Saturday, April 10, 2010

Laura and the Little Houses

Here's me on the front porch of Charles and Caroline Ingalls' home in De Smet, South Dakota. I joined Toastmaster's earlier this year, and gave my first speech two days ago. It was my ice breaker/get to know you speech. I decided to speak on my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder. It went over very well. I knew at the beginning I started talking to fast, but I slowed down. I was complimented for my use of effective hand gestures. HA! A few of my friends have commented that I use my hands to much when I talk, especially while I'm driving so I was quite pleased with that. I thought I'd copy the draft of my speech into a blog post, because to understand this, is to understand a big part of me.
Thank you Madam Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmasters, and Honored Guests.
Close your eyes and picture with me your second grade classroom. It’s the end of May. The teacher has dimmed the lights to show a filmstrip! Open your eyes. This may not sound like the start of a life changing event, but it was. The filmstrip was about the Little House book series and its’ author Laura Ingalls Wilder. The library was already closed for the summer, but I promised myself that I would check the books out in the fall. I began with Little House in the Big Woods and quickly moved through series. My classmates knew that the last person to check out any book in the series would be me. Except the Liberty Elementary library did not have a copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek. I may have mentioned this travesty to my parents once or several dozen times. That year St. Nicholas brought me a copy in my stocking. I’m not sure what we learned in school that day. I learned the horrors of a grasshopper plague while reading the entire 400 page book in one day.
In 1987, my parents bought our first minivan and said we were going to Yellowstone. I knew enough of the US map to know that South Dakota is on the way to Wyoming. I was successful as you can tell from the picture of me standing on the front porch of Ma and Pa Ingalls’ house in De Smet, South Dakota. The next year as we came back from the Grand Canyon, I suggested (or insisted) that we stop by Mansfield, Missouri. Laura and Almanzo moved there in 1894, and stayed for the rest of their lives. By 2005, I had managed to visit all the marked “Little House” sites. These are all in small towns. Some might have disappeared, if not for the cash the tourists bring each year. Before you feel too sorry for my parents, I should add that my father is a history buff. He may have rolled his eyes when I announced a visit was part of the year’s vacation. Once there, he appeared to greatly enjoy the sites and discussing the relationship between the books and US history with me afterwards. In fact, the odds today of a discussion are still quite good during a long car trip. While at these home sites, I found many biographies. Yes, it is quite a collection that continues to grow.
Several years ago, I found the Frontier Girl message board. To quote Anne Shirley, I had found my kindred spirits! People who spend time debating whether “The First Four Years” was written between the Pioneer Girl manuscript and the book series or if it was written after the book series, as the timeline suggests. Or how close daughter Rose’s short story, “Innocence” mirrors the year the Wilders’ spent in Florida. (Consensus being that the family didn’t enjoy their time in Florida but Cousin Peter’s wife most likely didn’t try to kill Rose.) I developed many friendships that didn’t stay just on the message board. This fall, Zoie and I traded daily messages with Jamie, Laura from Michigan’s daughter when Laura was hospitalized with pneumonia.
You may not be aware of it, but most textbooks for the blind are printed in Louisville. In January, the company held a birthday party for Mary Ingalls to celebrate the opening of an exhibit on her life. They noted she was one of the most well-known blind people. Unfortunately, many people think she was married and lost a child in a fire. Events completely created for the tv show. Several days before, I called to RSVP. I was told that both parties were full, but I could be added to the waiting list. I consulted Zoie, one of the presenters. We agreed - if I drove down in the snow, I would not be turned away. It was a fascinating event. Afterwards Zoie and I were chatting. The coordinator told us about the 500 person waiting list. I couldn’t believe how many shared what my friends and family consider to be my very odd hobby. This may explain why this summer the Laura Ingalls Wilder Research Association is holding its’ first conference in Mankato, Minnesota. I can’t wait. It will be a time of meeting friends for the first time; talking with authors that I wait for the release of each of their books; watching the premier of a documentary created by Dean Butler, Almanzo in the tv series. It promises to be the highlight of my summer.
I thank you for the chance to share with you how one small event in elementary school continues to affect my daily life.

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