When senior Leah Hickman was a little girl, she loved to look through her “Little House on the Prairie” picture books. As Hickman matured, her love for the the “Little House” books and their author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, grew from a childhood favorite to a nostalgic admiration — not only did Hickman take a class on Wilder with Visiting Professor Dedra Birzer, but she also spent last summer interning for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in DeMitt, South Dakota.
“Today, I love these books because they remind me of my own childhood,” Hickman said. “In a way, I grew up with Laura, and I hope to hang on to her pioneer determination and appreciation of the simple and beautiful things in life.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, at 7 p.m., “Little House” enthusiasts will celebrate both Wilder’s 150th birthday and the 85th anniversary of the publication of “Little House in the Big Woods” at a discussion and reception held by Public Service Librarian Brenna Wade in the Heritage Room of Mossey Library.
“Wilder’s work is a series of cherished children’s books, and most people have strong memories of reading them,” Wade said. “Everyone can participate in our discussion and we can learn from what other people have to offer.”
Celebration attendees can expect to discuss Wilder’s books from both historical and literary perspectives. During this discussion, as with each of her semesterly reading events, Wade encourages students to revisit classic, beloved books for the sole purpose of reading for pleasure.
Both Hickman and Wade said Wilder and her works deserve remembering for the beauty and simplicity they emanate.
“What’s most interesting about her books is how they are simple and quiet. They are good stories even though there is not necessarily a lot of plot, not a lot of action. Instead it was about the day to day life of the Ingalls family,” Wade said. “They are comforting stories of love and a family doing what it takes to survive, shown from a kid’s perspective — not harsh, but rosier.”
In her eight-book autobiographical series “Little House on the Prairie,” Wilder recounts the trials and triumphs of her family’s westward journey throughout the mid- to late- 19th century. Her memories flow in a simple but powerful narrative. Sophomore Emily Heubaum, who plans to attend Tuesday’s event, said she enjoyed the series “because she wrote from the perspective of a child for children.”
With a voice as gentle, innocent, and playful as a child recounting her day, Wilder tells story after story, and her readers encounter the themes of their own childhood in an older setting and far-off place. With Wilder, they recognize the delicious softness of grandmother’s house, the fresh joy of playtime, the first sting of jealousy among friends, the bliss and exasperation of sisterhood.
In “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first installment of the series, Wilder describes the last moments of the her family’s stable life in Wisconsin, including a joyous Christmas celebration complete with feasting, dancing, and homemade molasses candy. Two books later, in “Little House on the Prairie,” the family packs their few possessions in a covered wagon and begins their journey west.
“Laura’s life has always captured my imagination because of its simplicity. Even though it was simple, however, Laura had no trouble pointing out the little adventures that came in the everyday, mundane matters of life,” Hickman said. “Through her writing, these adventures continually come alive for me as a reader. I get to see the unsettled lands of the American West through her eyes, and I get to experience pioneer struggles and triumphs alongside her.”
Throughout her books, Wilder tells of pastimes long forgotten, like sewing doll clothes out of fabric scraps, crafting crowns of wildflowers picked from the prairie, and singing along as her father plays the fiddle by the fire. The series also depicts unimaginable challenges, including crossing raging rivers, suffering the destruction of crops by swarms of locusts, rationing food at the instruction of a friendly Native American elder in preparation for a incredibly long winter, and struggling to survive various deadly illnesses without the assistance of modern-day medicine.
From building a temporary homestead in the side of a hill in Minnesota (“On the Banks of Plum Creek”) to learning how to swim and fish on Silver Lake (“On the Shores of Silver Lake”), the series prompts young readers to imagine life before cars, corner stores, or computers. Wade said she believes the books to capture the essence of every child who dreams the pioneer life — Wilder’s anecdotes indulge children whose imaginations wander to the days of one-room school houses, lunch pails, penny candies, and horse-drawn carriages.
Though Wilder is most famous for “Little House on the Prairie,” she also wrote several other books commemorating her adult life, most of which were published posthumously. All of her books, however, speak to her superb character.
“My favorite things about Wilder are her extremely determined personality and her sense of humor,” Hickman said. “Even though Laura only grew to be 4 feet and 11 inches, not much scared that feisty gal, and she never gave up easily — especially when it came to helping her family. She also knew the importance of laughter. Her humorous perspective of life helps me remember that nothing — not even a tough life on the prairie — is too serious to lighten up by a joke or some dancing every now and then.”