Confessions of a 'Little House' Lover
Trekking to the land of Laura
My friend claims her blond Labrador retriever, Nellie, is a "mean little bitch." I believe it, and I bet I know why. She's jealous of the neighbor's pup, Laura, also known as Half-Pint. Nellie might have the fanciest collar and finest chew toys straight from France, but everyone likes Laura better. She's a sweet, honest country dog, and she's got those long brown ears and that badass covered wagon doghouse ... See, when you've got Little House on the Prairie-itis, crazy thoughts like this can creep into your head. A mere name can trigger it. Like, say, Nellie -- that bitch.
Twenty-eight years after the first episode of Little House on the Prairie aired and 70 years since the first of Laura Ingalls Wilder's nine-book series was published, the cult of LHOP still converts new members. I'm one. It happened 25 years ago, when I first read the books and watched the show about how the Ingalls family rode their covered wagon from Wisconsin to the wild, wild West, where they built a little house, log by log, in the middle of BFE. Now, I'm one of those people who gasps when someone compares the Waltons to the Ingalls family. The Ingalls were real people, for God's sake. They lived, they died, they pioneered. The Waltons were just some made-up TV family with moles on their faces. Sheesh. How can anyone not know that?
Born in Pepin, Wis., in 1867, Laura grew up to be smart, witty, adventurous, and independent. She loved wide-open spaces and always had a dog. She refused to use the word "obey" in her wedding vows. At age 44, Laura wrote her first newspaper article, which kicked off a regular column about farm life. At 65, her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published. She learned to drive a car, a machine that didn't even exist when she was born. And after her husband died, she lived on her own in their farmhouse until she died eight years later at 90.
Because she's my idol, anything connected to Laura, by extension, is sacred. Like Melissa Gilbert. That red-haired freckle-faced woman will forever be remembered as the buck-toothed little Laura. (There is no evidence, by the way, that the real Laura suffered the same affliction.) That's why it's so shocking to imagine Melissa doing anything unsavory -- which she did a couple of years ago, providing the voice-over for Monica Lewinsky on the audio version of American Rhapsody, Joe Eszterhas' titillating rendition of the Clinton White House scandal, in which even Bill's package gets to tell its side of the story. What would Pa say? He'd take her out to the barn, for sure, and give her a stern talking-to that would make her lip quiver. Then they'd make up and have one of those great hugs, and Ma would smile at them as they trotted over the hill to go fishing.
Wait a minute -- Melissa is not Laura, Melissa is not Laura ...
For those of us who grew up in the 1970s glued to the TV on Monday nights, it's difficult sometimes to reconcile the television family with the real family. When you think of Mary, you think of beautifully blond Melissa Sue Anderson, blindly gazing with her crystal blue eyes off into the prairie, right? Think again. The real Mary was no looker. In the handful of pictures of Laura's older sister, her hair is pulled back tightly, parted in the middle, and she looks sad and homely. And Pa? Michael Landon's curly locks and clean-shaven face are a mockery compared to the real Pa's ZZ Top beard and hillbilly hairdo. The real Ma looks tough and hard, like she could kick some serious butt, which she probably did.
I know because I've been to the mountain, to where it all began, and I've seen the photos, the transcripts, the fiddle -- the evidence of Laura's life on this earth. A few summers ago, my sister and I made the pilgrimage to the Land of Laura. It all started with an innocuous Christmas present, an LHOP calendar from her to me that reignited the prairie passion buried deep within. Excitedly, I flipped through the calendar, and then I saw it: "Wilder Festival, Walnut Grove, MN," printed weekend after weekend in July. That was the first time it ever occurred to me that the Grove might still be there. That maybe they didn't blow it up after all (see the TV series' final season). Turns out the town's residents put on the festival and outdoor pageant every July. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the pageant, and to mark the occasion, hunky Dean Butler, who played Laura's husband, Almanzo Wilder, will be there in all his prairie glory.
It's a simple drive. From Austin, we just hopped on I-35 and drove north for 24 hours. Just before Minneapolis, we veered left on Highway 14, also known as Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. Forget Kerouac's Route 66: This was the shit. We passed through Sleepy Eye, Mankato, all those places Pa was always running off to in the wagon to get supplies. And finally, there it was: "Walnut Grove, Pop. 625." The little town of W.G., while quaint, doesn't look much like the TV version, which was filmed in Arizona and California. It looks pretty much like any other Midwestern small town, something you might just whiz through without a second thought. But we knew better. This was where Laura had lived as a child. This was the place where Prairie Trekkies longed to run down a hill, braids flapping in the wind.
The town of Walnut Grove is also where, in real life, Laura met that sassy blonde Nellie Oleson. It's where Laura tricked Nellie into taking a swim in leech-infested waters, and where Nellie and Willie crammed their mouths full of candy at their dad's mercantile. While there's not much in the books about the rest of the Oleson clan, there's enough in there about Nellie to know that Laura hated her. Michael Landon's gift to us all was immortalizing Laura's archrival by casting Alison Arngrim as the banana-curl mama herself. There's even a Web site dedicated solely to Nellie called "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" (www.hgd.com/alison/), complete with a fabulous photo collection, "the many faces of Nellie," that shows the bow-head smirking, sneering, pouting, and gloating.
