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Summer Reading: Laura Ingalls Wilder

My summer reading campaign is in full swing, and I had forgotten how wonderful it was to be inundated with books that aren't necessarily about media. [But of course, to a media scholar and storyteller, everything is about one or both.]

[The Ingalls (from left: Ma, Carrie, Laura, Pa, Grace, Mary)]

I began with the seven book series of autobiographical adventures in pioneering America by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

[The little house in the big woods]

From the moment Little House in the Big Woods begins, we are transported to a time where life was simple, work was labor intensive, and wise old sayings actually have the ring of truth and insight. It's easy to romanticize, but there is nothing blurry edged and sepia toned about her life or the events that occur as her family moves from Wisconsin to Indian Territory to Minnesota to Dakota Territory, chasing the horizon and a life of self-sustaining freedom.

[The log cabin in Indian Territory]

More a vivid documenting of events than a memoir, the weaving and reweaving of stories into the ongoing narrative is an effective device as much as it is an invitation for the reader to become part of the family and its mythologized past. In the same way that the events in our own families become the stuff of legend, so do the almost unbelievable events of the Ingalls' dance with nature and civilization. There is the time in the Big Woods when Grandma Ingalls makes maple candy in the snow. And the time in Indian Territory when a black doctor saves them all from malaria. The Christmas that Pa spends three days buried by a blizzard less than a hundred yards from the house on Plum Creek. The prairie fires, the Indian war counsel, the starvation, the debt, the harvests, and all the large and small things that each family member does to care for each other.

[The homestead on the shores of Silver Lake]

On the back cover of this volume of the series are comments from a number of literary critics from the fifties, and it is clear that they find the moral certainty and family-focused tone of the books instructive. Harking back to a time when people had values, they glorify the rigidity and repetitiveness of a concerted effort to survive. And it is, of course, amazing.

[De Smet, Dakota Territory]

What I've so loved about these books since they were first read to me as a kid is not only the lifestyle that seems so divorced from our day to day experience, but that Laura seems so unhampered by the restrictions of gender, age, morality, technology, and social expectations. She's no wild child, but she is introspective, honest, and determined in a way that seems as modern, independent and individualistic now as any other contemporary figure. This at a time when women couldn't even vote.

These books have set me on a quest: The world as seen and recorded by women.

Onto the next!

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