Little House in the Big City

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In keeping with a long, clearly under-medicated tradition of turning the literary into real life, we’ve been playing a lot of Little House on the Prairie around these parts. You can read about our attempts at molasses candy here and our demented horror movie corn cob doll here, but the big adventure of late was dressing up like a young Laura Ingalls Wilder in a homely dress, play apron and sun bonnet for a trip to what amounts to the wilds of San Francisco: The Presidio.

I’m not sure who was more excited: Emme because she got to dress up like her favorite character (she grabbed my hand at one point and told me it was OK if I wanted to call her Laura “just for today”) or me because I came to fully understand what Laura was always going on about in the book, talking about Pa and that wet sparkle in his eye when he basked in the delight of his children.

Out in the waving grasses, the winds howled and the sun moved slowly through the disappearing fog. My own little Laura shouted with glee and ran scampering through the thickets.

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I thought about making a dress for her, but these past few weeks have gotten the better of me (details to come this week about many public readings and more TV appearances very soon). But the real problem was that every time I thought of making one, some weird convergence of images would conspire to stunt all of my dress making mojo.

On the one hand, in the book, they were always talking about brightly colored calico prints and elegant lace bodices and necklines. When Ma got dressed up for a dance one night, she wore a hoop under her skirt. Cool, I thought. I can do that. But then I’d think of the old-school Little House show I’d seen while flipping channels and my mind would be invaded by images of urchins wearing burlap and running around with lockjaw and head lice — the Ewell family of Indian Territory.

Although I should have just gone with the descriptions in the book, I settled instead on making a simple rustic apron and sun bonnet from thrift store sheets, thinking the real Laura would approve of the re-use factor. For the dress, I re-used a favorite old-fashioned monstrosity that looks like something out of Big Love.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Emme didn’t like the apron and she took off the sun bonnet about as soon as I put it on her.

“Laura never liked it either,” she reminded me, and I had to admit she had a point.

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For our journey around the Presidio’s new “nature walk” exhibit, I decided to pack a surprise: “Corn.”

Corn is the doll we fashioned out of a corn cob, just like the doll Susan from the first book. It never fails to make me smile, laugh and cry at the same time to see Emme playing with Corn, treating this dry little cob just like family.

When I was a boy, I had a corn cob pipe that I think was purchased from Disneyland’s frontier area, back when Phillip Morris probably gave away packs to children in line at Space Mountain. I had wondered why Emme treated this little piece of vegetable just like all her other dolls, and it occurred to me that I spent day after day pretending my pipe was real, too.

Watching her trample through high, slender weeds, I heard her pointing out dandelions and lady bugs to Corn, and I hoped her imagination would never wane.
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We started reading Little House on the Prairie first because, frankly, I thought that was the first one. Yes, I knew there was a whole series, but I just assumed it started with this book and that it all had something vaguely to do with Michael Landon, angels and one of the kids from Rosanne. Clearly I had never been a Prairie fan. But now I can’t get enough of the books.

There’s hardly a page that goes by that I don’t stop to re-read a sentence, either for myself or for Emme, hoping she might one day absorb the sparse elegance of the sentences.

It turned out we began with the third book in the series, and we delighted in the family’s adventures in Indian Territory. When the dog, Jack, was seemingly lost and then found again, we both shook with joy. When the family set out for new regions, we both felt Pa was acting too abruptly.

When we finished, we back-tracked to the first book, Little House in the Big Woods, and ended up reading the entire thing in a week. We tried the next book, Farmer Boy, but Emme and I were both disappointed to discover it wasn’t about Laura at all but rather about the boy who would later become her husband. After about 50 pages, we decided to skip that one for now and picked up On the Banks of Plum Creek instead. We’re almost done with this one, and not a day goes by that we don’t curl up in a chair to sit and marvel at the language and simple, heart-breaking drama. When Pa traded Pet and Patty, the horses, I could feel Emme fighting to keep it together for a few moments before she could stand it no longer and collapsed into heaving, mournful sobs.

“Tell me they’ll be happy in Indian Territory,” she begged me, “Tell me they’ll be happy.”

We stopped reading for the day right about there.

