Updated Sun, Nov 4, 2012 10:29 pm
For many children, reading the iconic Little House series, which celebrate author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s American prairie upbringing during the late 19th century, was a rite of passage.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the tales became the basis of a popular television series, Little House on the Prairie, which further popularized the story of the Ingalls family.
For Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, an Ohio University doctoral student in creative nonfiction, the love of the books and the author didn’t end in her youth.
During a two-week adventure across the Midwest, Ferguson retraced Wilder’s pioneer journey. She captured the experience in her book My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself.
Starting in Pepin, Wis., and ending in Mansfield, Mo., she stopped at sites of Wilder’s past homes while she took in the scenery.
"Standing out in the middle of a prairie is amazing if you’ve never done it," she said. "The lakes of South Dakota are so beautiful."
For the entirety of the trip, Ferguson wore a prairie dress. In the opening pages of her book, she describes how buying the garment was a last-minute decision, one that required overcoming the social anxiety she anticipated she would feel when wearing it.
A main theme of the book is Ferguson’s desire at age 38 to finally feel grown up. The dress, she explains, was her way to connect to Wilder’s own experience of maturing from a little girl to a young woman, as described in the series.
Her trip had its pitfalls, however. Although the prairie was gorgeous, "by the end I was just tired and I wanted to get out of the dress," she said.
Ferguson also wondered if, by the end of the trip, she might be disappointed in Wilder.
"Sometimes, artists we love might write great books or make great music, but they aren't always nice people. I needed Laura Ingalls Wilder to be a good person, or I couldn't believe in the books anymore," she said. "That was a big risk to me."
Ferguson is passionate about the Wilder books because they remain relevant today, she explains.
"They convey the nostalgia, the comfort I experienced as a kid reading the books, but the books also show how Laura confronts difficulties and overcomes her challenges," she said. "Sometimes I still feel like Laura clutching that footbridge in Plum Creek, vowing that I refuse to be afraid no matter the fearful conditions."
The process of turning the trip into a book took about three years, after Ferguson decided to structure the work as a travelogue. She added musings, historical research, and essays she had written over the years where they fit in well.
The book is entirely from her point of view, but she says she wishes she had interviewed more people to include in her story.
Although Ferguson’s target audience is Wilder fans, she would like the book to be relatable to anyone with a crazy dream.
"What I hope is that anyone who has ever had a childhood idol, had a writer change their life, want to do something wacky and not know exactly why, would find a bit of themselves in my story,” said Ferguson, who will base her next writing project on a series of road trips to quirky spots in her home state of Alabama.
Because she didn't want to give away the ending, Ferguson was reluctant to divulge what she learned overall from the trip.
Instead she offered a Wilder quote to sum up her experience: "It is best to be honest and truthful, to make the most of what we have, to be happy with simple pleasures, and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong."
This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine.