Writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder is, for me, like writing about an intimate friend, although we never met.
We started corresponding in 1943 when I was nine years old, and she was in her seventies, though I didn’t know it. My family lived in Washington D.C. at that time and Grannie discovered her books in the local library. She read The Long Winter to me and my younger sister and brother, Brigid and Randal. She was very moved herself and as she closed the book wondered how the Ingalls family had been able to manage during those blizzard months (for example, what did they do for a toilet?). “Why don’t you write and ask her?” she said. It was a momentous thing to do! I took great pains in writing that letter and to my delight and the awe of the rest of the family she answered me. The letter was handwritten on paper headed with flowers. About the toilet, she simply said that they had “ways of dealing with such things.”
I wrote back and told her more about my family. It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted from 1943 to 1950 when we moved to Montreal. I treasured her flower-headed letters for years until finally, in my many changes of residence, they were lost.
When we were about to leave Washington D.C. for Canada in 1946, I wrote to her about the move. We were to spend that summer in a ski cottage in the Laurentian Mountains. In her next letter, Laura told me to be sure and keep a scrap album with specimens of the flowers and leaves I found. I followed her advice while we were there.
The letters gave me direct contact with someone I felt I knew intimately from her books, and who came alive to me in our correspondence. Now that I myself am in my late seventies, it amazes me to think that she was my age when she took such interest in correspondence with a child.
The Little House books became part of my life. I learned the things that Ma and Pa taught their daughters, I admired the simplicity of their lives, where every item of clothing was precious and meals had to be eked out ingeniously by Ma from whatever nature and Pa provided. I saw them pray and put their confidence in God, just as Mother taught us.
Like Laura, I also wanted to become a teacher. By 1957 I had obtained my Masters degree and teacher’s diploma in Dublin (Ireland) and three years later I was offered the chance to go and teach in Africa – in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a huge, pioneering adventure in education for African women. I spent over fifty years there and told the story in a book called To Africa with a Dream.
I recently saw a documentary about Abraham Lincoln, and realized that Laura, who was born in 1867, was almost his contemporary. The realization came as a shock. Nothing in the Little House books indicates that the country was just emerging from a civil war. What does come out is Ma’s abhorrence for Indians and the gleeful 4th of July song in Farmer Boy about being “young, white and free”. Thank God we have come a long way since then.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is my friend. I still seek her out in her books and am ever so grateful for the positive influence she has had on my life.