I’m glad I never read these books as a kid, because I know that I never would have appreciated them like I do now. I wonder sometimes whether Emme is too young to remember any of the stories or our time together reading them. Sometimes I sit in our favorite chair and feel her tiny heart beating against my own and wonder if one day she’ll pick up these books again, on her own, and feel some booming nostalgia she cannot fully explain or comprehend — a city girl suddenly wistful and filled with longing for the wild.

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Comments

  1. I’d wear that dress too but only for some vanity cakes. I always loved the description of those and never had a chance to make/taste them. One of these days.

  2. Mike, should you decide she’s ready for the genre of “mild” but wonderful children’s sci-fi, read the Madeleine L’Engle series to her…wonderful stuff and quite the fantasy. It will feed her imagination with wonder (I think) since the characters are so well developed. Kids generally read this series around the 5th grade whereas the Wilder series is usually the 4th…with your daughter’s literary development and comprehension (not to mention her fantastic imagination), I think she’d enjoy the series fairly soon.

  3. That’s definitely on the list – but there are a few we’re waiting until she’s either old enough to read herself or a little older to comprehend more. This might be one of them. As much as I love to read to her, I do want her to experience what it’s like to slip into a book and see new worlds.

    That said, holy sweet jesus the easter pig, why didn’t anyone warn me about By the Shores of Silver Lake? We just finished Plum Creek in the LHOTP series and started Silver Lake, only to find ourselves in wild gushing sobs at the first two chapters. Without giving anything away, we both learned a lesson that life is unfair and will crush your spirits. I’m not sure I can take this book. Emme, for her part, asked me to wake her up early so we can continue it.

  4. Nicole Fitzhugh says:

    Great post. You should pick up “West From Home” and read it yourself. It’s Laura’s letters to Almanzo when she comes on a visit to San Francisco. it’s a long time since I read it but you might be able to find excerpts you can read to Emme and recreate Laura’s journeys around town!

  5. We’ve just started reading this series to our daughter, too. Last month, we took a trip (just two hours away) to see Laura and Almonzo’s homestead up in Mansfield, MO- we saw Pa’s fiddle, several of her childhood belongings from the book, some of her clothes, etc., and toured two homes that they built and lived in on the property. Absolutely fantastic trip, and coupled with Baker Creek Seed’s spring festival, it was quite the pioneer weekend. Naturally, a sunbonnet was obtained– and like Emme, Gracie has barely touched it since.

    I’m really enjoying _Little House in the Ozarks_,” a collection of newspaper columns Laura wrote before she began writing the Little House books. It’s a revealing glimpse inside her head– and I really enjoy her ideas, even 100 years after she wrote them.

  6. I’m so doing this with my daughter when she’s a few years older. I actually used to like the show, although I never read the books. Great pics.

  7. I highly recommend adding the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich to your reading lists (Birchbark House, Game of Silence, Porcupine Year). The Little House books, while much loved, only tell one version of the story. The Erdrich series tells the story of a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas (Little Frog), living in the Great Lakes area during the mid 1800s.

  8. I started my boys with Little House on the Prairie, then Farmer Boy, which I barely skim-read as a girl, but now I LOVE IT!! I have welled up with tears several times in both books. Now we’ve backtracked to the Big Woods. If I pause for a wee moment, my boys are on the edge of their seats and exclaim, “READ IT!!!” We read 7 chapters one day in order to finish LHotP, and when we ended, DS wanted me to start over from the beginning right away! When we started to read about Independence Day in Farmer Boy, DS thought Almanzo was going to meet Laura for the first time in Independence (the town nearest to the Ingalls on the prairie)- cute!

    My question is: what animal could the “black panther” be? Apparently there is no such creature indigenous to the USA. It’s slightly more likely to be found in America now (as a zoo escapee) not back then. Maybe it stems from Indian folklore (remember, an Indian claimed to have killed one) but how do you explain Grandpa’s? Especially since they’re only found in tropical regions? Wikipedia has good suggestions (‘Wisconsin Cougar’), but I’m not sure if I’m ready to ‘ruin it’ for my boys by telling them a different name.

  9. Ann of Green Gables and The Boxcar Children

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