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.
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.
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.
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.