Looking at Laura


I’ve always had a rocky relationship with Laura Ingalls.I’ve been reading the book “Libertarians on the Prairie” by Christine Woodside.  I have also recently read “Prairie Girl,” which is a collection of Laura’s unvarnished recollections of her life

I’ve been reading the book “Libertarians on the Prairie” by Christine Woodside.  I have also recently read “Prairie Girl,” which is a collection of Laura’s unvarnished recollections of her life

Growing up, I was always sitting in front of the television, watching this perfect American invention of what a girl should be, and our house was home to the entire series of books.  She was spunky, just the right amount to be mischievous and pull cute kid stuff, but never aspired to descend into any real rebellion.  Laura never brought home a science book with Darwin’s theory in it, asking difficult questions. Indeed, she was living in an age when they were first putting age restrictions on teachers, and a teaching certificate was only for rudimentary math and literacy.   Laura never listened to metal or punk or hard rock or gansta rap.  Laura never had a Barbie doll with a disco outfit.  Laura never tried to copy Soul Train dancers in her living room.  Laura never begged for a mini skirt (the tiered one with ribbon trim in different colors on each tier) or branded sneakers or cereal that had the cartoon of the day on the front.

I was overdosed with Laura and, when possible, the Walton clan, and reruns were endlessly on play whenever they were available.  My mother bought into and remained stuck in, that era of 70’s polyester pioneers and country simplicity bordering on bumpkinism.

Laura was guided only by elders in her actual presence.  Laura on tv had hair that hung in perfect braids (which my mother may still not realize was a wig.) Book Laura was impressed easily by what modern international trade made into everyday objects.  Laura didn’t have the benefit of chewable vitamins and would never live to see Geraldine Ferraro as a possible vice president, or 80’s era feminism.  Laura didn’t have Commodore and Apple computers at her school.

Laura was the one of the most wholesome of the wholesome professions for women—a teacher.  Later, a journalist, but in the books, always a teacher, and then a mom and wife. I found out when I was dating a Muslim man several years ago that Little House on the Prairie was well liked in his country and passed the censors because it was so completely safe.

It became apparent as I grew older, that my mother was desperate to be the wise and admired mother:  The Caroline (or on The Waltons, The Olivia).   Full of uncanny good judgment on TV, full of ridiculous teenage faux-mature behavior in the books. The reason my mother had children was to have someone to be wiser than.

I was born in 1976.  The tumultuous times of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and Boy George were time for a different kind of wisdom.

In my mother’s eyes, Laura was a perfect poppet of just the right level of mischief.

But she was also poverty porn.

My mother idealized even the difficulties of prairie life. If there had been a way for her to make me stay home and do a bunch of farm work to show me how tough life was, she probably would have.  She frequently made me (not my brother, mind) work on my uncle’s farm, but would not allow me a summer job of my own outside of the family.   Laura was an example, an example to be happy and impressed that I even had shoes from a real store.  That I was supposed to be proud of homemade clothes over store-bought, and that’s how it used to be so I should shut up.

Encroaching on this mentality was always the problem of geography.  I am from the area surrounding Augusta, Georgia.  The old antebellum South.  There was no prairie for me. No deep snows.  This was a place planted by Oglethorpe, and sexualized through the shaking and quaking of James Brown.  I would see GI’s outside the Fort Gordon area drinking copious amounts of beer in the Pizza Hut on Dean’s Bridge Road, and hear them telling loud and dirty jokes.  I would go to Chinese restaurants older than I was. This wasn’t the prairie.  The closest thing in town was the Augusta National Golf Course, complete with the held breath of class consciousness it brings.

When I was quite young, still in elementary school, we had a town centennial beauty pageant.  My mother made my dress.  It was brown calico, unflattering for my coloring, and had an off-white apron and a bonnet.

I lost.  The little girl that won had something much fancier, much more likely for the area where we lived and the time frame in question.   The older girls that won wore prom dresses that were popular at the time that sort of had a faux-antebellum vibe.

Sometimes I think about the Laura’s that I did know.  Wholesomely wholesome unquestioning individuals, absorbing parental lessons rather than looking up another source of information, who became teachers and then stay-at-home moms. Always Protestant Republicans who majored in Early Childhood Education.

But, I don’t hate Laura.

I find her sitting there in the corner of the house of the mind, a dusty book once again picked up.

Laura and Rose cranked out good stories.  American literature that falls into the right rhythm in all the right places, and you feel the wagon creaking across an empty prairie again.  It’s good writing.  I still recognize the craftsmanship of the work itself.

I wish I could go back in time and tell that skeptical little girl that her suspicions are true.  And that yes, Dorothy and Alice are so much cooler.