Something special is happening tonight. I consider it a Christmas gift, a present that I must be patient for and unwrap a few days after the holiday proper. I’m celebrating the 85th anniversary of the publication of the novel Little House on the Prairie and watching the premiere of American Masters: Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I grew up with Laura. Not literally, of course. That would make me quite old indeed, and also make me a weathered human being since it would mean I lived through what Laura lived through. American Masters: Laura Ingalls Wilder will show us all just what that experience would have entailed by diving wholeheartedly into the famous pioneer girl’s true story. The influence and ubiquity of Wilder’s work, though she only began writing the series when she was 65 years old, cannot be overstated.
GROWING UP “ON THE PRAIRIE”
My own personal “little house” was full of evidence in favor of this claim. I remember evenings when my mother would tuck my siblings and I into bed before settling herself on the floor in the hallway between the boys and girls’ rooms to read aloud to us. We began with Little House in the Big Woods, book one in the series, and worked our way through the past. I was raised in the midwest and later moved; Laura also moved from her home in Wisconsin, though her journey was far greater and more arduous than my own.
Listening to her words, I traveled by covered wagon with the family across plains and through inclement weather. I endured the leeches at Plum Creek (thank God that one isn’t literal!) I mourned the loss of faithful dog Jack and eldest sister Mary’s eyesight after she battled scarlet fever. I suffered through The Long Winter (feel free to take this one take literally, since midwest winters are certainly overlong.) I smiled as Laura Ingalls fell in love with and married her beloved Almonzo, becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. Eventually the series ended, Mom stopped reading aloud to us, and I learned to reread the books I loved on my own.
I created a game with my little sister in which we played Little House, pantomiming the tasks that Laura mentions in her books. We churned butter, washed and mended, and had to be very, very quiet on Sundays. When I got to college, my friends and I often discussed the different ways we cherished those books, the ways in which they seeped into our imaginations and colored our understanding of our current lives, comparatively privileged and luxurious.
Now a young adult, I proudly admit that just a few days ago I revisited that corner of my imagination when I opened up A Little House Christmas: Holiday Stories From the Little House Books and marveled in wonder at the simple gifts Laura and her sisters received with such joy. I closed the book with a greater appreciation for the gifts I currently have and ones I shall inevitably receive.
A NEW LOOK AT WILDER THROUGH THE LENS OF FAMILY MEMORABILIA
This is the intangible yet universal power of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing. She expertly and vividly depicted her reality, in all its harshness and happier moments, and made it reality for countless children and adults through uniquely timeless books. Now I’ll be able to see more of the details and nuance behind the prose thanks to this documentary, since it contains never-before-published letters, photographs and family artifacts as well as other original and unforeseen content.
This is a new, mature look at Laura, a perfect progression as I continue to grow with her. I’m sure the expert production will bring a few things to light that I wouldn’t have expected, but isn’t that part of growing up? As one gets older, one realizes the value of taking the good with the bad and coming away a stronger person, emotionally and intellectually. Laura is one of the women who taught me that lesson.
American Masters: Laura Ingalls Wilder premieres nationwide tonight (Tuesday, December 29) on PBS, pbs.org/americanmasters and the PBS Video app. Check your local listings for the exact time; I hope you’ll join me for what is sure to be a moving and memorable evening.