The seed for this column is one flattering social media comment from my college friend Chrissy Mullender:
“Karen Nelson, you simply must read this. If you, I, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on a group Facebook chat, I would have to pay special attention to which of you were responding.”
The comment was under a photo of “Little House in the Ozarks,” and I suspect you, too, didn’t know it existed. Chrissy, who lives with her husband and son on a farm near Waldo, Kansas, had it in her Facebook album titled “Books I Want To Read.”
I found it in Kearney Public Library’s nonfiction collection. Edited by Stephen Hines, it’s a compilation of Cappers-network farm paper columns written by its farm home editor, the inimitable Laura Ingalls Wilder, years before the Little House books were written.
A week after Chrissy’s note, I started the book.
“It seems,” I texted her, “that my childhood reading, once combined with my parents’ good sense, may’ve made a pretty big impression on the way I think. Interesting.”
At risk of revealing an overinflated ego, it is like reading my own brain — but a lot more succinct and cogent.
I have a lot of opinions, but after so many missteps, I generally keep them to myself, lest I seem half-baked at best or mean at worst.
Laura had at least twice as many opinions, and a way of expressing herself with strength and tact that I dearly wish I possessed.
I paged through the book to mark things I wouldn’t mind quoting, and I ran out of flags just over halfway through the book. True story.
These columns were written starting in 1911 and span a little more than 13 years. At this time, Laura and her husband, Almanzo, “The Man of the Place,” were residents of their final and relatively prosperous home, Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri.
“Farmers surely are the most optimistic people in the world!” she writes. This should be the refrain if there were to be a theme song of her life — and maybe for my own theme song as well.
With optimism, cheerfulness and hard work — and a measure of faith and rest — the Wilders overcame nearly unfathomable hardships and outlasted many changes.
Laura writes of the strain of World War I and the changes (not all positive) brought by women moving into the workforce while men were fighting. She offers measured counsel in the wake of women’s suffrage. “… Women’s vote will no more bring purity into politics and can no more be counted on as a unit than can man’s vote.”
She iterates the partnership role farm women must have. “A farmer’s wife may and should be — I may almost say must be — her husband’s partner in the business, and she may be this without detracting from the home life.”
And separately, “Not that the Man of the Place would do as I said unless he agreed with me, but getting my ideas helps him to form his own opinions, and he knows that two heads are better at planning than one.”
The columns are enthusiastic and eloquent and the topics run the gamut — from friendship to excessive frugality, from city living to music, from gossip to parenting.
She even addresses appearance, and with practically the same words I heard recently in a Mary Kay sales pitch: “When washing the face, the skin should always be rubbed up and outward, because it is the gradual sagging down of the muscles of the face that causes wrinkles.”
As a kid, I had the yellow-bound paperback book set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
I remember thinking of the Ingalls family’s home as one of the few points of interest in our family’s move from New Mexico to Kansas when I was 13, even though where we lived at Ulysses was almost literally as far from Independence, the real location of the fictionalized Little House on the Prairie, as could be possible in Kansas.
It is completely unexpected, and complete joy, to find an affinity for this old-friend author in adulthood.
In closing, from Laura: “There is a moral here somewhere, too, I am sure, and again I will leave it for you to discover.”
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the Sept. 9, 2017, issue of the Kearney Hub.