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Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder

We were all glad to hear from the Punxsutawney groundhog last week that spring would come soon. It's been a long winter, and colleagues around the office have been trading survival tips around the proverbial water cooler for how to cope when the power goes out. And that's when Laura's name came up....

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Laura Ingalls Wilder's books that never grow old.


We were all glad to hear from the Punxsutawney groundhog last week that spring would come soon. It's been a long winter, and colleagues around the office have been trading survival tips around the proverbial water cooler for how to cope when the power goes out. And that's when Laura's name came up.

Little Laura was Laura Ingalls Wilder, born 144 years ago today. She was the pioneer girl who wore her hair in braids and went West with her family and lived through one of the worst winters on record in 1880 and 1881 in DeSmet, South Dakota, and later wrote about it in her popular children's book " The Long Winter." Born near the town of Pepin, Wisconsin, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls, Laura was the second child of five; her siblings were Mary, Caroline, Charles (who died as an infant) and Grace. The family's adventures during moves from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota to Iowa and finally to the Dakota territory became tales that have delighted generations of school children. Wilder's eight books in the Little House series, published between 1932 and 1943, made her a pioneer in the field of children's literature and formed the basis of a publishing empire, with several additional books published posthumously. The award-winning books, which have remained continuously in print, spawned not only the popular television series, which ran from 1974 to 1982 with Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as Pa, but also a host of spin-off products from cookbooks to calendars.

So when the power went out in the most recent storm, I began to pine for Laura's Pa and Ma. Shivering in the cold trying to figure out if I could light the gas stove for heat and fumbling around for batteries and flashlights, I recalled the scenes in which Ma had to go out to the barn during the terrible blizzard, guided in the blinding snow by only a rope that Pa had tied between the buildings. Pa, meanwhile, was off wandering his way through the blizzard, trying to bring home supplies from the far-away town. What would we do, I wondered, to get through these cold hours, urban cowards that we are? I wished I could call on Ma and Pa Ingalls for tips.

The plucky spirit of little Laura was in my veins as I thought about tapping the trees for maple syrup, then boiling molasses and sugar, and pouring it over the snow. Laura and Mary made "circles and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy."

Ma's culinary talents ranged from salt-rising bread to Swedish crackers and baked beans with salt and pork and molasses. She made vinegar pies and dried apple pies and cookies one year for Christmas when they lived in the big woods of Wisconsin. In the fall, Pa would dig up the dusty potatoes from the ground and "pulling the long yellow carrots and the round, purpled-topped turnips, and they helped Ma cook the pumpkin for pumpkin pies." And later for dinner, it was stewed pumpkin and a piece of bread, a delicacy that no fine restaurant would touch, but the reader of Laura's descriptions is just wishing she could have a taste.

With no lights and no built-in double ovens, somehow the Ingalls family brought food to the table, and eating it, or anticipating eating it, became one recurring theme of these wonderful books. Here's young Almanzo, the boy Laura would eventually marry, in "Farmer Boy": "He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips. He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore."

And readers never tired of the joy of having something tasty to eat when having little or nothing to eat was more often the case. A surprise dessert one evening the family shared comes from the book "By the Shores of Silver Lake." Ma stepped into the pantry and came out with a little jar of peaches. "We'll have a treat," she said. Slowly, slowly they ate he smooth, cool peaches and the sweet golden juice and carefully licked their spoons."

I can't eat an orange without remembering the delight that Laura and Mary found when they tasted their first one. Laura didn't know what to do with it and watched everyone as they peeled and ate it in sections. I think that single moment endeared that little girl to me forever.

We did have oranges in the fridge that night the power went out and a jar of peaches in the cupboard. I could have lit the stove to boil molasses and sugar to pour over the snow. But we turned on our transistor radio, circa 1970, and found that the power was humming at a local restaurant, so we went out to eat that night. But I found "Little House in the Big Woods" in my library and took it with me to read by candlelight at the table.
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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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