Giuliana and I have spent the last year or so reading through the American Girl books. We've read Samantha, Molly, Caroline, and right now we're reading about Julie, a girl growing up in San Francisco during the 1970's. Among other things, Julie loves the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the books get mentioned frequently in her stories.
Last Thursday, library day for her class, Giuliana came home from school and plopped Little House on the Prairie down on the table in front of me. "It's real," she told me excitedly, "I found out today it's actually real." I stared at her blankly for a moment, thinking, "Of course it's real, why are you telling me something I already know?" And then I realized, it was news to her. She had thought Little House on the Prairie was something made up for an American Girl doll book. The brief thought of it gave me the chills. Thank God these books are real.
I picked up the book lovingly, wondering when the last time I held a Little House book in my hands for purposes other than moving from one home to another had been. (A year or two ago I listened to Little House on the Prairie on audiobook, and perceived it through the perspective of an adult for the first time--which lead me to the conclusion that Ma was super-human. I don't know how she did it.)
But to hold a book in your hands, to feel the texture of the pages, to know the curve of the font, to study the spare beauty of the black and white illustrations--well, that is another thing entirely. I swear I would recognize a page out of those books anywhere, so deeply are they cemented in my psyche. I know exactly what the pages of the Little House books feel like between my fingers.
As I held the book and began to flip reverently through the pages, waves of nostalgia flooded me, and I actually thought to myself wistfully, "I remember when I used to be a pioneer." It wasn't, "I remember when I read these books," or even, "I remember when I played Little House on the Prairie as a kid," (though I did both of those things copiously)...It was literally, "I remember when I was a pioneer."
My parents read me the Little House books at bedtime until I was old enough to read them myself. I loved those books. I imbibed those books. I took them into me and believed them and acted them out for hours each day, in the wide open spaces of time that my sisters and I had to play pretend. In his phenomenal work The Deathly Hallows Lectures, John Granger talks about the "alchemy of storytelling" and the power it has of "blurring the distinction between the subject who is reading and the object hero being read about," and how "the transformation of the story character affects and transforms the [reader]." (p. 40) In other words, the magic of a story well-told is that it allows you to become the main character and grow from their experiences.
By putting those books in my hands, my parents, in a sense, gave me the opportunity to be Laura Ingalls. I got to roam the prairies, live in log cabins and sod dug-outs, and learn to be brave and strong in the face of the great frontier and the great unknown.
As I grew older, more stories would come: I read to tatters the Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, from the Dear America series. I spent hours in front of the computer, virtually crossing the Oregon Trail, and when my computer time ran out, I'd put on my coonskin cap, hitch up our two stick horses to the covered wagon that I made out of blankets, pack up supplies, and head West with my sisters and baby dolls.
This has got me thinking about the ways in which the stories we love as children shape our imaginations. These stories supply our beliefs and expectations of what life should and will be like, they provide us the material for our dreams, and they teach us what we are capable of. I'm finding myself very grateful for the pioneers who provided a living example of courage and the spirit of adventure, as well as grateful to the artists who captured their experiences in the form of story for the benefit of both children and adults. And I'm thankful to Laura Ingalls Wilder for making it possible for little girls to dream of crossing frontiers and discovering new lands.
I now think it should've come as no surprise to my parents when I moved to California after high school. The writing had always been on the wall: my future lay in the West. That's what a person does, I had learned: one must strike out for a new land when the time comes. The hope and dream of the pioneer had been planted within me since those early bedtimes, when my parents took me across the prairies, page by page, every word pushing me farther westward.