I LOVE a book that starts out like this: "A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin." And next to that inviting, wonderful first sentence you see a picture of Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie's covered wagon driving slantwise across the page, heading for a big, wide horizon. It is the beginning of "Little House on the Prairie," by Laura Ingalls Wilder. That picture and the pictures in all Mrs. Wilder's books are by Garth Williams.
Mary and Laura are snug in the back of the wagon, looking out at their trusty dog, Jack, who walks along behind. So you know, even though they're going to Indian Territory and it will be an adventure, it will be cozy, too. Their ma and pa, who are pioneers, aren't quite sure where they are going. Shoes, new clothes, and toys are hard to come by. But Ma and Pa do everything to keep the girls safe, well-fed, and warm, no matter what.
My mother used to give me "Little House" books for Christmas. The way I remember it, it was always very cold outside, and inside, my little sisters and brother were very noisy. All of a sudden, that didn't matter. I would get in a chair, pull my legs up under me, and hold up the new book with its soft pencil drawings between me and the messy Christmas house. There I would be with Mary and Laura for friends, the wide horizon for adventure, and Ma and Pa's care for comfort.
I felt snug and brave at the same time, and I'd go pioneering and leave my family behind. Mary and Laura's family had adventures; we didn't. We didn't have to beat back a prairie fire with wet gunnysacks, or chase rampaging cattle away from the haystack, or hope our father would make it home in a Dakota blizzard. We got loads of toys every year, while Mary and Laura were happy to get a few pieces of Christmas candy. They were even happier when their father, trapped in that blizzard, ate their Christmas c andy and survived. Our dog never bristled at wolf howls at night in a log cabin. She just chased squirrels out of the bird feeder.
Now there is a new book in the "Little House" series, by a new author, Roger Lea MacBride. It's called "Little House on Rocky Ridge." That's where Laura lived with her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose. The book tells how they got there, traveling by covered wagon from South Dakota to Missouri, and how they started a farm. Roger Lea MacBride knew Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. He is continuing their story.
Another writer, William Holtz, has written a book for adults, "The Ghost in the Little House," about Rose Wilder Lane's life. He says she was a "ghostwriter," someone who helps write a book but doesn't put her name on it. Mr. Holtz claims that Rose Wilder Lane helped her mother write the original "Little House" books - "Little House in the Big Woods," "Little House on the Prairie," and so on. Her mother wrote down what she remembered, and Rose took it and made it into a book, Holtz says. But not everyone
thinks Rose did as much as he claims.
Reading these new books made me want to reread some of the old "Little House" books. They are still the best. I have trouble putting them down and going to bed, even though this time I know Pa did get the floor put in the cabin before winter. But now when I read them, I wonder if Laura Ingalls Wilder worked on those books with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Then I remember stories my mother told me.
My mother's stories do not have wolves, Indians, or clouds of grasshoppers, but they are still the stories of a pioneer. They are not about starting a farm. They are about escaping from one. My mother grew up on a "gentleman's farm." That means that my grandfather was a businessman who worked in the city, even though he happened to live on a farm. But my grandmother wanted to be a farmer.
She raised chickens and sold the eggs. My mother had to go in the chicken house and reach under the chickens to get the eggs. They pecked her. My grandmother raised sheep, and my mother took care of two lambs. They liked her so much they would run up to her and sit on her lap whenever they saw her, even when they grew up. It's awkward having a full-grown sheep leaping into your lap, my mother told me. Two sheep could knock her right over.
My mother didn't want to be a gentleman farmer or any other kind of farmer. But she did grow up to be her own kind of adventurer. She got married and moved away from the farm. Instead of raising sheep, chickens, or cows, she tried raising children and being a painter at the same time. My father still liked the idea of farming because my mother's mother had taught him to shear a sheep, and he never forgot what fun it was. So their new house was right next to a farm; ducklings grew up in the bathroom, and
one of our baby sitters planted Brussels sprouts in my father's enormous garden.
My mother wasn't discouraged by this. She just kept painting, although she wasn't always sure how her paintings would turn out. She just tried hard anyway. She took art classes and drew and painted all she could in between taking care of us. Sometimes she went to art galleries to look at the work of other painters and to think about her own.
One day she came home from a day at the galleries and paid the baby sitter. Then we pointed out a brown-and-white cow that was standing on our lawn in the rain. The cow was from next door.
My mother put down her purse and her bag of postcards from the Museum of Modern Art. "Stay in the house, kids," she said, so we knew this was serious. Still wearing her high heels, dress, and raincoat, she went out and chased the cow back to the field. She looked just beautiful, all dressed up, running around in the wet green grass. The cow, who seemed as big as a bus to me, took one good look at my mother and trotted back to the hole in the fence where she'd come from. My mother looked excited. Maybe sh e thought she was getting cows out of her life for good.
I felt very cozy, sitting by the living-room window and watching, almost as cozy as Laura and Mary in the covered wagon. And if it took a mother and daughter to write the "Little House" books, well, I can see my mother and I have some adventure stories, too. We always had shoes on and never heard a wolf, but we did do some pioneering. Anyone who tries to do something new has to have courage and has to love a big, empty horizon, like the big, empty canvasses my mother was always stretching for paintings.
As any pioneer knows, you need a cozy hearth, or a book to read, while you're having your adventure. At the end of "Little House in the Big Woods," Laura's father plays "Auld Lang Syne" on his fiddle. He explains that the days of auld lang syne are the days of long ago.
Then, the book says, Laura "thought to herself, 'This is now.'
"She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."
But a long time ago can be now, in your imagination, whenever you read a book that is so generously written you can just move into it and live there for a while. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.