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.' "
Nostalgia, Centuries Apart
There are two contagious strains of nostalgia in the air at Walnut Grove.
One is about a longing for the 1870s: Laura Ingalls, age 7, moved to a 172-acre tract about three miles west of Walnut Grove in 1874 with her itinerant family (having fled desolate but cheerfully described failure in Indian Territory, and before that having left the deep forests of Wisconsin). The Ingalls -- Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, Carrie -- lived at first underground, in a dugout by Plum Creek, then built a real house with real boards, and Pa had a go at wheat farming.
That is, until the grasshoppers came.
Things got worse, and they moved away from Walnut Grove, twice.
But the longing is also about the 1970s: NBC's "Little House on the Prairie" debuted Sept. 11, 1974, and ran for nine seasons, leaving almost all of Wilder's historical narrative in the dust but getting it right in terms of Ingalls family values, manipulation of the heartstrings and lingering shots of Michael Landon's angelically white teeth.
The books, written by Wilder in the 1930s and '40s (she died in 1957 at age 90 in Missouri), sold millions more copies when the TV show became a hit and are still popular, printed in many languages.
To have loved "Little House on the Prairie" in the '70s was to have a Holly Hobbie lunchbox and to have your mother turn to the back of the Country Squire station wagon and tell you to get your nose out of that book and look, wouldja, at the Grand Canyon. To have loved "Little House" was to wear a prairie-style calico-print dress to your big sister's bat mitzvah or as the flower girl in your aunt's wedding. It meant you had to routinely fight your little brother for control of the television on Wednesday nights (and then, with the 1976-77 season, to yearn for it on Monday nights, which ran up against your Pa's devotion to "Monday Night Football"). It was about ordering enough preteen angst paperback novels through the Scholastic Scope book club so you could get the free poster of dreamy Dean "Almanzo Wilder" Butler, wearing suspenders, his brawny arms crossed, leaning against a fence.
It was about wanting to run barefoot through the meadow. Only there were no 1870s meadows in 1970s suburbia, just lawns.
'This Is Now'
She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. She thought to herself: 'This is now.'
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because this is now. It can never be a long time ago.
-- from "Little House in the Big Woods"
Here at last are the meadows. Here is the prairie, the sky, the crick, the skeeters. This is now.
Among the conglomerated rows of verdant corn and wheat and soy crops, with the smell of fresh-cut hay and manure in the heavy air last Saturday afternoon, there are 34 Lauras and only seven Nellies entered in Walnut Grove's annual Laura Ingalls/Nellie Oleson look-alike contest, open to girls ages 8 to 12 for a $3 entry fee.
It's typical to have more Lauras than Nellies, says town resident and contest emcee Missie Erbes. "But personally, I'm more partial to the Nellies. Laura's braids you can do pretty easy. And not just anyone can be a Nellie. Not just anyone wants to be a Nellie."
It was ever thus. Modern American womanhood -- especially those girls of the 1970s -- will always discern the Nellies of the world from the Lauras, based on events that occurred more than a century before "Mean Girls." Wilder invented Nellie Oleson for the purposes of her historical fiction; scholars have generally agreed that Nellie was an amalgam of three little girls who lived in Walnut Grove circa 1875, one of whom belonged to the Owens family, which owned a store. Nellie is known across cultures, and watch out: I'll show you, Laura Ingalls.
Erbes, 23, who with her mother co-directs the pageant, is wearing a calico-print prairie dress and Ray-Ban sunglasses. She gathers the young contestants under a party tent in the middle of the field, which provides some relief from the heat. She explains the rules. They sit on the ground and look up at her.
Each girl will be called up to the microphone so she can say her name and where she's from, and then she will have to answer a trivia question from the Wilder books. Eager parents get their digital camcorders ready. Bored brothers are fidgeting beyond belief. The girls look nervous and shy.
"Contestant No. 51," Erbes calls out.
A tiny girl in pigtails gets up and steps over the others.
"What's your name?"
"Here's your question. What was Pa's nickname for Laura?"
"That's right, but does anyone know what the full nickname was?"
"Half-Pint of sweet cider all drunk up!!"
