Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Little House on the Prairie” originated as a book series, remember August 4, 2010

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A Laura look-alike climbs onto a covered wagon at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant site near Walnut Grove recently.

WHENEVER THE TOPIC of “Little House on the Prairie” surfaces, folks cannot believe that I know the stories from the books and not the television show.

But years before the long-running TV series aired, in a school in a small town some 20 miles north of Walnut Grove, my teacher read, yes, read, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to me and my classmates daily after lunch. I have fond memories of sitting there in my desk at Vesta Elementary School raptly listening to Mrs. Kotval read of the Ingalls family’s life on the prairie, my prairie.

At the time, back in the mid-1960s, I simply loved hearing the mesmerizing accounts of prairie fires and of blizzards, of fiddle-playing and of grasshopper plagues, of mean Nellie Oleson and of kind, kind Mary, Laura’s older sister. Wilder’s descriptive writing drew me in—into the dug-out, onto the seat of the covered wagon, into the country school. Simply put, I adored the Little House books.

A prairie fire scene from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, presented every July at a hillside amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove. I've seen the pageant three times in its 33-year history.

Honestly, I don’t recall my teacher emphasizing that neighboring Walnut Grove, the Ingalls’ family home from 1874 – 1876 and from 1877- 1879, was the setting for On the Banks of Plum, Creek. Truly, what mattered most to me was the telling of a good story to which I felt connected.

You would think then, given my early exposure to the Little House books, that I would have become a devoted fan of the television series. I wasn’t. The show aired in September 1974, my first year of college. I had no time for TV then or in the years that followed.

However, I recall seeing an episode or two or three. Of those I remember only the inaccuracies of mountains in Walnut Grove and of day-trips to Mankato. Despite the producers’ clear lack of prairie-landscape and geographic-distance knowledge, they offered good, wholesome family entertainment that has endeared generations, just not me.

I remain unimpressed by the hoopla over the television series and the big to-do about those, like Michael Landon (Charles “Pa” Ingalls) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls), who starred on the show.

It is the books, the writing of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that impress me, that take me back to elementary school days, when my teacher gave me the gift of reading.

Years later I would pass that gift along to my daughters by reading the Little House books to them. Even as preschoolers they would snuggle against me on the couch, leaning in close as page after page I read of prairie fires and of blizzards, of fiddle-playing and of grasshopper plagues, of mean Nellie Oleson and of kind, kind Mary, Laura’s older sister.

I worry that today’s generation is growing up without that intimate knowledge of Wilder’s writing, accepting instead the embellished Hollywood version of life on the prairie. Even my 8 ½ and 12-year-old nieces, who recently attended the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “Fragments of a Dream,” in Walnut Grove with me and other family members, had not read the books. I was surprised, disappointed even.

I mourn that loss of connection to the written word, that ability to create, to envision, to perceive, yes, to imagine a scene, a setting, a place, simply through reading.

For 33 years, Walnut Grove area residents have presented the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant based on Wilder's stories. I've found the pageant to be true to the books, the acting superb, the setting beautiful.

Devoted "Little House" fans come to the pageant dressed in prairie dresses and bonnets.

Amy Van Dorsten, 15, played the coveted role of mean and spiteful Nellie Oleson in this year's pageant. My niece Cortney insisted on getting Nellie's autograph after the performance.

A covered wagon near the pageant grounds entrance provides photo ops for Little house fans like my nieces.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling