shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass

7.20.2004

wild roses and safe houses

It all started with my regular Hank Stuever watch. (His new collection of pieces OFF RAMP is out and was an Editor's Choice in last week's Entertainment Weekly.) His latest is a piece for the WP on the Laura Ingalls Wilder phenomenon in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Wilder and family spent several of her formative years and where many of her most popular books are set.

Walnut Grove isn't a hotbed for much, but it is a mecca for those longing for a simpler time, or with TV memories. Witness:

"There are the book people and the TV people," says Nicole Elzenga, the collections manager at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in downtown Walnut Grove, which has a replica sod house, a one-room school and other exhibits that include a quilt Wilder made late in her life, the fireplace mantel used on the set of NBC's "Little House on the Prairie," and -- uff da! -- an 8-by-10 autographed glossy of actress Alison Angrim (who played the nefarious Nellie) wearing a bikini, circa 1982.

"Sometimes the book people don't get along with the TV people, and they'll argue." Elzenga says. "They take it very seriously. People come from everywhere -- France, Germany, Japan. One family from France showed up and stayed for days. They spent the night in a sod house."


Can't you just imagine the Wilder afficionado catfights? Or the mothers doing their best Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mother impressions over the annual Laura Ingalls/Nellie Oleson look-alike contest?

Stuever continues, casting a sharp-eyed gaze on her fans:

To have loved "Little House on the Prairie" in the '70s was to have a Holly Hobbie lunchbox and to have your mother turn to the back of the Country Squire station wagon and tell you to get your nose out of that book and look, wouldja, at the Grand Canyon. To have loved "Little House" was to wear a prairie-style calico-print dress to your big sister's bat mitzvah or as the flower girl in your aunt's wedding. It meant you had to routinely fight your little brother for control of the television on Wednesday nights (and then, with the 1976-77 season, to yearn for it on Monday nights, which ran up against your Pa's devotion to "Monday Night Football"). It was about ordering enough preteen angst paperback novels through the Scholastic Scope book club so you could get the free poster of dreamy Dean "Almanzo Wilder" Butler, wearing suspenders, his brawny arms crossed, leaning against a fence.

A confession: I read the books. I had all of them, in little worn brownish editions that had been my mothers', or even possibly my grandmothers' (she was a schoolteacher), originally. They had cloth coverings that left threads loose and hanging from the sides, faded pictures of cabins on the front. The confession revised: I don't remember how much I liked them (I think I'd remember if I hated or loved them). In fact, I remember very little of them at all.

However, Stuever's comments made me remember a certain photograph. I'm wearing a brownish calico dress with puffy sleeves and a matching bonnet, a dress I remember very well, that was sewed for me by a lady who lived up the hill from us (still lives up the hill from my parents; she never, ever got my name right, instead preferring terrible variations). The photo is a family picture of my mom, dad, brother and my maternal grandparents following church (thus, all dressed up). Later I overdid things trying to make the sides of the picture look nostalgically old-fashioned by burning them. My grandmother still has the flame-licked, half-burnt picture on her wall.

But enough about me, let's go back to one last graph of the Stuever article, which doesn't quite fit in with this post, but's worth singling out.

If you love quilts, if you love Scandinavian lefse bread and bratwurst, if you love bonnets and Laura Ingalls Wilder, if you love a band of middle-age Elvisesque guys playing incongruous '60s pop songs, then you have found your place in a perfect America. Walnut Grove may be for the bonnetheads, but anywhere at any time, someone else is also engaged in a game of dress-up: drag queens, Civil War reenactors, Klingons in the convention center. Everybody has something, and it cannot ever be let go. Drive far enough and you'll find yours.

I'm still driving. (I think, she said, checking to see if the Wonder-roos are at home today.)

A rumor-mongering anecdote. An acquaintance who lived very near the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway once told me that the "Little House in the Big Woods," which is located in Pepin, Wisconsin, was the site of weekend orgies. She said that no one could ever prove whether the staff were throwing wild Saturday night parties there or people were gingerly breaking in, but that her friend who worked there would tell stories of panties on the wooden floor come Monday morning and the horrified rush to tidy everything up. I have no idea if this was true (it doesn't sound true, and the source was less than convincing), but I like to pass it along nonetheless.

Digging around looking for things about Laura, I got sucked into items about her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who is damn interesting and was also a journalist and writer. (And who everyone probably knows about in the world except me, but hey, there's always a chance, right?)