Then Courtney, Lilliana, Ellie, Cassidy, McKenzie and more. There's even a freckled, red-haired Laura from Ohio dressed as Laura, with a slate board and a tin lunch pail (and in fact she will win). The girls have come from near and far -- California, Illinois, Canada.
We haven't even gotten to the Nellies. Sandy Carpenter, who lives in nearby Tracy and teaches fifth- through eighth-graders at Walnut Grove's school, nervously watches her niece, Page Miller, who is visiting from Kansas. Carpenter's own daughter didn't want to enter the Nellie look-alike contest, but Page was game, worrying only that "I'm not mean enough." Carpenter dressed her in a fancy pink-and-white dress, bows, white party gloves and a mink wrap. In the 89-degree heat, her blond ringlets are starting to wilt. "She's got straw-straight hair," Carpenter says. "That's the only thing I'm worried about." (And her hard work pays off, when Page later wins the final round and is crowned this year's Nellie.)
"Phew, these dresses are hot, aren't they girls?" Erbes says into the microphone, looking out at the misery before her, fanning herself and tugging at her polyblend get-up.
Yeahhhh, comes a pathetic sigh from 41 girls in unison.
"We could go sit in our cars and run the air-conditioning," Erbes says.
"Some pioneers we are, huh?"
After a group photo, the girls parade through the crowd of about 200 people to the stage, where elimination rounds are announced. For every trivia question asked, there are three wisecracking teenage boys over at the ice cream booth who scream out "ALMANZO!!" regardless of the answer.
Stan Gordon, whose family has owned and farmed the Ingalls tract since 1949, remembers when curious fans first started showing up at his parents' door in the '50s. "My mom and dad would invite them to sit at the kitchen table," Gordon says. After a while, about 600 people a year would drop by, and it got to be a hassle. Then the TV series came out.
The Walnut Grove seen on the tube was really the hills of Ventura County north of Los Angeles, but thousands of fans began making pilgrimages to Minnesota in search of the real deal. The town opened its first museum in 1974 and staged a pageant in the high school gym in 1978, then later out on the farm. After a peak of almost 30,000 visitors in 1984, Gordon says, about 20,000 people a year now visit.
If you love quilts, if you love Scandinavian lefse bread and bratwurst, if you love bonnets and Laura Ingalls Wilder, if you love a band of middle-age Elvisesque guys playing incongruous '60s pop songs, then you have found your place in a perfect America. Walnut Grove may be for the bonnetheads, but anywhere at any time, someone else is also engaged in a game of dress-up: drag queens, Civil War reenactors, Klingons in the convention center. Everybody has something, and it cannot ever be let go. Drive far enough and you'll find yours.
If the Ingallses were around now, and Pa couldn't resist his urge to move, they might wind up in Walnut Grove by the same kind of fate: They could stay in the AmericInn over by the Wal-Mart while he looked for work. They could keep their stuff in storage. They could sleep in the car.
"It has so much human emotion," says Amy Arness, who brought her family from Fargo, N.D., back to Minnesota, where she once lived, and has moved several times since, with a husband in medical school and residencies in different cities. "The part that always gets me is where the Ingalls family has to leave Walnut Grove. We've had to move over and over. We've left friends. That's what I think about, what they went through, how they just picked up and moved their lives."
"You read the books, and all these bad things happen to [the Ingallses]," Nicole Enzinga says, back at the museum. "But at the end of the day, they always play the fiddle. They always see the sunny side of life."
The Wilder Narrative
It takes a long time for the summer sun to work its way west, but slowly the banks of Plum Creek take on the feeling of a balmy night, with bugs buzzing around and Winnebagos and tourist busloads pulling up toward the amphitheater. Laura's world is now about collapsible canvas lawn chairs, strollers and people wearing tank tops and sandals with their bonnets. It has a snack bar. A German sociology student from the University of Cologne, dressed in prairie garb, greets audience members as they come in and asks them to fill out a survey, which she will use for her PhD dissertation, which is an examination of people's powerful need to visit the places where their favorite pop-literary characters lived.
Backstage, there is a lot of braiding to be done and director's notes to share from the previous night's performance. Most of the 51 people in the cast live in Walnut Grove or near it. Some are performing for the first time. Others have being doing it for what seems like forever. Little girls age into older roles, and new little girls come along in the spring auditions.
