I got my first Laura Ingalls Wilder book for my eighth birthday, which was also right around the time I first started experiencing anxiety, a feeling that has remained with me for the rest of my clammy, hand-wringing life.
The book was "Little Town on the Prairie," which isn't remotely the first book in the series. It's really more toward the end, but if you ask me, it's the best. I got the book from my grandmother, who probably just grabbed any Laura Wilder book, figuring I'd like them all. She was right.
My entire childhood can be summed up in one sentence: "Just let me finish this chapter."
So when I opened "Little Town on the Prairie" on my anxiety-ridden eighth birthday (I distinctly remember not eating a thing at my party), I could tell right away it was up my alley, just from the cover that featured four hoop-skirted girls fawning over a kitten. Anything from the 1800s fascinated me, books about girls even more so, plus you can't go wrong with a kitten, who was gray, as I recall. I've had a thing for gray cats ever since.
That whole summer, as I struggled with my nerves, I lay sort of tensely on the hammock and read "Little Town on the Prairie." I am the only person on earth who could lie on a hammock all afternoon and feel jumpy.
But, oh, how I loved that book! I stampeded to the library soon after and read the entire Little House series. I've read them many, many times in the 40 years since that summer.
What is it about Laura's life that I find so frigging appealing? I know I'm not alone in this Laura love; a recently published, footnote-laden, pretty academic autobiography of hers is flying off book shelves. Publishers had no idea how many of us would go crazy for more Laura lore.
For me, it was all about the order of her world. Laura got up early, did all kinds of chores before breakfast, made the long trek to school and wasn't allowed to talk or fidget all day long. There were more chores after school, homework and a seriously carb-laden dinner with her family. I think they went to bed at about 4:30 in the afternoon or something. If you'd had dumplings and biscuits and potatoes and pie for dinner, your ass would be draggin' too.
I was raised by hippies, and the only way my life was remotely like Laura's was that I didn't usually have to wear shoes.
Oh, how I longed for the order and discipline Laura had. It carried her through her entire life. I loved how deliberately she lived and how simply. Hard work and effort made her strong. Even through tough times—and there were many—she kept her chin up. She always looked for the silver lining.
Truth be told, I have not remotely turned out like Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I guess a little of her has rubbed off on me. I do sleep in until the last possible second, and show up late to work every day because I can never find my other shoe. I don't bake bread or sew buttons or shoo crows from my crops. But I do write about my everyday life the way she did. Laura didn't even start writing until she was in her 40s. Just like me.
In a way, Laura Ingalls Wilder was the first blogger, filling you in on the mundane details of life and making it interesting.
It was because of Laura that I've tried to look for the good in rotten situations. "There is no great loss without some small gain," the books told me, and I always keep that in mind when, for example, my car flips over and a long-lost lip liner rolls across the ceiling of my upside-down vehicle.
I've moved from Michigan to Seattle to Los Angeles to North Carolina, and my Little House books have made the journey with me, just like Jack the dog followed Laura's covered wagon. (The fact that Jack didn't really follow the family is beside the point. The books say he did, and I'm stickin' with that.) I notice that whenever life is particularly scary, or chaotic, or sad, I retreat to read about the Indian jamboree or that jerk Nellie Olsen, and everything quickly seems manageable again.
The Little House books are soothing in my swirling world of changes and drama and Pixie Stix for dinner. Laura's stories are like a meditation. I guess you can say that the Little House books were my first drug of choice.
It's been almost 150 years since Laura was born, but what she learned in her life still makes sense today:
"The real things haven't changed," she wrote. "It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong."
She even used the semicolon. God, don't you just love her?