“Alison, I have a wonderful surprise for you!” my mother told 7 year old me. A surprise! How exciting! What could it be? Ice cream? Cake? A clown? Had she finally found my favorite stuffed animal, Gizmo from Gremlins, that had been lost in our recent move?
“It’s a book series about a little pioneer girl – I think you’ll really like it!” she said, presenting me with a blue box set of 8 hefty paperbacks. “Errrr thanks mom, this is totally shaping my definition of “surprise” and giving me and my future therapist hours of conversational fodder on the nature of expectations and disappointment!” I replied.
But she ignored my rapier wit and started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods with me. Very quickly, I was hooked. Perhaps it was the detailed description of hog butchery that appealed to me, maybe the maple syrup candy, or the detailed descriptions of the endless sewing and needlework the Ingalls women were busy with. Not to mention the food, which I’ve chronicled before in these hallowed WordPress pages.
The draw, though, was Laura. While the books feature the entire family – Pa, Ma, oldest sister Mary, middle daughters Laura and Carrie and baby Grace – Laura is the gutsy heroine. Mary finds it easy to “be good”, aka boring, and babies Carrie and Grace too young to be interesting. Whether it’s launching a teaching career or buggy rides with Almanzo, Laura knows what she wants. “But I find a late 19th century pioneer story unrelatable,” you may be thinking. If so, you are wrong. Laura’s pioneer tales contain lessons as relevant to 2012 as 1870.
Our pal Laura has some key personality traits that we can learn from. She’s:
Tough: The Little House books are best read in a sweater with a hot cup of tea or coffee because daaaaamn is it cold! Blizzard after blizzard after epic long winter of blizzards. But Laura & fam tough it out like champs. During the worst of the storms in The Long Winter, the town runs out of fuel and Laura twists straw into sturdy braids to burn. Callouses? No moisturizer? Who cares!
Lesson for the modern reader? Thanks to climate change, we don’t have to worry about 40 degrees below zero temperatures anymore. You know what we do have to suffer through? Spin class. Srsly, that ish is SWEATY. Stay cool on your ride by remembering Laura’s 40 mile sleigh ride home with Almanzo where her eyelashes freeze to her face. Feel better? I thought so.
Grateful: When Christmas in Oklahoma brings her a tin cup, a candy cane, a mini-cake and a bright shiny new penny, Laura is thrilled.
Lesson for the modern reader? Take some time for yourself to appreciate the simpler things in life. Like the smooth, clean, simple design of the shiny new iPad you just bought yourself.
Independent: At age 15, Laura goes off to teach school for the first time, boarding with a troubled couple in the middle of nowhere. She runs a small one room schoolhouse herself, teaching five students in the dead of winter. She’s not doing it because she has to: she has a savings goal to contribute to her blind sister’s college fund. But she successfully finishes the term and brings home $40 (roughly $5,000 in today’s currency).
Lesson for the modern reader? Try something new! Move to France and start that blog you’ve been meaning to write. Better yet, start a Kickstarter for your blog. Parisian pastry blogs don’t run themselves.
Strong-willed: When Laura’s arch-rival Nellie Oleson starts stepping up on Laura’s turf, taking Sunday buggy rides with Almanzo, Laura gives Almanzo an ultimatum: choose Laura or Nellie, not both. Almanzo notes Laura’s love for horses and stubborn streak and dumps Nellie.
Lesson for the modern reader? Laura knows what she wants (horses, Almanzo, Nellie dumped) and isn’t afraid to ask for it. If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it, &cet. Laura preferred gold with pearls and garnets. You may prefer a conflict free diamond. Either way, you better be the one to call the shots.
Resourceful: I already mentioned the hog butchering. Did you know the pig bladder, when inflated, can double as a balloon? After butchering and using every last scrap of an entire pig, Laura certainly did! The Ingalls family had a difficult life on the prairie, living in sod homesteads or the occasional rental in town. Money was always tight, so nothing was single use, nothing was wasted, every bit of food, fuel, fabric or reading material. Even Laura’s wedding dress was black cashmere, to maximize future wears.
Lesson for the modern reader? Start taking nose-to-tail eating seriously. Move to Red Hook, begin hanging out with butchers and form a Brooklyn bladder ball league. Guarantee you’ll make New York Mag’s Approval Matrix within a couple weeks.
Adaptable: Laura takes after her Pa. Although he has the literally unsettling habit of picking up the family and moving them further out west every couple of years, he does it out of unbridled American individualism and optimism. Laura adapts from homeschooling to one-room school houses, from prairie homestead to town, as the family travels from Wisconsin to Oklahoma to Minnesota to South Dakota.
Lesson for the modern reader? Hey, life brings the unexpected sometimes. Like when you get to Trader Joe’s and the line is really long, and then they’ve run out of unsalted creamy almond butter and all they have left is raw crunchy almond butter. That’s when you think to yourself “WWLIWD?” Maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder would’ve tried the raw crunchy almond butter. So you roll with it. O pioneer!
As you can see, taking a page from the Little House books (not literally; don’t pull a Lauren Conrad) can add richness, depth and strength of character to your 21st century life. And if you’re still skeptical on the value of the 19th century, take a tip from Fred: