Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Traveling Through the Midwest on a Laura Ingalls Wilder Journey! Something Distinctly Non-British

I've been doing something distinctly non-British in the last couple of weeks: a road trip through America's heartland. Taking in 14 states and tourist destinations that primarily involved pioneering Americans, especially Laura Ingalls Wilder, another idol of mine, we drove over 4500 miles.

Just as Harry Potter books aren't only for kids, Laura's books are more fascinating to me now as an adult, then they were when I was young. And I loved them then. Her books explore American history from the point of view of someone who experienced firsthand many of phases of westward expansion (pioneering, homesteading, relocation of Indian tribes, the building of the railroad) and lived it in a number of different landscapes throughout the Midwest.

Her writing has helped me understand history better and brought it vividly to life. Her story is peopled with incredible events and individuals like Pa, who enlivened their simple poor existence with drive, intelligence, music, and a wandering foot. He is utterly devoted to his wife and girls and carves out for them one of the coolest forms of existence I can imagine. He can single-handedly build a log cabin and also plays the fiddle. Ma has little choice but to follow him, though she would clearly rather have lived a civilized life. She loves him and respects him. She lives her life with great dignity and insists that the girls are brought up with refinements and decorum she sees as necessary. Thus, they are shockingly literate for a set of pioneering children, reciting lengthy passages from literature, performing mental arithmetic, spending long nights memorizing history. I also happen to think she’s beautiful and looks a bit like Vivian Leigh. But that’s neither here nor there. I find her fascinating.

Our first Laura site on the road trip was De Smet, where she and her family were the first white settlers to stay. Some of her most interesting stories take place as she watches the town of De Smet spring into being around her, beginning with her family witnessing the construction of the railroad while living amid the workers in the railroad camp. She paints vivid pictures of life in that town that bear little resemblance to the TV show loosely based on her books.

She describes how Pa had to literally fistfight his way into getting a claim on the 160 acre parcel he wanted, how during the town’s first winter -- the harshest, longest winter imaginable, when the train line was still just a year old -- De Smet sat without provisions and nearly starved, how she later went to work as a seamstress and then a teacher in the area, and how she met and married a young farmer named Almanzo Wilder.

As it happens, the places that Laura lived are sprinkled around the Midwest in a way that makes it fairly easy to get to most of them while taking in our own relatives, so we threw caution to the winds and took in them all.

Next on the itinerary was Walnut Grove, MN, where we stopped On the Banks of Plum Creek. The chief attraction of this place was her home site where at one time she and her family lived in an earthen dugout. The dugout had long ago collapsed, but the site where it had sat was marked and the creek, in which Laura had learned for the first time about leeches, still flows muddily through the farmland.

Plum Creek is where her family was living when a massive grasshopper plague descended over much of Minn
esota. I learned recently, that the state had instituted an early form of welfare assistance -- exchanging foodstuffs for bags of grasshoppers to help the farmers who were devastated by that event.  Pa himself may have taken advantage of that assistance, but also walked hundreds of miles east to labor on farms in Wisconsin in order to send money home and support the family.

Pepin Wisconsin, across the state of Minnesota, just on the east bank of the Mississippi, is a small town
and the site of Little House in the Big Woods.  A reconstructed cabin sits on a pretty little wayside spot from which it is nearly impossible to imagine the deep big woods that would have existed when Laura was very little. Here is the spot where her engaging series of stories begins and I am surprised to see that we are by no means the only ones coming by on a random Sunday evening to check out the spot where Laura was born. 

All of the Little sites are heavily visited by tourists and it astonishes me to think of it. While at Plum Creek I wondered what Laura herself would have thought of this crazy spectacle of people (there were tons of folks at both Plum Creek and De Smet) making pilgrimages to the sites she had lived. I think of it as a testament to the everyday life of the little people, for Laura is famous, and near the hearts of so many, for having done nothing more than live her life . . . then write about it.

It is amazing when you stop to think of it. Her books are special for such things as the stories Pa told and the fiddle music he played, for describing how Ma made butter and how Laura and her sister walked to town and bought a slate. Its not that her family was extraordinary (though in key ways I think they were a cut above the rest), but that they were simply living their life. She is special and amazing because she was able to effectively record and share a life that was typical.

