I am just back from my first-ever LauraPalooza, sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (LIWLRA) and held this year in Onalaska, Wisconsin, just over an hour away from Pepin, Wisconsin. The people involved in planning and implementing the conference, including but not limited to LIWLRA president Barbara Mayes Boustead, vice-president Patti Collins, and conference co-chairs Karen Pearce and Melanie Stringer, did an outstanding job. My fellow keynote speakers Bill Anderson, Caroline Fraser, and John Miller all provided meaty portions of Wilder scholarship and lore, even though the presence of the film crew for the American Masters series could be intimidating at times.
The level of presentation throughout the event was outstanding, from fiddler Mary Pat Kleven, who shared her music and her understanding of midwestern fiddling, to Cindy Wilson, whose research in the Chicago & North Western Historical Society archives illuminated the railroad’s snow-moving activities during the winter of 1880–1881. Discussion of the life of Grace Ingalls, the preservation of Laura’s little towns, the history of drought on the South Dakota prairies, time and place in Wilder’s works, diverse voices, quilts, fashion, the psychology behind the relationship of Wilder and Lane, and the stopping points of Wilder’s journey to Missouri made for three days of learning and enjoyment.
Bill Anderson shared his expertise often during the conference and especially during a trip to Pepin on the afternoon of July 10. The Little House Wayside cabin, of course, is a reproduction on the land near Pepin that Charles Ingalls owned in the 1870s, but no one is any longer sure of the homesite location. Anderson, who had visited the site in the early 1970s before creation of the wayside, shared his best understanding of where the cabin originally stood.
The next LauraPalooza will be held somewhere near Malone, New York (Almanzo Wilder’s birthplace), in 2022. I hope to be there.
The vast conference room had few empty chairs as LauraPalooza got underway. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller
In July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association gathered scholars, amateur historians, and avid “bonnetheads” in Brookings, South Dakota, for LauraPalooza. The association is a worldwide, nonprofit organization whose membership is dedicated to preserving the legacy and encouraging the research of everything related to Wilder. Those who attended LauraPalooza, including myself, wanted to learn more about the famous author who introduced millions of readers to the American frontier.
The conference did not disappoint. From novelists and academics to translators and meteorologists, the presenters were varied, and each one looked at unique facets of the Wilder experience. For me, having grown up on the prairie that Wilder writes about, the session covering non-American perspectives of the pioneer family was especially interesting. I find it amazing how Wilder’s novels, and now Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, speak to readers everywhere. How can you understand the harshness of a prairie winter if you have never experienced one—the wind blowing ice into your eyes as you struggle to figure out where you are in a vast white landscape? Even though some of the commentators at LauraPalooza had never seen snow or the limitless prairie until well into adulthood, Wilder’s writing had forged a connection with them and thrust the author into international stardom.
Wilder scholars William Anderson and John E. Miller took time to speak with attendees. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller
Japanese translator Yumiko Taniguchi, for example, was one of those children who, though living in a mountainous region of Japan, connected with the Ingalls family’s struggles on the open prairie during the long winter of 1880–1881. Little did Yumiko know at the time that she would go on to translate all of Wilder’s books for new generations of Japanese children. From the earliest translation of The Long Winter, the first of Wilder’s books to be published in Japanese, prairie life and frontier themes worked their way into Japanese popular culture. According to presenter Hisayo Ogushi, in addition to the television show Little House on the Prairie, Japanese comic books and resorts give visitors the “Laura Ingalls Wilder” experience. Both Taniguchi and Hisayo spoke about how the resoluteness of the Ingalls family and the strength of character they found in Laura made them fans of her books.
In another vibrant presentation, Eddie Higgins talked about the joy and confusion of reading the Little House books for the first time in a version of English—American English—that sometimes seemed as obscure as Japanese. For Higgins, growing up in England, it became a matter of deciding whether Wilder’s words were simply antiquated or different. Scenes like the one in which Laura and Carrie go to the Loftus store to buy Pa suspenders for Christmas made Higgins pause and reread the words over and over again. In England, “suspenders” refers to what we in the United States would call a woman’s garter belt (the conference hall in Brookings burst into laughter at this revelation). Other words, however, can give even Wilder’s home audience pause, much as they did in the Pioneer Girl Project staff post New Words. Higgins and young American readers today may try to imagine what a “pie plant” is, but, in Wilder’s day, it was simply another name for rhubarb.
In contrast to the lack of technology in Wilder’s day, the facilities at South Dakota State University were top-notch. Photograph courtesy of John E. Miller
In reminiscing about their first experiences with the Ingalls family, LauraPalooza presenters also shared their exuberance for works like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which gives more detail to the Little House stories that, though they were worlds away, made these women dream of life on the American frontier. In the end, their comments about the place, spirit, and community of the books gave me more insight into why Wilder’s work remains so popular.