What was your favorite book as a child? Did it influence the person you are now?
“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” ― Laura Ingalls Wilder
I have been reading for as long as I can remember. Family legend is that I just began reading on my own when I was 4. I don’t remember the first book I read by myself. I just did. When I ventured out of the safety of my Montessori school and into the wilds of my neighborhood elementary school in first grade, my teacher didn’t know what to do with an established reader, so she sent me to fourth grade every day for reading time. Talk about awkward!
I do remember Charlotte’s Web being the first book that I truly LOVED. Even now, after probably 25 readings, I cry at Charlotte’s death – and again as her babies leave poor Wilbur.
I poured over the writings of Beverly Cleary. I could relate to Ramona and her “spunky” attitude. Poor misunderstood – ADHD Ramona, boinging the perfect curls of the ever so obnoxious Susan. When I read her book Fifteen (terribly old-fashioned now, but still) I wanted nothing more than for my first date to be just like Jane’s. I wanted the dress she wore for the date, a deep blue princess seamed dress with a white Peter Pan collar (out of style even then, but I did not care).
I was fascinated by the quirkiness of Roald Dahl’s characters. The way the poor, down-trodden child overcame his lot in life and TRIUMPHED!
However, when I think of the books of my childhood, the ones that I still hug to my chest, it is the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I was given a boxed set of the series (yellow paperbacks in a lovely little yellow cardboard box) for Christmas in 1974. I was eight years old. I read each of them cover to cover – and then read them all again and again. The Box of Books was given a place of honor on the top shelf of my bookshelf. The shelf where I kept special little mementos, like the Chinese doll my parents brought me back from San Francisco, and the lion shaped candle given to me by my father’s hippy sister (because I am a Leo after all). That shelf was the only neat spot in my entire room.
As far as I was concerned, Laura and I were kindred spirits. Straight brown hair that never held a curl no matter how long she kept those rags in her hair. Incapable of sitting still – no matter how hard she tried. Wanting nothing more than to run around barefoot, like a wild Indian. I loved her. I loved Ma’s gentle spirit. I loved the twinkle Pa always had in his eye – even when Laura had misbehaved. I wanted nothing more than to slap Nelly Olsen. And I wanted to marry Almanzo.
I didn’t just read the books. I all but memorized them. I was one of those obnoxious little girls who would sit in front of the TV every week, watching the show and pointing out the inaccuracies. “THAT NEVER HAPPENED!!!! DID THESE PEOPLE EVER READ THE BOOKS?!?!?”
The summer of 1975 – the summer I turned 9 – my parents, my brother and I (and our silly little dog) towed our Airstream trailer from West Palm Beach to Colorado and back. Coming home, we drove through Missouri. Missouri. The state Laura and Almanzo moved to early in their marriage. Missouri. Where I could visit Rocky Ridge Farm , and the house that Almanzo had built with his own hands. I just HAD TO GO TO THE HOUSE! The only problem was, Mansfield was not on our way. More like three and a half hours out-of-the-way. But, I was not going to be THAT CLOSE without going!!! NO WAY!
So, we went. After spending the night in Independence, we set off on the three-hour drive. I could hardly wait! We pull up and I just about bounded out of the moving car. I could hardly breathe. Before me stood the white clapboard house where my beloved Laura had written her books!
We walk up to the little gift shop – and find that the house is closed for renovations (including reroofing). I thought I was going to die right on the spot. The sweet little docents must have felt badly for this obviously CRUSHED little girl, and allowed us to walk around the house and look in the windows. My dad lifted me up so I could see inside. I saw Mary’s organ. The desk where Laura wrote. So close and so very far away.
We shopped in the little shop. I bought a sunbonnet just like Laura’s (which of course I wore down my back just like she did), a few recipe cards and post cards of the things in side the house we could not see. And we left. As we were walking back to the car, I happened to spy an old looking wooden shingle lying in the grass. A shingle that had to have come off the house. A shingle that in my overly romantic almost 9-year-old mind HAD TO HAVE BEEN MADE BY ALMANZO! I bent over, carefully picked it up, and put it in my pocket. I was terrified someone would see me and make me put it back. But, DAMN IT! They wouldn’t let me in the house, it was the least I could have! I didn’t even tell my parents I had it.
When we returned home, I took my ill-gotten shingle and placed it on the shelf in front of the boxed set of books – where they all stayed until my mother sold the house when I was 25 and they were packed up. I still have the set of books. And I still have that shingle.
One day, I will take the Monkeys on a pilgrimage to see all the homestead sites. Maybe not all at once. But I will see each and every one.
I still love Laura Ingalls Wilder.
And I still wish I could slap Nelly Olsen.