“What is all this about? you ask in bewilderment. “Who would harbor such strong feelings of any kind toward Melissa Gilbert?”
There, there, Little Flutterbudgets. We’ll get to Melissa Gilbert and that controversy momentarily. But first… If you didn’t know this before, here me now. I, Sarah, am a gigantic fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I first read the books when I was eight or nine. It was hard not to notice these books in the school library; they were prominently displayed right up front on a card table. You practically had to crawl over the Laura Ingalls Wilder table to even enter the library. It would seem that the hopeful school librarian wanted us to read these books so badly that she couldn’t bear to put them on a regular shelf where they might get lost in the crowd. However, I hesitate to romanticize the intentions of the school librarian because she was a scary, Nurse Ratched type (you can read a little bit more about her here).
Come to think of it, the librarian was so terrifying that perhaps she wasn’t human at all. Perhaps she was the Grasshopper Plague from On the Banks of Plum Creek. That would explain why she was (a) such a malignant force and (b) so intent on the children reading these books – so that her locusty evils would be known and reviled by a new generation.
On the day that I would check out my first Laura book from the library, I had been moping around the library because all the Babysitters Club books were checked out. I noticed the ever-available Laura Ingalls Wilder books stacked up on their special table and I sighed and headed over there with the same kind of dejection I felt when I woke up too early on Saturday mornings and the only cartoon on was Rocky and Bullwinkle. An oh-jiminy-my-life-is-so-hard-I-hate-this-and-I-wish-I-was-dead feeling. I picked up Little House in the Big Woods and stared at the cover with little interest. There were all these weird people looking at a little girl with crazy hair who was cradling either a baby or a doll.
Call me Nellie Oleson, but that cover looked decidedly…homemade. It reminded me of the jams shorts with matching tank tops made of the same tropical-patterned material that my mom would sew for me. Or the “Cabbage Patch” dolls she craftily made from old socks. Homemade, indeed. Not only that, but the cover art for Little House in the Big Woods lacked the sort of realism I was accustomed to with Babysitters Club covers. Say, for example, Boy-Crazy Stacey, where hunky lifeguard Scott looks like a blonde Elvis.
As for Little House in the Big Woods, fortunately I ignored my gut instinct that was telling me these books were going to be lame and I checked it out. This makes me wonder, what the fuck is wrong with my gut instinct? You’d think it would sense that I was holding in my hands what would become one of the sacred texts of my youth, but instead it was like, “Eh, maybe there are some Mercer Mayer books you could check out instead?”
Never mind my misgivings in the library. As Laura’s Ma would say, “All’s well that ends well.” From the first chapter, I loved the world I found in Little House in the Big Woods and tore through the other books. Laura, the vibrant, outdoorsy girl who loved the open prairie and who knew hunger and hard times, would become one of my all-time Girl-Power heros. I would find that that the homespun look of the covers that had initially made me say, “pshaw, whatever,” was actually a warm, cozy fit for books that were about a cheerfully pragmatic pioneer family alone together on the plains. The artwork was done by Garth Williams and his illustrations were not merely peripheral to the writing; they were like lean-tos for the stories themselves. For me, these drawings served as another way in. I would get lost in those drawings, trying to imagine what being Laura would have been like.
And! These books hold their value when you re-read them as an adult. That’s not always the case with childhood treasures. Their sentimental value may increase as you get older, but their everyday practicality and appeal often decreases. That’s actually what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians – he put away childish things when he became a man because he found that he was no longer interested in playing with his Jesus Barbies. It happens. However, Paul would not have felt this way about Laura’s books. He would have found them relevant throughout his life, for these books have a way of maturing with their readers, if that makes sense. They are easy and engaging for young readers, but have a number of situations and themes that I personally didn’t really get until I read the books as an adult.
Now that I have talked and talked and talked about my devotion to the books, it’s time to get to the real point of the discussion: the infamous TV show. But not today. It’s nearly bed time. Man, I’m such a slow writer.
To be continued…