Friday, September 21, 2012

Prairie Tales

On the shores of Lake Thompson, near DeSmet, SD, August 1991.

Two months ago I noticed that the book The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, was available for Kindle from my public library.  It was on my to-read list, so I downloaded it and read it.  That, my friends, was  the innocent beginning of an unplanned two-month-long immersion into Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I have read pretty much nothing but things by and about Laura Ingalls Wilder for a number of weeks now.  It's been an enlightening and absorbing time.

The Wilder Life was entertaining.  McClure's book is about her personal journey as she rediscovered the Little House series as an adult, and of her subsequent visits to all of the Little House locations across the midwest and upstate New York.  I could relate to much of her experience.  Like McClure, I was a Little House fanatic as a child, and I, too, reacquainted myself with the series in my early 20s.  Over the years I have visited some, but not all, of the Little House places. (My visit to Plum Creek is blogged here.  My second visit to DeSmet, SD is blogged here.  I have also been to Pepin, WI, and Mansfield, MO.).

I was intrigued by some of the books about Laura that McClure referenced, so a few weeks after finishing her book I read Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture, by Anita Clair Fellman.  This is a very well-researched, scholarly tome that presents some ideas about Laura Ingalls Wilder's motivation in writing the series and how the books may have influenced the political landscape of the second half of the 20th century.  I also read the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, by John E. Miller, and am currently reading another biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, by Pamela Smith Hill.    Each book has been fascinating to me in its own way.  I have learned some things about Laura and her family that I did not know before, and even though by now the facts in each book about Laura are all the same facts, I am interested in the different perspectives and analysis each author presents.

Some of the truths I have learned about the family have stung a little bit.  Laura's daughter Rose edited the books so heavily that she should probably be considered a co-author.  The family's isolation and self-sufficiency throughout the series were exaggerated.  On at least one of the moves, Pa packed the family up and moved them away in the middle of the night to escape creditors. Most of the dresses Ma and the girls wore were not made by them, but were shipped to them ready-made from friends in the East.  Mary's college tuition was paid for by the government.  A carpenter, not Almanzo, built the pantry in the couple's first home. The Ingalls had another family living with them during the Long Winter, but Laura chose not to include them in the story because she wanted the focus to be on her family's struggles and triumph.  Some of these things I knew before, but with all of the reading I've been doing lately,  I felt that the revelations were piling up, and I started to feel sad and overwhelmed by them.

So, I re-read the entire series these past few weeks, something I hadn't done in a long time.  Fortunately, even knowing the truth now, I still felt joy spending time on the prairie with the Ingalls family again.  I was completely absorbed.  When I read these books as a child, the people and places in them would fill my dreams at night, and that was true this time, too!  Every night I am dreaming of the prairie.  Even if the books are more fiction than fact, they are still based on a reality, and they still tell a tale that is worth knowing and living, and even emulating.

I know the Little House books have influenced my life in a positive way.  They stress so many wonderful ideals:  eat good food;  take advantage of opportunities to learn; value education; take care of your family; notice the beauty that surrounds you; sing, dance, and make music whenever you can; take care of your belongings; be fair and gentle; make a home where ever you are.

I noticed some things with this reading of the series that I thought would be fun to share here:

The common dipper.  When Ma and the girls ride the train from Plum Creek to Tracy, Laura is fascinated by the water faucet on the train.  She watches a man fill a cup with water, drink from it, and then replace the cup on a shelf above the sink.  When he is done, Laura picks up that same cup, fills it with water, and drinks from it.  I wanted to gag when I realized what was going on!  Later in the series, Pa takes Laura and Carrie into town for the 4th of July celebration, and all the townspeople drink lemonade from a barrel, sipping directly from one single dipper.  Shudder!  Can you imagine sharing a dipper with every random stranger in your city?  I don't even like to drink from public drinking fountains!

Disgusting food.  I always thought the head cheese and the pig's tail in the first book were stomach turning, but this time in one of the later books I noticed the family sprinkles their tomatoes with sugar and covers them with milk.  That sounds vile to me, but I am strangely tempted to try it.  In Farmer Boy, Almanzo says if you take a cup of milk and a cup of popped popcorn and transfer the popcorn into the milk, the milk won't spill over.  According to Almanzo, popcorn is the only food you can add to milk in an equal amount and not have the milk spill over.  After you've soaked your popcorn in the milk, you eat the popcorn from the milk with a spoon.  This initially sounded revolting to me, but upon further reflection, I'm thinking it probably tastes like corn flake cereal.  And I'll bet that today in these modern times of processed food, you can fill a cup of milk with a cup of dry cereal and not have the milk spill over.  This would be a good science project for young children to try.

Fashion.  The Ingalls women were fashion conscious! When they are preparing Mary for college, Ma worries that Mary's clothes will be out of place in Iowa. Teen Laura wants hoop skirts and bangs and name cards. Endless descriptions are given of what clothing looked like, what material it was made of, and how it was trimmed.  Even when Laura was younger she coveted a fur cape like Nellie's, and when she got one, she was a little bit smug that her cape also came with a muff, while Nellie's had none.  My overall enduring impression of the Ingalls women is that they were practical, so if you had asked me if they cared about fashion, I would have said no.  I was so wrong! And I am happy to have been wrong.  I loved finding out that the adult Laura, who was a farm wife, would dress up to run errands in town.  Some of the other rural woman apparently perceived her as a bit snobby because of this, but I appreciate the fact that she liked and paid attention to her style.

I feel like I've been on a journey these past two months, discovering that my childhood passion and lifelong influence was perhaps falsely portrayed, but realizing that I still love and appreciate it anyway.  As I mentioned in my Goodreads book review of The First Four Years, it's been as if someone told me Santa doesn't exist, but I'm okay with it, because the magic is in the joy the myth brought me.

I have a set of photos of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites I visited two years ago, and if you care to read my reviews of the Little House books and the books about Laura, you can find them on my Goodreads little-house shelf.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Much of the apple crop around here was destroyed this past spring due to early warm weather, which led to early blossoming.  A hard frost killed the blossoms, and the orchards really took a hit.  My front yard apple tree survived, though, and now it is harvest time.

I am re-reading the Little House on the Prairie books right now.  It's been many years since I've done that.  I read some of the books to my children when they were younger, but my son lost interest, and my daughter was keen to read them on her own.  My urge to read them now was sparked earlier this summer when I read the scholarly book Little House, Long Shadow, by Anita Clair Fellman.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head about that book and my current re-reading of the series, but I'll save all that for another post, because today I am making Apple Upside-Down Cake, using Laura's very own recipe from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook.  These aren't recipes from the series; these are recipes that Laura used as a married, farming woman when she lived on her orchard and dairy farm in the Ozarks of Missouri.  My cake is in the oven right now, smelling delicious.  I am a little bit apprehensive about inverting it out onto a plate, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

If this is too small to read, you can click on the photo for a larger image.
ETA: The cake came out beautifully!  See it here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I haven't shared any needlework projects in quite a while.  That's because I've been working on this Very Scary Mystery Sampler by Lizzie Kate.  The pattern was a mystery, released in three installments the beginning of July, August, and September.  Stitchers were asked not to share photos online so as not to spoil the surprise for others, but I think by now there are enough pictures out there that I'm safe.

When I got part one in July, I started stitching right away.  We did so much driving all over the state this summer, both for vacation and to get the kids to their respective camps, and this was a good take-along project.  The colors are really pretty as they come together.  I finished stitching part one just as part two arrived, and I finished part two as part three arrived, but now I haven't stitched one single stitch of part three!  Part three included a full color photo of the completed sampler, and now that I've seen that, I've lost my motivation. I like the design, but stitching on this is keeping me from other things I need to work on, and I'm feeling restless.

Our basement is also taking up my time.  Those of you who follow my Flickr stream will know that we are in the final stage of the work.  The flooring is being put in as I type this, and once that is complete by the end of this week, we hope to paint, and then we can put everything back together again.  I've been purging all along, but I know we still have more things than we have storage space.  My plan for reorganizing is to put back the things we absolutely must keep, and be ruthless with the rest.

And marginally related, because I mentioned driving all over the state this summer, the Pure Michigan campaign just released this statewide sing-along video, and I love it.  I have been to 30-plus states in the U.S., and each has its own beauty, but I do think Michigan is one of the prettiest places in the country!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Foggy September Morning

The children started school yesterday, and I am trying to find my routine with the new schedule. This morning I took a walk around the community garden. 

Harvest time never looked prettier.