In 1976, when I was in the fourth grade and had discovered the joys of reading books, my mother shared with me her own childhood literary passion. One afternoon, in a sun-dappled room in our old Victorian home, she told me that when she was my age, she had discovered and loved the epic pioneering “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I took my mother's recommendation and began reading the first book in the series, “Little House in the Big Woods,” first published April 6, 1932.
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I brought that little yellow paperback to school. On its cover was a beautiful, tenderhearted illustration by the artist Garth Williams — the very same illustrator of E.B. White's “Charlotte's Web.” The cover of the “Little House” book depicted the Ingalls family in their one-room cabin set deep in the woods of Pepin, Wis., in the early 1870s. In this illustration, the patriarch of the family, Charles Ingalls, affectionately called “Pa” by his beloved little girls, is seated. He has a wooly brown beard, and his eldest daughter, Mary, is on the chair with him,standing behind him with her arms draped around his strong shoulders. Caroline Ingalls, "Ma," stands in the scene, holding her infant daughter, Carrie, up to her cheek. The family looks toward the foreground, where the middle Ingalls daughter, Laura, is holding a new doll, a joyous new Christmas gift. Until this point in Laura Ingalls' young life, she had only a corncob that she blanketed and clutched through the night, a makeshift doll, a necessity for a family facing constant financial hardship.
I carried my copy of "Little House in the Big Woods" day in and day out to Myrtle G. Schumann Elementary School, in Long Lake, Minn. When it came time for the daily hour of study hall, I read this book, enraptured, and fell for its themes of familial love, the dangers of the pioneering life and the bonds between daughters and fathers.
When things were particularly bleak for the Ingalls family — the winter howling outside their lone log cabin deep in the forest — inside, there was always a fire in the hearth. As the Ingalls girls burrowed under heavy quilts to go to bed, Pa told them stories and played his fiddle until his daughters drifted off.
Boys teased me for reading these books. The "Little House" stories were for girls, they said. I didn't possess the insight or maturity then to understand that that kind of thinking is clichéd. For whatever reason, most likely because I loved the books, I ignored those boys and their jibes and I just hid my paperbacks a little lower to the desk and continued reading, undaunted. I barreled through the entire "Little House" series that year.
Today, more than 30 years later, there is still interest in all things "Little House." Every year in Pepin, Wis., there is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Days festival. This year's event will be Sept. 14-15. Last summer, scholars, researchers and fans of the books gathered in Mankato, Minn. for "LauraPalooza," a three-day conference. In 2011, Chicago author Wendy McClure wrote an at times captivating, hilarious and sensitive memoir, "The Wilder Life," on her own obsession with the series. There is a popular podcast, "Trundlebed Tales," hosted and produced by Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar Sarah S. Uthoff.
People can't seem to get enough of the series and its simple life message.
I now have my own beloved daughters — ages 9, 5 and 1. When my first daughter was born, I rushed out to the local bookseller and bought a hardcover copy of "Little House in the Big Woods," hoping that one day she would discover in the pages the very same magic that my mother had shared with me.
Perhaps being a bit overzealous, when my eldest turned 4, I showed her the "Little House in the Big Woods" book I had purchased for her upon her arrival in the world in May 2004. Her honey-brown eyes zeroed in on the drawing of the smiling Laura Ingalls holding her doll.
"Can we read it tonight?" my daughter asked, excitedly. "Can we?"
"Sure," I said.
And at bedtime, after the bubble bath and after the teeth had been brushed and after the comfy PJs had been wiggled into, Mai-Linh, my little love of a girl, climbed into her bed and we began reading "Little House in the Big Woods." She listened. Closely. My daughter loves books.
And so, to my utter amazement and to my wife's glee, Mai-Linh sat night after night and listened to three or four or five pages of the "Little House" book. She was keyed in. Engrossed. And she asked questions:
Why do they live alone in the woods?
Why has Laura never seen a town before?
Why does she have a corncob for a doll?
And then there was the more difficult question: Where is Laura today? It launched us into a long and delicate discussion of mortality. Mai-Linh has had an unfair exposure to this subject in her young life. In November 2007, in a tragedy that makes no sense at all (and will never make sense), my kind and good mother-in-law died in an on-the-job accident. Mai-Linh was 3 1/2. Old enough to ask questions. Old enough to wonder about death. Old enough to ask what happens after we are gone.
We have carried on, as all families must do, and we have found joy in little things like reading books before bedtime to our children.
And so, over the course of six weeks, we read "Little House in the Big Woods" in its entirety. We had to skip the occasional graphic section on hunting and skinning an animal (actually, there are several of these passages), but we read the book all the way through. And when we had finished and closed the book, Mai-Linh took it and clutched it to her chest and she closed her eyes and said, "That's the greatest book in the whole world."
She fell asleep that night holding "Little House in the Big Woods" in her tiny arms.
A few weeks later, my wife and I took our girls to the local library. It is near our Chicago home. It is a spacious, well-stocked, regional library that we love and visit weekly. When we think about moving to a new neighborhood and a bigger house, we inevitably say, "But what about the library?"
And so, on that breezy summer evening, Mai-Linh asked to go the library after dinner. My wife had Le-Anh, our peaceful, happy, little 1-year-old strapped to her chest in a sling. (Our third-born beauty was still years off from arriving.) When Le-Anh was a baby she smiled all the time; she went with the flow and giggled and gleamed and drooled with the outcropping of first baby teeth. That night, on our way to the library, Mai-Linh wanted to ride in the stroller — something she hadn't done much of since she learned the freedom of walking.
While we roamed through the children's section of the library, my wife found a copy of the second book in the Laura Ingalls series, the classic, "Little House on The Prairie." She showed it to Mai-Linh, whose eyes beamed.
"Can we check it out?!"
Of course, we did. And we walked home, Le-Anh still smiling in the sling and Mai-Linh sitting in the stroller holding close her paperback copy of the "Little House on the Prairie." She was getting tired, her eyes growing heavier as the day grew dark. The sun was setting all orange out over western Illinois, and the air had that summer night stillness to it that, yes, one can even find in the big city.
Mai-Linh fell asleep that night, in the stroller, as we walked home from the library. "Little House on the Prairie" had to wait another day.
But that halcyon summer moment was not lost on me. It's a moment I owed to my mother, gone now for a too-long 21 years. I owe her for introducing me to Laura Ingalls. And as my young family and I strolled down the darkening, leaf-canopied streets toward our own little house, it reminded me of the beautiful ending of "Little House in the Big Woods."
It is getting late on a cold and bitter winter's night, and Laura and her sister Mary have climbed into their trundle beds. As they always do, after they have said their prayers and snuggled deep under the covers, as Ma sits in a chair and knits, as the fire burns and crackles in the hearth, Pa takes out his fiddle and plays a sweet and melodious lament. In this final scene in the book, Pa glides his bow across the fiddle's strings and sings the old New Year's Eve standby, "Auld Lang Syne."
In the light of the fireplace, when the song is done, Laura asks:
"What are the days of auld lang syne, Pa?"
"They are the days of a long time ago, Laura," Pa said. "Go to sleep now."
And as the book concludes, it reads:
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on a bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, "This is now."
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
That night, walking home with my family, I couldn't help but think those words myself and smile.
Now is now.
Sam Weller is the author of "The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury," and co-editor of "Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury," winner of the Bram Stoker Award. He is an associate professor in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun