Category Archives: Books

Working Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was sixteen, I scored one of the best jobs of my life. I became a tour guide for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society. My hometown of De Smet, SD is famous for its connection to the writer, author of the Little House series of books that chronicle pioneer life in Minnesota and South Dakota in the 1800’s. For several years, Laura lived in De Smet with Ma, Pa, and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace. She became a schoolteacher and met and married Almanzo Wilder there. Her stories of life in De Smet carry readers through several of her later books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. Wilder’s first books, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek featured other locations. In De Smet, we prided ourselves on being the setting of most of Laura’s stories, and having: two homes the Ingalls actually lived in (one of which Pa built,) the graves of Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and an open air portrayal of some of her stories. “The Pageant,” as it was known by us locals, was performed by volunteer townspeople out on the prairie near the homestead location. Hundreds of people flocked to De Smet each night on the last weekend in June and the first two weekends in July to see amateurs in costume act out parts of the books, or in later years (due to copyright restrictions) original works that were written to reflect the life and times of the Ingalls family. Every summer thousands of people toured the Surveyor’s House (the original, from the Silver Lake book) and the Ingalls Home (built by Pa when the time came to move into town some time after Laura married Almanzo.)

To be a tour guide you had to be reasonably presentable, comfortable with  public speaking, and knowledgeable. We had to know the entire series of books backwards and forwards (no problem as I was a true fan,) but we also had to know the behind-the-scenes facts: the dates of births and deaths, the later lives of the siblings, and the untold year that occurred between Plum Creek (set in Walnut Grove, MN) and Silver Lake; when the family lived in Ames, IA where a baby brother was born and died, and Mary got scarlet fever and went blind. We had two tours to learn, one for each house. We learned ticket and gift shop sales and crowd management. On busy days, guides would give back-to-back tours to roomfuls of people, while the next group waited impatiently in their cars or out on the front lawn. We had to keep people from climbing the forbidden stairs in both houses. I’ll grant you, they were enticing, but they were also moderately dangerous and only led up to stifling unrestored rooms where we kept brochures and merchandise. Usually accompanying bus tours was a job that fell to the matriarchs of the guides but sometimes we younger girls were permitted to do this, guiding the driver from house to house to cemetery to homestead site, with views of the big slough, and Lakes Henry and Thompson where Laura and Almanzo took buggy rides.

We sold these "Charlotte" dolls. They were made by an old lady who remembered when Mary Ingalls used to sit out on the front step of their house. My friends and I bought dolls and were probably a little weird about them. The dress on the left is for parties.

The Pageant: me, as Laura, with a member of the visiting film crew. Maybe the director? I like to imagine that in 1984 I was some kind of equivalent to a rock star in Japan.

It was my job to confuse small children and reduce adults to disappointed tears by telling them that the stories of Laura Ingalls as portrayed on the television show, “Little House on the Prairie,” starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert are, to a large extent, fictional. No one who loves that show wants to hear that Albert was a made-up character, or that little Laura never climbed to the top of a mountain to offer God her life in exchange for the baby’s (there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of De Smet.) Look on the bright side! we urged. Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olson were real and featured in several stories in multiple books! Real life on the prairie was difficult, charming, and just as cool (if not as action-packed and dramatic,) as it was on TV! Really! At the height of the season the crowds were unrelenting. During the day I’d repeat the memorized script so many times that I’d wake myself in the middle of the night, sweeping my arm to the right and saying out loud, “…and here is an actual dresser built by Charles Ingalls, who, as you might recall from the books, was a skilled carpenter.” We wore long dresses in keeping with the period, though no corsets, and as little else as possible because it was hot in those houses, especially when they were crammed with tourists. It was hard work, but I loved all the curious people who wanted to know something that I could tell them. Laura fans tend to be wonderful folk. I loved the old houses and the history and the challenging  questions and how there was no mud or manure involved (see related posts: The Pig Years.) There was even some fame to be had. The year I turned eighteen, the only year I participated in The Pageant, I was given the role of Laura. That same year, some Japanese filmmakers visited De Smet for part of a documentary they were making on Laura’s life (she is HUGE in Japan–I mean, we had tourists from all over the world, but evidently Japan LOVES her.) The LIW Society made a special exception and allowed them to photograph and film parts of the houses, and the crew also recorded at least part of The Pageant. We understood each other not at all, but everyone was very nice and so enthusiastic. I had a mullet that year, as was fashionable, and so my braids were stumpy and French, but no one seemed to mind.

Signing autographs before The Pageant. Note the braids. I find myself wondering what the kid in the blue jacket is thinking about.

Related Post: Working Girl, Prologue

Related Post: Working Girl, The Pig Years

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Reading II

It is textbook season again at State Services for the Blind. Today, I got to finish the college history text, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, by Woody Holton. I got the last chapter and a half, and the Epilogue. Reading history silently tends to make me sleepy, but reading a good text out loud is, weirdly, one of my favorite things. I learn so much! Also I love reading about things from the Revolutionary War that have value today: for instance, be wary of fighting a war on unfamiliar terrain against a foe defending their homeland, and watch out for those grassroots movements during a recession. This was a very good book. Holton gives us a  bit of a cynical take on our founding fathers and how things shook down back in the pre-Revolutionary day, which was just what I was in the mood for. Except for the footnotes, which were a pain in the breeches, I enjoyed reading it for three and a half hours today. I had to make a lot of corrections to my work, because I found in this text, as in many academic works, the author will zig when I was expecting a zag, tripping me up. I’ll be reading along and then a sentence or two later there I will be in my little recording booth, saying out loud, “Oh. Ohhhh! That’s what you meant.” Erase. Re-record. There are a lot of ways to err, as a reader. You can mispronounce a word, stumble or stutter within a word, change the meaning with intonation, leave too long a pause as you try to figure out if the footnote is explanatory or a citation, determining whether it needs to be read…and the list goes on. Even when I am (totally not sarcastically) having a ball reading, I’ll hit a sentence now and then that will get me swearing and threatening physical harm to the author because although lovely, it was not written with audiotext in mind. For instance, consider the following footnote from page 203:

“Lee, in fact, lost two elections in April 1776. After his defeat in Richmond County, his supporters ran him in neighboring Lancaster, where he lost again. The April 1776 voting was something of an electoral massacre for the Carter family. In addition to Rober Wormely Carter and his cousin Carter Braxton, both of whom actively opposed Independence, two other Carters–Charles of Corotoman and Charles of Ludlow were also defeated. The Carters were among the wealthiest families in Virginia, and their unprecedented repudiation at the polls seemed to reflect the ascendancy of antielitism.” (emphasis mine)

That particular finishing sentence caught me on tape in the middle saying, “You have GOT to be kidding.” Erase. Re-record. There were several easier sentences that gave me even MORE trouble, because once I screw something up, I find chances are at least 50% of the time I will screw it up multiple times in the same or different ways. Holton made it all up to me with this next little passage from page 219:

“Between 1782 and 1806, Virginia allowed slaveowners to emancipate their slaves without legislative approval, and some did so. Between 1790 and 1810, the state’s free black population more than doubled, largely as a result of emancipation. George Washington provided in his will that his slaves be freed upon the death of his widow (after he died, Martha Washington, prudently deciding not to make the slaves’ freedom contingent upon her death, freed them immediately).”

So here, I am picturing the reading of the will, and a house slave in the corner thinking, “Upon her death, huh?” and Martha thinking, “That’s terrific, George. Thank you so much…” and out loud saying, “No worries, folks! Freedom for everyone! No waiting!” I had to re-record that one because I got the giggles. Makes you wonder how often Martha had to help George out with practical thinking during the presidency. We’ll never know.

So while it isn’t parasailing, or a night at the comedy club, this volunteer gig has its moments. Besides, where else would I get to use words like “sobriquet” AND hang out with the nicest state employees in Minnesota?

Related Post: Reading, or How This All Started.

The Matter of a Severed Finger

When I was a girl, about nine or ten years old, one of my favorite indoor activities was to rifle through the stash of books and other treasures tucked into a dresser and closet in our rec room. My younger sister and I spent hours sitting on the hard linoleum sifting through mom’s shelves of piano music, Reader’s Digest Condensed books, and tins, boxes and tubs of inherited and collected memorabilia. It was kind of like a cross between our own private flea market and an archaeological dig to a time before our memory. My older sister is eight years older than I, so all her outgrown stuff was fascinating to me, even if she was a little bit more into the horse stories than I was.

One afternoon I found an old paperback book of hers: “Clever Tricks to Play on Your Friends!” We lived in the country, about a mile from any friends I might have had, but my mom was upstairs and my little sister was around somewhere, probably out playing with the cats or talking to the horses. Following the book’s instructions, I found a small cardboard box with a lid and carved a hole the size of my finger in the bottom with a dull penknife. I poked my middle finger up through the hole, tucked some cotton balls around it and flexed it flat so the box nested in my palm. It really looked like a severed finger laying in the box, without the blood. Nice! I thought about finding a red magic marker to add to the illusion, but I had already been working on it five whole minutes already and had to show my mom this cool effect RIGHT AWAY. I covered the box, hustled up the stairs and found her in her bedroom.  I was bursting with excitement that my trick would really work, but at the same time that I was terrified she’d see through it. My face cramped with energetic smiling, I said “Mom! Look!” and she walked over to me, probably thinking, “What now?” Watching for her reaction, I lifted the lid off the box, and was honestly surprised to see her stare blankly at my lifeless finger, then look at me with an expression I’d never seen before. I would describe it as horror-struck. She looked like a crazy person. She grabbed me by the shoulders and screamed, “WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR SISTER!?!?”

??? I was disappointed and confused. What did my sister have to do with anything?  I looked at the box and then I realized, ohhh. If there was a part of a finger in a box, it had to have come from SOMEWHERE, thus the sister… I was exasperated; Mom was completely missing the point. I demonstrated that the finger was mine, and Mom turned an odd color and literally sagged. I guess when the crazy drains from your body that is what happens.

This is the kind of story that gets re-told at family gatherings, and I always thought it was pretty amusing, until about a year ago when, for some reason, I was able to imagine the scenario from my mom’s point of view for the first time and realized what a horrible, horrible thing I had done to her. I imagined looking from a dismembered body part to my own child’s maniacally grinning face. If one of my boys had pranked me with a severed finger, I am pretty sure my head would have exploded. There she was, out on the farm, with one daughter mutilated at best and the other a complete psychopath.  So sorry, Mom! Being absolutely unable to empathize with my mother’s experience then, or for the next thirty+ years could, I guess, define me as a minor-league psychopath. Is it bad to say that this makes it even funnier to me?

Taking The Pulpit

When I was in my teens, a minor revolution occurred in our small town when our Methodist Church got a female minister. Her name was Judy, and she was the first minister I would know by her first name, separate from the words Reverend and a last name. I, being an angry feminist from my earliest years, was enthusiastic about the change. It was about time a woman came in and showed everyone that we were just as capable getting this job done as the men. Judy surprised me by being earthy and well, a little weird. She laughed a lot and comported herself  differently than the ministers I’d been used to, who had always seemed to be kind of big on the issue of dignity. She also had some kind of unique ideas about worship and God. If I found Judy to be a little unconventional, I can’t even imagine the uproar she caused among the adult congregation, although I did hear a few conversations between my parents on the subject. I don’t remember what they said, just that I was surprised that “the preacher” was a topic. Like most Methodist pastors of that time and place, Judy was with our church for a few years, then transferred elsewhere. Change is hard on a congregation, and maybe the frequent changes of leadership is part of what makes them hold so tightly to a certain way of doing things as a way to cement identity.

