Just For Fun

The Special Place Laura Ingalls Wilder Holds in My Own Little House

by Janssen Bradshaw

Illustration: Elizabeth Graeber

Laura Ingalls Wilder has been a part of my life since I can remember.

One of my earliest memories is being five years old, tucked into my twin bed with my mom lying beside me, listening intently as she reads aloud to me from Little House in the Big Woods.

My younger sister shared a room with me and would start off listening along too, but would quickly drift off to sleep while my mom continued reading aloud to me.

Night after night, I was transported to a Wisconsin that didn’t look anything like the one we lived in. Instead of houses on either side of us, a grocery store down the street, and plenty of restaurants, shops, and neighbors, Laura’s Wisconsin was mostly woods, wild animals, and quiet evenings in a snow-bound cabin.

After we finished the first book, our family took a day trip out to Pepin, Wisconsin, a three-hour drive from our home in Madison, to visit the reconstructed log cabin built on the original site of the Little House in the Big Woods.

We climbed into the loft, pumped water, and ate a picnic lunch in the sunshine.

At the time, our family consisted of three little girls (I’m the oldest), just like Laura’s family did when they lived there.

We didn’t own a copy of the Little House series, but my mom checked out each book from the library in turn as we worked our way through the entire collection.

Then, as we were finishing it, the library replaced the whole set with a brand-new one and the series we’d been reading ended up on the library sale shelf.

My mom bought the entire hardbound set published in 1953 for two dollars.

They still had their library call number stickers attached to the spines and the pockets for the due date cards glued inside the covers.

Those books sat on our family bookshelf throughout my childhood and I returned to them dozens of times, rereading the stories of Laura and her family, imagining what it must have been like for Mary to go blind or Laura to go off and teach at that tiny little schoolhouse away from her beloved sisters and parents or for Almanzo to eat a veritable feast every single day for lunch.

I was a girl growing up in the suburbs in the ‘90s, riding my bike around the neighborhood and eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch. A life like Laura Ingalls’s seemed as much of a fantasy as one filled with magic wands or dragons. Every time I opened up one of her books, I fell into a completely different world, where a panther might leap out of a tree while you were coming home from the store and a piece of candy showed up only on Christmas morning.

A year or so after I got married, my husband and I bought our first house together and my mom presented me with the original library collection of the series.

They occupied a place of honor on our living room mantle, and I loved seeing those well-read copies sitting up there, now more than fifty years old.

Twenty-five years after my mom started reading the series to me, my oldest daughter turned five and I began reading the first book to her.

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Like I had been, she was delighted by the old-fashioned adventures Mary and Laura had, like making a balloon out of a pig bladder or the time Ma went out to feed the cow and discovered that there was a bear in the cow pen instead.

I’d purposefully avoided rereading the series after I got married, since I wanted the books to be fresh and new to me when I read them aloud to a future child — and they were. The day I opened up Little House in the Big Woods to read aloud to her was like reliving my childhood all over again — except this time I was the mom, watching someone else discover this world I loved. When my daughter started saying that she wished she lived in a little cabin in the woods or had a dog like Jack, I knew exactly how she felt. Laura Ingalls Wilder created a world that appeals to so many of us (even if we don’t really want to worry about getting lost in a blizzard or building our entire home by hand).

Last fall, when we found out that our fourth baby was a fourth girl and I was showered with comments about whether I’d hoped it was a boy, I couldn’t help but think, “How could I be disappointed? Now I’ll have my own Little House family.”

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