Little Girls On the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder's Spiritual Heirs Braid Together
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page D01
WALNUT GROVE, Minn.
When distracted by Mary-Kate's eating disorder and the 400 ring tones to choose in the candypop realm of 21st-century girlhood, it might help to tie on a bonnet and drive several hundred miles -- by RV, by SUV, or by Chevy Malibu with Nevada plates rented at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport -- to the quiet, hallowed banks of Plum Creek, where life is somehow better, simpler.
But also harder.
On some sisterly level, you can understand and almost crave the hard part, the intense details of 19th-century domesticity and earthy femininity -- the endless chores, the sudden prairie fires, the howling wolves, the pure maple syrup on corn cakes, the rag doll on Christmas morning, the tauntings of Nellie Oleson. Every summer, and especially during July, thousands of women and girls (accompanied by sympathetic husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers) journey to this far corner of the Midwest to find the Laura Ingalls Wilder within, to be near the many places she lived 130 years ago and wrote about in her popular "Little House" series of children's books.
The long stretch of U.S. 14 across Minnesota to Walnut Grove and on to De Smet, S.D., is named for Wilder, which is more honor than she ever received in the pantheon of American letters.
Along this road there are Wilder pageants, daylong festivals, reenactments and guided tours. You can help plow a field. You can ride in a covered wagon. It's banana curls and frilly bows. It's this deep yearning: Women tear up talking about it, while absent-mindedly stroking their daughters' hair, which they've done up in braids. People spray one another with Off! Skintastic Tropical Fresh bug spray bought at the closest Wal-Mart, 30 miles away, even as they lament that poor Laura never had any Off! Skintastic, or a Wal-Mart.
Poor Laura, the purists say. Poor, wonderful Laura.
"There are the book people and the TV people," says Nicole Elzenga, the collections manager at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in downtown Walnut Grove, which has a replica sod house, a one-room school and other exhibits that include a quilt Wilder made late in her life, the fireplace mantel used on the set of NBC's "Little House on the Prairie," and -- uff da! -- an 8-by-10 autographed glossy of actress Alison Angrim (who played the nefarious Nellie) wearing a bikini, circa 1982.
"Sometimes the book people don't get along with the TV people, and they'll argue." Elzenga says. "They take it very seriously. People come from everywhere -- France, Germany, Japan. One family from France showed up and stayed for days. They spent the night in a sod house."
"They're all searching for something," says Ron Kelsey, a Walnut Grove resident who plays shopkeeper Mr. Oleson three nights a week in the town's elaborate pageant, staged under the stars in an amphitheater built near Plum Creek. "They come here and there's something about the lifestyle that people are still seeking. . . . My country-school teacher read these books to us in the '40s. For a long time we never knew that it all happened right here, all around us."
There is this need to know Laura, honor Laura, live and breathe Laura. "A lot of women say, 'I would love to go back and live in those times,' " Elzenga says. "I think you wouldn't last a week. It was hard." Cell phones make her think of Laura. Driving to and from work makes her think of Laura. She donated a kidney three weeks ago to a co-worker at the museum, which was a very Laura-hearted "Little House" thing to do, in a post-post-post pioneer sense.
In Walnut Grove, hard equals good. Hard is strength. Hard is Ingalls. These days, a lot of farmers have left Walnut Grove (population, at last count, 599). They went broke or were bought out by big corporate growers. The only remaining restaurant is called Nellie's Cafe, and Wilder-related tourism is one of the few things keeping the town intact.
The only newcomers to Walnut Grove are Hmong refugees, displaced by the Vietnam War, while Americans watched Melissa Gilbert as Half-Pint scamper across television's make-believe prairie. The Hmong comprise about 25 percent of the town, and their children and grandchildren read Laura Ingalls Wilder as part of the required curriculum at Walnut Grove's small grade school.
"The [Ingalls] story works for them," Kelsey says of the Hmong. "I've heard that they come here thinking, 'Well, the pioneers came here and were able to start their lives over, so we'll check it out, too.' "
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Laura Rybka, 10, center, is thrilled to win the Laura Ingalls Wilder look-alike contest July 10 in Walnut Grove, Minn., where women and girls gather to find the Laura within.
(Val Hoeppner For The Washington Post)