(Simultaneously published on Medium.com/chuckmall)
“Half-Pint” is Gaining a Jesus-like Iconography
The first thing that stands out from all the strip malls when I enter Springfield, Missouri, is the biggest megachurch I’ve ever seen. It appears to be the size of a Chicago city block and reminds me — along with the many billboards I’ve seen for Evangel this and Living Word that — I’m in Protestantfundamentalist land.
For weeks I’ve joked with my friends that I’m too old for Lollapalooza, so I have to go to Laurapalooza. Now that I’m here and see that it’s already 100 degrees, I wonder if the local grocery stores at least carry wine.
A few blocks after my exit I’m on Glenstone Street, the cornshuck Hollywood Boulevard of this southern city. I see a sweaty, dirty couple pulling two shopping carts of junk they’ve collected off the streets. If they’re homeless, I think, I hope that megachurch opens their doors for people like that in the evening.
But I know they don’t.
Laurapalooza is a bi-annual event celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder. I decided to attend partially because of a book by Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life, where she recounts travels in Lauraland and unfolds her own connection.
I expected some academics. There are always librarians and teachers at conferences. But what I didn’t expect: 125 attendees (117 women, 8 men) from 15 states, and England, Denmark and Japan. Prairie Barbie was an item on the silent auction table. Why would Barbie even want to be on the prairie? Who would choose locusts and no AC when she could have a Corvette and a beach house?
Some attendees wore t-shirts that said WWLD? Dozens of grown women who enjoy wearing bonnets and prairie dresses were everywhere. Then the vendor area: there are Laura ornaments, coffee cups, music inspired by, jars of jelly, and a “photo booth” of flimsy painted cardboard shaped like a Conestoga wagon.
If you thought Laura Ingalls Wilder was only a children’s book author or a Melissa Gilbert TV show from your childhood, you have only seen the handle of the Ark of the Covenant.
The TV show, Little House on the Prairie, has been on the air somewhere every day since it first aired in the 1970s. The books have sold 34 million copies in 71 countries. Laura’s prairie homesteads are shrines, with droves of fans, homeschooled kids, and wealthy Japanese making the hajj every year. Laura’s adult home, in nearby Mansfield, Mo., has 40,000 visitors a year.
All she did was write a few books. But they have become a worldwide business, spawning an unsettling level of devotion and attention. The brick-of-a-book Pioneer Girl, Laura’s original manuscript that had been semi-hidden all these years, was published by tiny South Dakota Historical Society Press in December 2014 and became an instant best-seller.
Nevermind that it was an academic book crammed with more annotations than Trump’s press secretaries, weighed a ton, and cost $40 in an age when people don’t really read books anymore. It sold. So well, in fact, that the press decided to release three more books about Laura in subsequent years.
Laura makes the big bucks.
Some of the workshops at Laurapalooza interested me. Former New Yorker writer Caroline Fraser, who holds an impressive Phd from Harvard, detailed the Minnesota Massacre (mentioned in hushed tones in one of Laura’s books). This American/Indian war stands as a flipside bookmark in the Ingalls family history. While white pioneers like themselves experienced self-designated opportunity and pushed into the West, the native people were pushed out — and even killed violently, if need be.
But it’s hard to have a serious conversation about manifest destiny when you’re talking to women in full prairie garb. The conference itself was schizophrenic. I talked to a producer from PBS in New York at one point (determined to find if any of the eight men present were something other than “reluctant husbands”) and five minutes later was talking to a homeschooling rural housewife who just “loved” Laura, especially her quilt-making.
Sure, there are a few quilt blocks in Laura’s books. What about, though, all the tremendous history in the books? Building a house, feeding yourself from what you could find on the ground, crossing a river in a wagon that held all your possessions and children?
Doesn’t matter. Laura was sweet. Family was king. They spent their evenings singing to Pa’s fiddle music. They worked on the crops together. They loved education. And they were faithful Christians. The last item is a P.S. to the list. Laura’s books aren’t particularly religious, but because the rest of the books’ atmosphere appeals to religious conservatives, Laura has been pushed into churchianity.
Laurapalooza had a seminar on Laura’s 7-greats grandfather, Edmond Ingalls, and how the lineage actually came from England, Denmark and other places in Europe — contrasted with the staunch American imperialist attitude in the Little House books. Fans love to find these contradictions. After all, anything new after over a century is a nugget of gold.
Then, listening to what was basically a physics lecture so we could understand the validity of severe weather on the 1870s prairie, it occurred to me: do we need to dig this deep?
This is how religions get built. There is oral history, which becomes a text, which when popularized ends up in the hands of disparate people who layer upon it all manner of accoutrement. Laurapalooza showed it all: souvenirs, books explaining the original books, maps of where they lived, quilts like Laura made, clothes like Laura wore, recipes based on the food she ate, and breathlessly on.
And people who live by WWLD? Really?
The layers continue to build. A new novel that will hit gospel level is Caroline, a novel about Laura’s mother by Sarah Miller coming in September, backed by heavy national promotion. Attendees at Laurapalooza are informally discussing who should play the movie lead. The general consensus is Brie Larson; she seems to have the balance of strength of tenderness just right for the role.
There is a TV show called Little Mosque on the Prairie. A website about the immigrant experience (and Laura) is Little Laos on the Prairie. There are at least three podcasts on Laura, including a sassy one that occasionally uses the S-word. Even Walnut Grove, the lily-white town portrayed in the TV show, has large Hmong population that has blended the histories. On an outside wall of the Bubai Grocery store there, a large mural shows Laura alongside a Hmong woman as though they are close friends.
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE
Apostle William Anderson is revered throughout the conference. The author of several books on Laura, he has the longevity that gives him a front seat. He began working at the Laura homestead as a teen and even corresponded with Rose, Laura’s daughter. I’m intimidated to talk to him, so I don’t. Anderson was the first to discover that Laura’s books didn’t quite align with the truth, though Rose hushed him up. Every word was absolutely true, she asserted.
We now know better, and Pioneer Girl shed light on any remaining dark corner. Pa Ingalls and family skipped town in the middle of the night when he couldn’t pay his debts. They accepted charity to send Mary to “blind school,” though in the books Laura works to earn the money to send her. An entire two years of Laura’s childhood were purged, to avoid the fact that Mary and Laura worked at a hotel where an alcoholic man caught himself on fire and another man tried to grope Laura. All this was swept out of the proverbial cabin in books that showed a family who infallibly blasted through hard times with unrelenting spirit and drive.
At a certain point I felt a tsunami of Lauraness and took a break for a double-size glass of pinot grigio at the hotel bar. There was NO ALCOHOL served at the conference. Iced tea, coffee and water were enough for Lauraites!
“Are you at that event?” the bartender asked me, nodding toward the Kansas Room.
“Yes,” I said.
“What is it, anyway?” he asked. “Is it, like, about Melissa Gilbert?”
His ignorance is as refreshing as the cold wine that I’ve nearly finished in three greedy gulps.
Each day started at an unfriendly 8 a.m., workshops hammering through the day at a crazed colt’s pace.
I was a bit surprised we were served breakfast burritos at the conference. Why not have hardtack biscuits and beef jerky? You want the Laura experience? It sure as hell wasn’t in an air-conditioned hotel being attended to by hotel employees, drinking Starbucks.
Laura would be 150 years old this year. She even has a hashtag: #YearOfLaura. I think if she were here, she would shake her head at all the attention. She was a farm woman who made simple meals and had quiet evenings with her husband Almanzo. Even after she was wealthy from her books, she stayed in her own little house and lived like the little country woman she was. She shared her memories in the books; now that simple, sacred act has mushroom-clouded beyond anything she could have intended.
Given the choice, surely she would rather people look at a beautiful sunset than gaze upon her image.