From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood

From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood

by Nancy McCabe

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A typical travel book takes readers along on a trip with the author, but a great travel book does much more than that, inviting readers along on a mental and spiritual journey as well. This distinction is what separates Nancy McCabe’s From Little Houses to Little Women from the typical and allows it to take its place not only as a great travel book but also as a memoir about the children’s books that have shaped all of our imaginations.

McCabe, who grew up in Kansas just a few hours from the Ingalls family’s home in Little House on the Prairie, always felt a deep connection with Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series. McCabe read Little House on the Prairie during her childhood and visited Wilder sites around the Midwest with her aunt when she was thirteen. But then she didn’t read the series again until she decided to revisit in adulthood the books that had so influenced her childhood. It was this decision that ultimately sparked her desire to visit the places that inspired many of her childhood favorites, taking her on a journey that included stops in the Missouri of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Minnesota of Maud Hart Lovelace, the Massachusetts of Louisa May Alcott, and even the Canada of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

From Little Houses to Little Women reveals McCabe’s powerful connection to the characters and authors who inspired many generations of readers. Traveling with McCabe as she rediscovers the books that shaped her and ultimately helped her to forge her own path, readers will enjoy revisiting their own childhood favorites as well.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826221476
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 01/29/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 783,183
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nancy McCabe is Professor and Director of the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and a faculty member in the brief-residency MFA program in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of three previous books, including Meeting Sophie: A Memoir of Adoption and Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter's Birthplace in China (both University of Missouri Press). She lives in Bradford, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

From Little Houses to Little Women

Revisiting a Literary Childhood

By Nancy McCabe

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7337-6


Beginning the Journey

WHEN I WAS THREE, I sat on our long gold couch while my mother read to me from first editions of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie with Helen Sewell illustrations. Though I too had blond hair, I seethed with indignation over Mary's smug assurance that her golden hair was prettier than Laura's brown. When Laura lashed out at her sister and was the one punished, the injustice stung me. A gift of peppermint candy became exciting, though such a present would have seemed like a paltry Christmas gift in my own time. I was horrified by the stories Ma told about the pressures on girls of her generation to be little ladies. I was riveted when obnoxious attention-seeking cousin Charley was attacked by yellow jackets. That episode later became inseparable from the Garth Williams illustration of Charley lying on the bed, mummified by bandages.

My friends and cousins and I frequently re-enacted scenes from what we called the "Laura and Mary" books, pretending my bed was a covered wagon. I usually played Laura, identifying with her struggles to be good, but sometimes I preferred the release of being Nellie Oleson, Laura's double who unleashes her delicious mean-girl impulses. I happily anticipated the debut of the TV series Little House on the Prairie, which to my great chagrin got so many things wrong—especially, I thought, its portrayal of the Olesons. In the show, the mother is an exaggerated shrewish stereotype, the father a caricature of an ineffectual, hen-pecked husband. And Nellie becomes a smug, flat character with her unnatural if period-appropriate ringlets like stacks of gold coins.

Not only did I know the books inside and out, I felt I had an additional special claim on them: my mother and aunts had grown up thirty miles down the road from Rocky Ridge Farm while Wilder was writing her stories. Though my mother's family drove by the farm sometimes, they didn't discover the books until the 1950s. After that, though, as young adults, they read them again and again, integrating the stories into their histories and mine.

My mother and her sisters felt a strong kinship to Wilder, sharing with her a rural and impoverished upbringing, their early childhood spent outside Raymondville, Missouri, in a ramshackle wood frame house insulated by old newspapers. Their father, who'd been partially blinded when sand blew into his eye during his five months in the army, was like Pa: a strong, capable giant of a man, even if he sometimes raged at their mother, even if he might appear to outsiders something of a drifter, a poor provider, a "robust man careless in his dress," according to one medical examination. As in Wilder's early books, there were three daughters, although also two sons.

My mother signed her first teaching contract at the age of nineteen, though this was old when stacked against Laura's fifteen. My mother always told me that she'd insisted on omitting the word "obey" from her wedding ceremony, and I copied her and made the same request for the vows of my own short-lived marriage. My mother also liked to quote the lines:

Backward, turn backward
Oh Time in thy flight
Make me a child again
Just for tonight.

I don't remember when I realized that the poem my mom liked to quote came straight from a song performed at a community gathering in Little Town on the Prairie. I don't remember when I realized that my mother's story of her wedding had been directly influenced by These Happy Golden Years, when Laura insists on the omission of the word "obey" from her wedding vows, telling Almanzo that she could never obey anyone.

No wonder Wilder always felt like a sort of spiritual grandmother to me, since her lore had been passed down through my family as our own. No wonder I felt such ownership of these books. I felt outraged and robbed when I encountered others who held the belief that the series belonged to them. What a shock it is to me, even in adulthood, to find that every book of criticism, every essay related to Wilder, opens with a story of a similar intense feeling of connection. Even my former student Dania writes about knowing, as a child, that if Laura had been born in the seventies, she'd have been "a half-Indian, half-Jewish little lefty kid from the suburbs of New York City just like me!"

Eventually I would discover another connection to Wilder: my childhood home was built in 1965 on land that had once belonged to the Osage Indians, in a different part of Kansas from the Osage Diminished Reserve where the Ingallses had squatted and then left in 1870. The Indians sold the land that became my childhood neighborhood, 160 acres, for $200 in 1872, when the Osage were forced to relocate to a reservation in Oklahoma. So the medium-sized house on the prairie in which I'd read voraciously as a child was, unbeknownst to me, part of the ancestral home of the Indians about whom I was reading.

My sense of possession first kicked in full force when, as a young teenager, I incited my cousin to collaborate on a protest letter to Michael Landon. We misspelled his name "Micheal" before we launched our litany of crimes against accuracy committed by the TV show Little House on the Prairie. We informed him that the name "Caroline" was not pronounced the same as "Carolyn"; that Jack was a bulldog, not a fuzzy little terrier; and that Pa was supposed to have a beard and not be so young and cute (no offense, Mr. Landon). We were disgusted by Mary's Hollywood-style breakdown over her loss of sight. In actuality, we contended, she had docilely accepted her fate. "She was never married and certainly never pregnant," we concluded, annoyed about the show's super-sweet happily-ever-after that put less emphasis on Mary's hard-won education than her factually nonexistent romantic life.

"Michael" Landon never responded. In a printed interview months later, he made a snide comment about the many fans who scolded him for not sticking more closely to the books. He dismissed those books and their fans with a disdainful comment about Wilder's boring plotlines, saying something along the lines of "Sometimes all that happens in a chapter is that a character goes to the creek." So maybe it was true that more drama was required to sustain a TV show, and possibly Mary's rage and frustration at her loss of sight were greatly underplayed in the books, which only report the event in retrospect, but I still felt personally affronted by Landon's comments.

So what happened? One moment I was the world's self-appointed foremost thirteen-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder authority who took seriously my responsibility to defend her work. One moment I was brimming with excitement because my aunt had decided to take my cousin and me to the places that Wilder had lived. But then, sometime during that journey with my aunt three years before she died, my enchantment with the series came to an abrupt halt. After the trip, I never read the books again.

That summer years ago, my aunt and uncle and their son Erik and my other cousin Jody and I drove up from Kansas through Nebraska and Iowa into Minnesota. My aunt wore wide-brimmed hats to protect her from the sun and sagged against my uncle while resting on benches. I was acutely aware that she was ill, that she was dying, but pretended not to notice the dark truth looming over us all, impossible to put into words.

As a young teenager during that drive, I was no doubt crossing a threshold beyond which children's books could no longer fully satisfy my raging hormones. I remember our trip as a series of cafés and motels: grilled cheese sandwiches at diners with fly-specked windows and fans circulating hot air, nights in crowded air-conditioned motel rooms, my horrifyingly shirtless uncle snoring nearby. And over it all, a profound pall of ordinariness: my aunt was dying, passing her last years in such mundane activities as driving around in the heat to tourist attractions on a brown, weedy, relentlessly flat prairie to learn about mundane people. As I stood before museum exhibits, most of the Ingallses struck me as shockingly boring, grim, thick waisted, fussy, even bigoted. This was what life came down to, something so opposite the slim, spirited Laura's youthful dreams.

In the wake of these impressions, which felt like a betrayal of my dying aunt, my relationship with her couldn't help but shift. I was growing up, moving on, viewing the world in increasingly complex ways, rejecting the nostalgia with which she regarded the books. Naturally, the series had ceased to speak to me in quite the same way, although the suddenness with which I severed myself from them still feels underscored with an exaggerated sense of disillusionment.

Even in adulthood, my attempts to read the Little House series to my daughter repeatedly stalled. I couldn't seem to achieve what I'd been able to with childhood books that meant less to me: I couldn't re-create that unalloyed pleasure and fierce possessiveness that marked my early relationship with Wilder's work. My feelings about those novels were too bound up in my memory of that trip, my sense of being deeply, strangely, let down.

In my early twenties, encountering Michael Dorris's essay on the series's portrayal of American Indians, I related to his sense of betrayal. My own similar feelings as a white teenager remained more nebulous to me than his understandable adult discomfort with the embedded politics that erased the humanity of the Osage Indians and reinforced an attitude of white entitlement. A few years later, in his biography of Wilder's daughter Rose Wilder Lane, William Holtz also shook up many assumptions on which my childhood was built when he asserted that Lane had ghostwritten the novels. My relationship with the books became even more complicated as I reconsidered my ingrained belief that they were simply apolitical accounts of Wilder's life that had been written by a relatively inexperienced author with amazing stores of raw talent. I also had to rethink the assumption that single authorship automatically accorded books more authority and artistic value than collaboration.

In my forties, as I began to reread childhood favorites, I steered clear of the Little House series after many failed attempts to share them with my daughter. It had started when she was five, and I read aloud Little House in the Big Woods. She was less than enthralled. I pushed on to Little House on the Prairie while she was in the bathtub. Some books had so captivated her—The Ersatz Elevator, Because of Winn Dixie, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson—that she demanded that I keep reading while the water turned chilly. "Go on," she said, and ran more hot water. At the ends of the books she emerged looking aged, fingers and toes shriveled, skin white and as soft as Kleenex.

But with Little House on the Prairie, the bathwater didn't even have the chance to turn tepid. After one chapter each night, she was out of there, dripping impatiently on the rug as she called for her towel. In today's sophisticated, high-concept page-turning children's book market, I thought, from her perspective as a child of China and the eastern US, episodic stories about the grind of pioneer life and its corresponding comforts must seem dull.

We did watch a new TV movie of Little House on the Prairie, and I even made it through a few episodes of the saccharine series on DVD before I turned her loose to stomach them on her own. We began On the Banks of Plum Creek, but it didn't take.

I had by then been rereading childhood books for several years, and I had a sense of reluctant inevitability that I was going to have to return to this series. After all, though my worldview had been shaped by many, many books, none had influenced me quite as profoundly as these, the ones that figured in my earliest memories. Eventually it became clear to me that I didn't just want to reread these formative books; it seemed somehow important to return to the places that had inspired them. About that time, I received a state arts grant and the time seemed right—would I ever again have the money to do a trip like this? We made another stab at Plum Creek and got to the end three months later, two weeks before we were scheduled to leave. Reading aloud, I was finding the books so familiar that they felt redundant, like a part of my past that I just needed to let go of. I regretted planning the trip.

Finally, a week and a half before our departure date, I buckled down. Once I started, I flew through the series, senses heightened, memories sparking; my love for the books was mysteriously restored as I experienced a new pull toward the theme of undergoing, again and again, the process of making a home. Every few years, in a new state, I've planted my china-shepherdess equivalent on my own mantel-equivalent, created a new network of friends and a new home on a reverse trek from that of my ancestors, relocating from Kansas to Arkansas to Missouri to Nebraska, briefly detouring to the southeast, ending up in the northeast. My relationship to the books reconfigured itself in light of my adult experience.

I also recognized details from the books in unexpected ways. There are a few mentions of Ma's Delaine dress, a holdover from her fashionable, independent life before marriage. I didn't remember the dress, but now I knew where my cousin Jody got one of her childhood favorite girl names, Delaine. I remembered wishing I could, like Mary, believe in the superiority of my blond hair, never described by anybody as "golden." I recalled finding wooden beads in the dirt at a camp I attended when I was nine, sure they were Indian beads just like the ones Laura and Mary find.

The mood of the books began to infect me, a gratitude for small pleasures. I began to think in Wilder's language; everything was "happy," "cozy," "pretty," "snug," and "sweet." I had such a feeling of plenty when I carried groceries—"provisions," I thought—down to my basement freezer. I felt new appreciation for the patterns of sunlight swimming on the walls of my living room, for the red geraniums in a pot on my porch, for quiet hours of reading and evening walks.

When I was halfway through the series, I was seized by an impulse to explore the woods above our house. We'd lived there six years, so it seemed high time to find out what was nearby. Pa and Laura's shared wanderlust, their yearning toward adventure, had sizzled from the pages into my fingertips, entering my bloodstream as surely as if Wilder had passed her DNA on to me.

I was much more excited about the woods than Sophie. It was 90 degrees, and she immediately started complaining that she was hot and tired. The path climbed steeply uphill, scored with deep muddy ruts from four-wheelers. Every few feet, tucked back into trees, overgrown with weeds, old oil derricks stood like miniature windmills robbed of their blades.

We followed a set of cables stretching way up the mountain, ending at a small engine house, the whole contraption rusted over. Northwestern Pennsylvania was the US's chief oil producer from the mid-1800s until early in the twentieth century, when much of the country's oil industry shifted to Texas. In the 1870s, there were 4,000 oil wells in Bradford, nearly half the number of the town's human population today.

The path plunged steeply downhill, blackberry thickets tangling along the edges where the trail flattened out. I wondered if we should turn back before we got lost, but we pressed on and suddenly found ourselves at a clearing where the whole town spread beneath our feet. Black rooftops with their brick chimneys, white pipes, and pine needle puddles descended the hill like stair steps. In the valley below, downtown rose up, a few six- and eight-story buildings against the backdrop of the opposite hills.

Then the end of the trail spilled us out onto a street. Nearby, an eerie clanking repeated and repeated—an empty swing in a breeze? A child's loose bicycle wheel? The noise was too rhythmic to be either. We crept toward the sound, ears perked for children's voices among the steady clank, clank, clank. Sophie glanced at me, wide eyed. We squinted through the trees, expecting ghosts. Instead we came upon a little oil rig, cables alternating as they creaked up and down.

Turning the corner, we found ourselves looking down on the roof of Sophie's school. "We could walk to school this way," I said. I pictured her tramping through the woods like a storybook pioneer girl. Rather than wait for the bus, it's usually easier for us to take the sidewalks a few blocks along the busy streets below. But this way, we could stroll through the stillness, watching the leaves change in the fall, feeling, under our feet, the earth turn hard and frozen, our footsteps marking white stretches of snow. The Little House series had infected me, reminding me what it was like to feel like a character in a book, heightening my alertness to history and nature, my appreciation of details, of beauty.

"Mmm," was all Sophie said in reply to my half-cocked notion about walking this way every day.


Excerpted from From Little Houses to Little Women by Nancy McCabe. Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 Beginning the Journey 11

Chapter 2 Rereading Childhood 25

Chapter 3 Pepin, Wisconsin: Little House in the Big Woods 45

Chapter 4 Journeys into Female Imagination 57

Chapter 5 Independence, Kansas: Little House on the Prairie 81

Chapter 6 Mankato, Minnesota, and Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy Books 95

Chapter 7 Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and Burr Oak, Iowa: On the Banks of Plum Creek and the Lost Years 117

Chapter 8 Coming of Age with Literature 135

Chapter 9 De Smet, South Dakota, and Mansfield, Missouri: By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, The First Four Years, and Where the Books Were Written 151

Chapter 10 Prince Edward Island: Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne Books 173

Chapter 11 Concord, Massachusetts: Louisa May Alcott's Little Women 201

Epilogue: Amherst, Massachusetts, and Emily Dickinson 223

Notes 235

Bibliography 249

Index 259

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