From a brief bio on the website linked above:

Rose then moved to Greenwich Village, New York, and became a ghost writer for Frederick O'Brien's White Shadows on the South Seas. She also wrote The Making of Herbert Hoover under her own name.

After World War I, Rose became a reporter for the American Red Cross, and was assigned to write about the conditions in war-torn countries. During this time, Rose met two women who would become her closest friends, Dorothy Thompson and Helen "Troub" Boylston, who wrote the "Sue Barton" nurse series for girls.

Rose's job took her throughout Europe, but of all the countries she visited, Albania quickly became her favorite. She wrote The Peaks of Shala about Albanian life, and informally adopted Albanian boy Rexh Meta after he saved her life. Many years later, she provided money for Rexh to come to America and get a college education.


There's plenty of little details left out of that one, an example of which I found at the Cato Institute's tribute page to her.

She repeatedly visited Albania, where she witnessed a revolution and refused a proposal of marriage from Ahmet Zogu, the future King Zog I.

I would so marry a king named Zog. The Cato page has a ton of interesting facts, including this one, that touches on speculation that she did more of the authoring (or as much) to the emblamatic Little House books than her mother did:

It is generally agreed that she edited her mother's notes and diaries at length, and in his controversial biography of Lane, Ghost in the Little House, William V. Holtz argues that Lane's revisions were so extensive that she ought to be considered not merely editor but co-author of the Little House series.

It's certainly not argued that she was the one who encouraged her mother to write the books in the first place. And she just sounds amazing -- she worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam for Woman's Day when she was 78 years old. (Though also has troubling ideological links to Ayn Rand. John Chamberlain made some comments that have associated the two of them and Isabel Patterson as the three women who birthed modern libertarianism; see Freemen essay here for more about that.)

She also wrote a fictionalized biography of Jack London I'm really interested in getting hold of; London is one of those writers who doesn't get enough credit for being as interesting as he is. (Tangental Houdini connection: Charmian London and Houdini had an affair two years after Jack London died, supposedly his only infidelity to Bess. Her diary had coded info about it.) London practically fictionalized his own biography in his essays and memoir, so it'd be fascinating to see what someone else made of his life -- especially someone with a strong political view of their own.

Anyway, odds and ends to wrap up an exceedingly long and possibly dull to everyone else in the world but me post...

From THE LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS (from the WP piece):

She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself: 'This is now.'

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because this is now. It can never be a long time ago.


Three quotes from Rose:

"Writing fiction is an endless and always defeated effort to capture some quality of life without killing it."

"Nothing whatever but the constitutional law, the political
structure, of these United States protects any American from
arbitrary seizure of his property and his person, from the
Gestapo and the Storm Troops, from the concentration camp, the
torture chamber, the revolver at the back of his neck in a cellar."

"Happiness is something that comes into our lives through doors we don't even remember leaving open."

semi-random photo links:

Little House on the Prairie Halloween Costume in box
Letter to a fan from Laura Ingalls Wilder
Ingalls cemetery photos
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Thanks for indulging a little momentary obsession.

4 Comments:

  • At 2:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    You know, I loved the books when I was a kid. I remember I read all of them in a week while laid up with the chicken pox. But even then I wasn't silly enough to think I wanted to live the way Laura did. No air conditioning??? Perish the thought! :)

     
  • At 2:44 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    I know -- I could think of lots better places to live where air conditioning ain't standard, and I already choose not to live in those places.

     
  • At 7:04 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Good stuff. I barely remember the Little House series, though I'm sure I read all or most of them as a kid. There's something about them, a certain sense of open space that's appealing, and freedom in the idea that you could just pack up and move to an empty spot and build a house and live off the land. It's like the fantasy of living in what amounts to a really sturdy treehouse, minus the tree.

    For some reason I own a book of essays by Wilder, _Little House on the Ozarks_ I think it's called, and I've read a bit of it. So far it hasn't knocked me out, but it's always interesting to get the perspective of a smart woman who lived in a different time and place, expressing what she thought about it all.

    Karen

     
  • At 11:21 AM , Blogger Celia said...

    The first book I ever read cover to cover was Little House on the Prairie. I read them all several times over the years, but I never saw, or wanted to see, the tv show or anything like that. I think I loved them for much the same reason I love SF--it's a world I'll never be able to see face to face, but is no less real because of that. (okay, technically it would be more real than SF, but I still can't get there, which limits its realness in my mind.)

     

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