Through Goodreads, I became interested in a book entitled Sea Level, by Nancy Kilgore. Kilgore writes of a woman, Brigid, taking the pulpit of a Methodist church in a small Virginia coastal community. It is her first appointment as a pastor and their first experience with a woman in the role. What ensues is the good, the bad and the ugly on every level imaginable. Kilgore explores the sometimes hair-raising politics and cultural attitudes from the perspectives of various members of the congregation and the minister and her family. There is also a plotline involving  Mary, an artist more attuned to ideas of the Goddess, born and raised in the community but long ago fled to New York City, who returns to connect with her roots and to try to integrate them with her free-thinking and independent way of life. Mary and Brigid become friends and allies in a place where many demand both of them sit down and shut up. There are some differences, but I strongly suspect that Judy would have recognized Sea Level as a variation of her story of church leadership, ostracism, changing times and hopefully, support in my hometown. One of the biggest lessons I take from Sea Level is that being right and feeling certain don’t always come as a package.  In the book, as in life, there are no tidy endings, but there is a sense of assurance that persistence pays off, that living right and trying hard will, most of the time, see you through.

See Goodreads for my full review of Sea Level. Sea Level is available from Amazon.com or from your local bookstore (may need to order it,) and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Reading

One of my favorite things about raising kids was getting to read to them, even when we were reading the same book over and over again. When boy number one was only a couple of years old, he would come to me with his current favorite story, for example the Little Golden Book, My First Counting Book and when I finished, he would take it from me, climb down from the chair and go over to his dad on the couch to have it read again. Then, back to me  and so on. Other huge favorites included The Big Red Barn, and The Large and Growly Bear. Kid number two loved dinosaurs and animals beyond all reason and so the two of us hit the nonfiction hard for years. I do GREAT Sesame Street voices–I rocked both The Monster At the End of this Book as Grover, and Cookie Monster’s Book of Shapes as the title character. Reading separately at bedtime was a ritual the boys and I enjoyed until we started finding books they both liked and reading those together. “Mom, can you come up for stories?” was a plaintive call I heard nightly after all the teeth were brushed. Some nights I almost couldn’t bear it, I was so wiped out, but I never regretted dragging my butt upstairs. Remembering their bright little faces as we climbed onto my bed to read Lloyd Alexander books, or Varjak Paw, or King Arthur legends twangs my crusty old ‘Parent of Teen Boys’ heartstrings like you wouldn’t believe. One day, when my mother-in-law happened to be visiting, she heard me read a couple of chapters of Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis to them . When the reading was done, she looked at me with surprise and said, “You did that really well!” She was not a woman given to compliments, so it was kind of a huge moment.

But kids grow up. They broke it to me gently: “It’s okay if we don’t read tonight, Mom,” and “We’re kind of done with that.” It took a long time to find another outlet. I had often thought it would be awesome to do voiceover work with the ultimate ambition of recording audiobooks, so I made a demo tape last summer and sent it to some talent agencies, who either didn’t get back to me or were so flush with talent they were uninterested. Dead end. After listening to me bemoan that state of affairs, my friend Kelly, writer and radio personality extraordinaire (see her at Hot off the Wire and So Then SHE Said,) suggested I check out State Services for the Blind [SSB]. I did. They train volunteers to record leisure and text books for people with print disabilities, including vision impairment, learning disabilities and a horrifying thing I’d never heard of: paper allergies. It was the start of a new kind of reading for a new audience. I had to audition, and then I had to be trained and let me tell you, these SSB people are TOUGH. Now I dedicate 3-4 hours once a week (plus commute) to try to bring the written word alive for people who cannot just flip open a book and dive right into education or escape. I don’t always love what I am assigned; I don’t get to pick my own material, but I know that someone out there requested each book specifically and so I always do my best. It is both a noble calling and a way for me to do something I enjoy. It might be something you enjoy as well. If you think it might be, I encourage you to look into your options, perhaps through your local library.