Errol Steffen, the town electrician, was in his first pageant 27 years ago as one of the townsfolk. He was going to classes at the Dunwoodie College of Technology in Minneapolis, and during the three-hour drive he would practice his lines. He has been in the pageant every year since, the last 13 playing Charles Ingalls, better known as Pa. He also runs the box office for the pageant. He's 45, and his beard is flecked with gray. (In pictures, Charles Ingalls had a beard almost a foot long. "I'll only go so far for the pageant," Steffen says.)
He has lived his entire life in Walnut Grove, watched it shrink over the years and watched it cling to the Wilder narrative. He has seen it through the boon years of "Little House" mania, when the show always sold out and celebrities from the TV show visited, met folks, dipped a toe in Plum Creek, posed for pictures, signed autographs. (The stars came all this way for an appearance fee, of course, which the town paid.) Karen Grassle, who played Ma, was here, as was Nellie, as was Mrs. Oleson, Reverend Alden and, two years ago, Dean Butler (ALMANZO!!). Michael Landon, who died in 1991, never visited, and neither has Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura.
"I am sorry I did not mention the name of the town in my story," Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to the editor of the Walnut Grove Tribune in 1953, once it had been verified that the town was indeed the setting of her fourth book, "On the Banks of Plum Creek," first published in 1937: "I should have, but at the time, I had no idea I was writing history."
She was and she wasn't.
Wilder scholars take calm assurance in how much of her semi-fictional stories check out against census records, birth and death certificates, land transactions and such, knowing full well that Wilder had a tendency to skip over her family's darkest moments of deprivation and loss, that she blended characters and tweaked chronology. (And people will always wonder if the books were shaped or co-written by Wilder's only child, Rose Wilder Lane, a semi-famous journalist and author.)
Ron Kelsey, now dressed and ready an hour before showtime in his Mr. Oleson costume, points to a line of oaks on this side of the creek that are many generations older than the oaks on the other side, and says their age corresponds to Laura's memories of the fires that swept across the prairie. Entomologists have verified the years of grasshopper plagues that devastated Walnut Grove's farming community. Eleck and Olena Nelson, the lifesaving neighbors who appear in "On the Banks of Plum Creek," were real, as were the Bedals and the Kennedys and Johnny Johnson, the Norwegian boy who tended to the cows. Kelsey found the death certificate of Charles Frederick Ingalls, the baby boy who died in Minnesota, an event that so saddened the Ingalls family that Laura left it out of the story altogether. He's now pursuing a theory that Mary Ingalls, Laura's sister, didn't go blind from scarlet fever after all. Wilder scholars now think it was measles, which weakens the optic nerve, making it susceptible to sunlight damage.
Although Wilder devotees have an ongoing desire to match historical fact to her fiction, what her books still have is a kind of transcendent accuracy. There is a male-centric urge among pageanteers to throw in facts about railroads, crops, Manifest Destiny, Indian attacks, saloon card games, but it is difficult to come up with better, clearer descriptions of pioneer home life in American literature than Wilder's, especially from a feminine perspective. The books are only peripheral to history. They're about finding America. She was ahead of her time; her stories read almost like a documentary or a reality TV show, about one family working to feed itself and get by. Wilder's writing is like a blanket, warm and reassuring.
Not long after sunset, the lights go up and the show begins. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs on a sloped, mowed lawn that has been "insect controlled" for our viewing pleasure.
A warm-up act, the Prairie Singers, performs patriotic, gospel and Beach Boys songs a cappella. Out in the hay field behind the faux Walnut Grove town set, you can see the Wilder family in a covered wagon pulled by two horses (Pet and Patty, don't you know), and the audience members crane their necks, very still, taken with the image. The covered wagon makes a long circle and comes up along Plum Creek and stops left of center stage. It's not the grasshoppers or the fire or the building of the church that the bonnetheads have come to see over and over. It's this: the Ingalls family in slow transit. It's now, and it can never be a long time ago, no matter how hard you try.
And when it's over, there is what in Walnut Grove passes for a traffic jam, a line of red tail lights carrying carloads and busloads of sleepy children and their wistful parents, all down the dark county road.