. The fact that the “modern” cake was already cut when I had the chance to snap a picture didn’t ruin my documentation of the event, in fact, it further illustrated the community element of celebrating Wilder’s life and the way she has enriched that of others.
This week has already been a rough one at school with the untimely death of a colleague this morning—we, and she, had just learned of her cancer a few days ago. Through our collective community we will remember her legacy, and we will create new memories in her honor. A hard week it has already been, but hopefully it won’t be a long one.
We’re going to Sioux Falls this weekend; I could try to get Kevin to finally appease me and exit I-90 at De Smet. I’d rather wait, however, for the prairie to thaw and visit with my mom and my friends I was with this evening. It’s a neat thing to revive history—collected and our own—in a group of kindred souls; as Wilder’s letters show, it’s only within that sort of group that history is made.