Toward The Little House

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We headed back to De Smet and to the house that Pa built in town after Laura married and he shifted the focus of his efforts from farming to carpentry. This house is substantial, with a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms downstairs, three upstairs. Here Ma and Mary lived on and rented out the upstairs for twenty more years after Pa died in 1902.

In the kitchen there is a striking cabinet made by Pa, and in Mary’s bedroom is the trunk she is believed to have taken to college. The wall telephone in the dining room is the only modern convenience Ma ever knew. After getting it in 1917, Ma wrote Carrie that she had not tried it yet, “but Mary has. She does fine.”

While Jane sat outside and wrote to her children, I went through a display of Ingalls memorabilia. For an hour I pored over letters, photographs, and excerpts from autograph books. It was the type of material that any closeknit family leaves behind, but this family was the Ingallses. I looked at a cartoon sketch Pa did of Carrie as a child. He drew her in a dress that was probably much finer than anything she actually wore. I smiled, thinking about him.

Last, Jane and I went to the De Smet cemetery. Set amid carefully tended trees on a prairie rise, it is a lovely place. Here rest not only the Ingallses (except for Laura) but others from the books: their friends the Boasts, the merchants Fuller, Loftus, and Wilmarth, the Reverend Brown, and David Gilbert, the mail boy during the hard winter. “‘Gilbert had made it to Preston and back [Pa said]. He brought the mail!’ It was as if Christmas had happened unexpectedly.” Everywhere we looked, we saw familiar names. “This seems to be some kind of reunion,” Jane said.

On Monday we headed east on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway. Our destination was the very small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the Ingallses lived on the banks of Plum Creek before moving to Dakota, where they thought they were finally in the West. Indeed, the Minnesota prairie was different from the prairie we had just seen. It was a little more wooded and there were occasional hills. It seemed almost as if east and west were blending. The Ingallses were not connected to Walnut Grove the way they were to De Smet. Members of the family lived in De Smet for almost fifty years, and their contributions to the town, over and above the fame the books brought it, were great. Walnut Grove was merely a way station. When Laura wrote her books, she used the name of the creek but not that of the town, perhaps because that was what she best remembered. The town seems to focus more on the Ingallses as characters than as actual people.

“There is no history here, only places,” the guide at Walnut Grove’s museum told us. Her enigmatic remark turned out to be apt. The museum, with its pictures of the actors from the television series, did not interest us, so we went quickly to the creek.

Plum Creek, running through a spacious prairie meadow, matches Laura’s descriptions. Flanked by willows, it sparkles and gently babbles. I could imagine Laura and Mary, seven and nine, wading here. Mary’s eyes still flashed.

We crossed the footbridge put up for visitors and climbed up the bank to a small dip in the earth thought to be the site of the dugout. The Ingallses lived there in a hole in the bank with a door and one window. It must have been damp at times, and the family undoubtedly worried that Carrie might wander out and slide into the water. No wonder Pa borrowed money to build a real house without waiting for the first harvest.

We went beyond the dugout to the flat field. I imagined Charles Ingalls looking at his shimmering fields after the wheat had made a good stand and could almost feel his anticipation. His wife would wear silk. His children would have candy every day. But then the grasshoppers had come in a glittering cloud and eaten everything.

Returning to the creek, we eavesdropped on an older woman and a little girl who were also visiting there. “Grandma,” the child was saying, “can you imagine living in a dugout? One day a cow stepped through their roof.” They asked us where we were from. “Connecticut and Massachusetts,” we said. They were from Michigan.

Pa, Ma, and Mary died with no inkling that simply by living their lives, they would become part of the national culture. Carrie and Grace, though, lived to know. As they continued to go about their everyday routines, they were always a little amazed by what their sister Laura had wrought.

I’m glad I made the trip. It helped give me a sense of the land the Ingallses lived on and a better understanding of the contradictions and complexities they lived with. It is impossible to know how closely the plots of the books approached the truth of the Ingallses’ lives. Laura admitted that she used considerable discretion in her account of her childhood, and the historical record is scant. Although Laura’s parents occupy center stage in her fiction, we know little of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s private concerns. All we can be really sure of is that they lived on the prairie, they sang songs together, they made mistakes, and they never let circumstances destroy them.