As a lifelong Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, I’m excited to participate in Barbara’s Laura Ingalls Wilder reading challenge this month. We were to read something by or about Laura. I didn’t want to read the Little House books again — I know I read the series at least once in childhood, and again in college as part of an author study I did in my preparations to be a teacher. I read various of them to my classes over the years, and read the entire series to my girls. I’ve re-read “The Long Winter” after dinner to the family since then. They never get old!
I decided to read A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America this time. It’s really like three books in one so I’ll discuss each section separately.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Travels from South Dakota to Missouri
The first section is Laura’s journal of the family (Laura, Almanzo, and Rose) and their journey from South Dakota to Missouri in 1894.
Some things I noted as I read:
- In the intro to the book, Laura’s daughter Rose mentions Coxey’s armies which were rampaging their way to Washington, protesting for jobs. It reminded me a lot of the unrest we see today, although I found it interesting that these men were fighting for work. Today, it seems people are just fighting for “stuff” without wanting to work for it.
- The family traveled in a covered wagon. It kind of amazed me to think that people were traveling in covered wagons this late. A little research reveals that cars were not popular on a large scale in the US for another 20 years.
- Laura notes so many mundane details (for instance, the temperature — until she notes one day that they lost the thermometer). There is a major emphasis on how the crops look and how the land must be. This makes sense, since Almanzo was a farmer and they’d had such poor luck farming in South Dakota.
- I was kind of sad as I read, thinking of how rocky the relationship between Laura and Rose was (as she commented on Missouri’s rocky terrain, I couldn’t help but see parallels). Laura’s journal contains many footnotes where Rose corrects Laura’s writing: it’s Little Sac river, not Little Sock, etc.
- I realize I must have read this in the past, because I remember the tale recounted here about how, when Laura and Almanzo are ready to buy their land in Missouri, the $100 bill they’ve hidden in a wooden lap desk turns up missing. Prior to this, Laura is preparing for the purchase by getting into her black wedding dress. Rose admires her mom as she gets ready, and this reminded me of a similar scene from “Little House in the Big Woods” where Laura admired Ma getting ready for the dance.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Visits Rose in San Francisco, 1915
The next section details Laura’s journey to visit Rose in San Francisco in 1915. She visited the world’s fair held there at the time (it was called the Panama–Pacific International Exposition). It was interesting to hear Laura’s account of the fair, and I was amazed at the detail and work put into these fairs (I was similarly amazed at accounts of the Columbian Exposition — the 1893 world’s fair — and the subject of the book “Devil in the White City”). The book contains many photos from the fair (though not taken by Laura), and I was struck by how similar the buildings and exhibits were to the 1893 fair.
I was also amused at some of Laura’s notes to Almanzo (“Manly”): Pitch my letters into the bathroom and when I come I’ll look them over and tell you more about these things. I’m sure she’d be glad to know that we’re reading those words 100 years later.
It was also another bit of sentimentality — the writing of letters, something which I did to communicate up through about the mid ’90s, but which has pretty much disappeared. On this trip, Laura wrote to Almanzo pretty much daily.
I also noted that Laura was exactly my age on this trip — 48. And yet, she frequently talks about needing to rest, her eyes going bad, etc. At one point she apparently “falls off” a streetcar and spends time in the hospital. Rose is afraid to leave her alone, fearing what might happen to her. This sounds more like Laura is elderly — maybe the way we perceive age has really changed in the past 100 years.
One humorous letter that Rose sneaks into an envelope to her dad states: Something is happening which I think you should know, though to me, especially, it is a painful subject to contemplate. I notice Mama Bess (Laura) says nothing about it in her letters, but I can quite understand why she does not. Still, I feel it is only right you should know, and think it my duty to tell you. Wow. I was gearing up for Rose’s fears that Laura had Alzheimer’s or something, but here goes: Mama Bess is growing fat.
I know this wasn’t meant to be funny, but it cracked me up. Rose would have been about 30, at her metabolic prime, and I suppose that even such an accomplished journalist as she wasn’t aware that it’s quite a bit more difficult to maintain a svelte figure at her mom’s age. It did seem during this visit that Rose and Laura got along well, though.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Travels Back to South Dakota
The final section of the book detailed Laura and Almanzo’s trip back to South Dakota in 1931. It was the first time they’d been back since they left 40 years ago, and Laura’s parents and Mary had died in the meantime. Imagine not seeing your siblings in 40 years! When they visited Carrie, Laura noted: “She had changed a great deal but I knew her.” Carrie lived near Mt. Rushmore, which was being carved at the time, so they went to visit. Laura mentions watching men carve Washington’s face.
Poor Grace, who would have been 54, must not have been doing so well: “Grace is on a diet for diabetes and hands are bad swollen with rheumatism.” I imagine there wasn’t much treatment for diabetics at that time? Grace lived in De Smet, where Laura had lived during “The Long Winter” she wrote about. “It is funny how everyone who never would have been so familiar in the old days calls me Laurie and loves me so much, but in some way I like it. It all makes me miss those who are gone, Pa and Ma and Mary and the Boasts and Cap Garland,” she writes.
It was the Depression, and Laura tells tales of a town they passed through so poor that 15 people in it shared the same car license — they passed it around so that whoever wanted to drive at the time could use it. Speaking of driving, when Laura and Almanzo traveled from SD to MO 40 years ago, it was in a covered wagon. This time, it was in a Buick. The frequent mentions of the car overheating made me glad for modern conveniences. Laura talks about the headaches she and Almanzo have “for days” from the heat (once she mentions it is 105), and their dog who traveled with them suffered too. Imagine riding all day across the plains in a car with no AC!
I enjoyed reading Little House Traveler as an additional look into the person of Laura Ingalls Wilder!