After we set up camp (of course we were sleeping in a tent -- after all, WWLD?), we headed over to the LIW museum/gift store, which boasts photos, letters, and a quilt made by Laura and her daughter, Rose. But the museum's real attractions were all the LHOP regalia you could buy. Pencils, buttons, thimbles, checkbook covers, and, of course, the famous books. For my sister and me, the souvenir selection was a no-brainer. We bought bonnets. Mine was a lovely red and yellow calico number, while my sister opted for a green and blue pattern. And yes, we wore them shamelessly around Walnut Grove. I guess it's like when people visit Texas, buy cowboy hats, and wear them everywhere they go. We even photographed our bonneted selves perched on covered wagons strategically parked around town.
Bonnets on head, we headed over to the big event, the Pioneer Festival. If there was an influx of tourists, the only ones who knew were residents of Walnut Grove. To an outsider, the festival was lively, but it was no Willie's picnic, as I had pictured in my head. Held on the banks of Plum Creek, the event drew a tiny crowd, maybe 100 people or so, none of whom looked like they had driven 24 hours straight to get there. We sipped some lemonade, ate sourdough bread with plum jelly, and drank water from Plum Creek, which we hoped would give us super-Laura-powers. That night, like they do every weekend night in July, the people of Walnut Grove put on the greatest show on earth. Well, not really. It's called "Fragments of a Dream," and the brochure says it is one of the "top 25 Minnesota events." The outdoor play tells of Laura's life in Walnut Grove. There's a real covered wagon, pulled by real horses, a mock barn-raising, and a very suspenseful prairie fire that gets put out before anyone gets hurt. It's nice, but it's about what you would expect from one of Minnesota's top 25 events. Nonetheless, enthusiastic families dotted the hillside, sprawled out on picnic blankets. And, I was proud to notice, we weren't the only ones wearing bonnets. OK, most of the other bonnet beauties were under the age of 12, but we didn't care. We were, however, the only ones with a dog, who we had hoped we could get into the show, too. The lady at the ticket counter, Midwestern kindness and all, sweetly asked my sister: "Is that your Seeing Eye dog, honey?" I turned to look at my sister, who is not blind, and she did indeed look as if she might be challenged in some way. Her shaved head and funky dark sunglasses weren't exactly the norm in those parts. And that bonnet hanging from her neck only added more to the sense that maybe she wasn't quite right.
In real life, unlike on the TV show, the family did not live in Walnut Grove until after Laura married, and some other family moved into the Little House (How dare they?). During their five-year stay in Walnut Grove, the family actually moved to Iowa and worked at a hotel for a year when times got tough. On the TV show, that's the "evil city" era, where pretty much everyone from Walnut Grove moved so all the fathers could work. That's where the Ingalls family acquired Albert, a made-up character. Please. The real Laura would never have had a brother who got addicted to morphine he stole from Doc Baker's office.
Laura met her manly man in DeSmet, S.D., about 100 miles west of Walnut Grove. (The family moved there when Laura was 12.) There she met and later married Almanzo, who was 10 years older but only about four inches taller. Laura was 4-foot-11, so forget the dream of a tall, foxy Dean Butler. Laura was the only one of her sisters to have children, and her daughter, Rose, a famous journalist in San Francisco, had one infant son who died, so the direct line ended with her. In the interests of setting the record straight, Laura and Almanzo never, ever took in some Shannen Doherty-type orphan niece, as they did in the TV series' final season, when 10-year-old Jenny Wilder, played by the cockeyed Shannen herself, moved in.
The morning after the pageant, my sister and I drove to the outskirts of DeSmet, where the Ingalls first homesteaded after moving from Walnut Grove. There is no authentic physical structure remaining, but instead, a collection of lame reproductions. (The place was for sale when we visited; it now appears to have been improved somewhat.) The sign said it all: "Fun Park for the family," featuring "snacks" and "small animals." Inside the dilapidated buildings, a pathetic collection of cast-off mannequins stood dressed in pioneer clothes, doing pioneer things like sitting, standing, and pointing with their one good finger. The saving grace of authenticity was the five cottonwood trees that Pa planted for shade. They're still there.
Under the shade of those cottonwoods we met a frazzled-looking couple traveling with their teenage son. Theirs was the only other car parked alongside the trees, and it had a Texas license plate. We decided to say hi. As we approached, I noticed the mother straining to see past her long, stringy black hair and Coke-bottle glasses to focus on the horizon. She was trying to figure where the "big slough" was, something that Laura talks about in her book, The Long Winter. A bonnet hanging loosely from her neck, the woman was trying to determine where the slough sat based on how the sun was setting behind the cottonwoods. They were from Ft. Worth, she said, and traveling to see all the Little House sites.
Just like my sister and I. I fingered my bonnet ties nervously as my mind began to wander. I fast-forwarded 20 years and saw myself back-dropped by a weary husband and geeky teenager exchanging prairie talk with a couple of strangers. Fright set in, and unconsciously I began to free my hair from the two braids I had made that morning. Is this how it all begins? Will I find myself years down the road typing away in a LHOP chat room about the episode when Laura puts apples in her dress or the one when a dieting Harriet Oleson sits on the plate of bacon and eggs? Will I be unable to hold back the tears when I think about the double episode when Laura went to the mountain to talk to God after her brother died? Will I insist on my own kids calling me Ma?
Then, I snapped out of it. It couldn't happen to us. My sister and I were too cool for that. Hell, we didn't even know what a "slough" was. Yeah, we loved Laura, but we weren't freaks about it or anything. And the bonnet thing -- we were just kidding about that. I watched the kid for a little while and began to feel sorry for him. He could never tell his friends back home what he did that summer. It would be way too humiliating. We said our farewells, and I walked away, thinking what that kid needed most in the middle of this endless prairie was a six-pack. I think even Laura would drink to that.