Crushing Monsters

I was reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King for my October ambience read and was struck by a couple of things. First, I noticed how tiny the size of the font used in the paperback is and how old and squinty my eyes are. Second, I noted what traditional vampires King’s monsters were, compared to the mutations that have hit popular culture since his book was published in 1975. And thirdly, (and here Mr. Wordtabulous would point out that I have exceeded the ‘couple’ of things I referred to in the first sentence, couple meaning two and not three, but Mr. W. doesn’t read this blog so pbbbbththhhh,) there is an interesting spiritual bit in the battle between Callahan, the priest, and the ancient vampire, Barlow. I suppose I need to warn you there could be spoilers here, but honestly, the book is over thirty-five years old. Consider yourself warned. Barlow has the boy, Mark, in his grasp and is facing off against the priest. Callahan, crucifix in hand, is all full of righteousness, and is literally glowing with the light of his convictions. Barlow is sly, and offers to release the boy and face Callahan “mono e mono” if the priest cast away his cross. To save the boy, Callahan agrees and tells Mark to flee. Mark does. Callahan suddenly becomes afraid to give up the cross, but even before he can throw it away, the light of  it starts to dim until it is nothing but an ordinary piece of metal. The symbolic cross wasn’t saving him, his faith in God, in “the White,” was what channeled that devastating power. When Barlow challenged him to let go of the cross, the priest became momentarily confused about the source of the power and he stopped channeling. And then bad things happened. End of spoiler alert.

Okay, I do understand this is fiction, but this vignette does make me wonder what, exactly, I am channeling. As a Christian, I believe in a Creator with infinite power, and a Savior with the juice to transform humanity so that they can enter the kingdom of heaven, as well as a Spirit surrounding and filling me with that love and power all the time. Instead, I seem to be channeling a lot of anxiety and wimpiness. This has got to stop. I am going to try on some power and faith and see what little monsters I can crush beneath my boots.

Learned! + Spooky Book Faves

Mr. Clean Magic Erasers may not be magic, but when my bathtub is gross, they are close enough.

People who mock you are annoying but you shouldn’t knock them down.

Even a person who is making progress on the path to becoming a better person fantasizes about knocking someone down occasionally.

Just because nobody is listening doesn’t mean you don’t have something important to say.

It isn’t all about you.

 

Seasonal Stories

I have always loved spooky tales: Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Sleepy Hollow and The Dark is Rising as a young person, and then Stephen King and Dean Koontz in college. I love the Harry Potter books but Twilight? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I read them–I read them like crazy and then had a latter day goth romance hangover for two weeks afterward. It is just that this time of year, I get a hankering to read Harry Potter all over again, and I will never need to read any of the Twilight books again. One Stephen King book I haven’t read is ‘Salem’s Lot, and it is on my shelf. I think this October its time has come.

One of my new author favorites is Kat Richardson, who writes a detective series superimposed over a supernatural story line that starts with Greywalker and develops with each subsequent book. After dying and being resuscitated Harper, the protagonist, discovers she can see “The Grey,” the world between this and the next. It is populated with ghosts, echoes, energies, spells, vampires and other supernatural creatures which are very distracting and often dangerous. Her journey of discovery of this new world can be as bewildering to the reader as it seems to Harper, which becomes part of the charm of the series. She is a strong and gritty hero without being overly masculine.

The cable TV show “The Dresden Files” was one of my guilty pleasures on the SyFy channel a few years ago. Urban wizard Harry Dresden solves mysteries and tries to keep ahead of the bill collectors and murderous supernatural creatures while sorting out his own romantic quandaries. I love a self-deprecating hero who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and both the TV and the book series by Jim Butcher offer laughs as well as action and tension.

We are halfway through October, and there is plenty of time to pick up a spooky read from a new author or old favorite.
Enjoy! (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!)