Growing up as a girl in the Midwest, it can be hard to escape the appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s series Little House on the Prairie. While the East Coast has the original colonies and the West Coast has the wild west, pioneer farmers constitute the bread and butter of the central United States’s romantic past. Nestled in a quiet, wooded Illinois suburb, Wilder’s series struck a cord with my younger self. Had my parents known then how my pioneer obsession would blossom, they might have steered me toward contemporary titles like Captain Underpants.
What I think I enjoyed most about Wilder’s books was how they allowed me to imagine what the Midwest used to be like before life became so cozy and safe. Whether they were “sugaring off” to make maple syrup, fighting locust swarms, or maturing to cope with Mary’s blindness, the Wilder girls were never short on adventures. The space across time combined with the geographical nearness of Wilder’s stories jogged something deep in my imagination.
The first stages of my “pioneer phase” were innocent enough: rereading Wilder’s books repeatedly while branching out to other series like American Girl and Dear America, playacting in the woods with my friends and sister, and pioneer-themed birthday parties.
Soon, however, I graduated to commandeering family vacations to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Pepin, Wisconsin and the Kirsten American Girl house in a traditional Swedish Minnesota community. My parents, however, drew the line when I tried to sign up for “Frontier House,” the PBS reality TV show where families live and compete to survive in genuine pioneer conditions. In exchange, my handy dad built my sister and I our own Little House on the Prairie–which still stands to this day.
Joyful days spent reading and playing in the little cabin sparked a dual interest in books and history which has been with me ever since.