We proceeded onward, with a stop in Burr Oak, Iowa, pronounced “baroque” by those in the know. Though it is considered a ‘second tier’ site, not being written about in the books at all, we stopped
because it was easy to take in on our way to visit relatives. Burr Oak is interesting in that it represents a chapter in her life that Laura did not write about. Her family lived there for a short time under unpleasant circumstances when life on the farm in Plum Creek became untenable due to grasshoppers and also a sad time due to the death of their baby boy (Laura’s little brother) who is never mentioned in the books.  The town was really sweet and our tour guide very accommodating of our desire to have just a quick tour of the hotel where Laura and her family lived and worked.  But then, I have observed that people in Iowa do tend to be excessively kind and accommodating. Once again, it was crazy crowded there and a nice place to stop.

Just a bit further up the road is Vinton Iowa where Mary went to a college for the blind. I think Mary is an incredible character in this series. She starts off as a pretty, slightly vain, prissy girl who is very smart and accomplished and has the world in front of her. Laura is clearly jealous and almost defined by that jealousy at times. Laura is spunky, sometimes devious, very strong, and usually loving, but her relationship with Mary seems to bring out the worst in her.   After a bout of illness, Mary becomes blind at the age of 14. This is a defining moment and it changes Laura’s life as well as Mary's. I would argue that it is Mary’s blindness that has given the gift of Laura’s writing to the world, because it is Mary’s blindness that caused Laura to “see out loud” for her. I think the observational skills Laura developed and honed for Mary’s sake are what caused her to later recall and tell details with such sweetness and precision things that might have otherwise been lost forever. In a way Mary gave her vision so that Laura could see for the world.

Although Mary’s options were severely hampered by the times in which she lived, Ma and Pa weren’t willing to just let her sit at home and live a limited life. They wanted the most that was possible for her. When you think of a poor family barely eking out subsistence, but still saving and striving for Mary to get an education . . . sending her off to Iowa in order to improve her life, it is staggering. The school there is impressive, it must have been comforting to Ma and Pa to drive there with Mary and see the quality of the school they were placing their beloved daughter in.

The next spot was Rocky Ridge farm in Mansfield MO. Its chief attractions are the homes, where Laura lived most of her adult life with Almanzo and wrote all of her books, and
the museum, which houses the very fiddle that Pa played and that figures so prominently in the books and the few artifacts that remain from Laura’s childhood.

Almanzo built their house slowly over time, adding on additions to meet Laura's height (small) and to accommodate her designing skills (in part). They loved it there. 

I enjoyed the story of how Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo's grown daughter who had become a successful author and wanted to make her parents more comfortable,
had an "English cottage" style house built for them at the farm. She ordered this house from a catalog and then helped them move in to comparative luxury while she stayed at the farm house.  Several years later, Rose moved away from the farm to live on the east coast and immediately Laura and Almanzo moved back into their house.

An easy 4-hour drive later, we pulled into the site of the Little House on the Prairie. A recreation of the tiny log cabin Pa built in what was actually Indian country at that time sits on this site. Out of all the sites we visited, it is this one where you can most readily picture yourself in the past. The country is still wide open prairie farm land. There is a beautiful peace to the air that makes it easy to see why Pa had finally thought he’d found heaven on earth where he could stay forever. You can see the well that Pa had dug by hand.

But the Ingalls family did not get to stay there; they were kicked off of it by the U.S. government in one of few acts that seemed to have been done in protection of Indian rights, although of short duration, as the Ingallses probably could have settled it if they'd waited another year.

This is the only of the sites that we saw without other visitors around . . . and that might have been due to a fierce storm brewing outside.  We were glad to see it quickly and then head on our way home.

A Laura pilgrimage is an excellent way to get glimpses into American history and it gives you extended driving periods in the car in which to listen to all of Laura's books on CD. The audio series is read extremely well by Cherry Jones. She reads them so beautifully, I'd be surprised if even the hardest heart wouldn't relax and start to listen. 

"Traveling Through the Midwest on a Laura Ingalls Wilder Journey!  Something Distinctly Non-British" LostinBritishTV

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this lovely travelogue. I agree with the Cherry Jones recommendation. her reading of the books is so straightforward, unaffected and unselfconscious. I recently read a compliation of letters that Laura wrote to Almanzo when she came out to San Franciso to stay with Rose and to attend the World's Fair. In her letters, she describes what she is seeing at the fair, and she also reminds him to feed the chickens. And while she is amazed by all the wonders at the fair, you can hear her longing to get back home to her farm.