THE VOICE OF LAURA Ingalls Wilder continues to sweep across America like the prairie wind she wrote about, though she's been dead for 41 years.
"We're in the third generation of Wilder's books," says Ann Weller Dahl, in her 27th year as a teacher at Baltimore's Calvert School, "and as far as I'm concerned there'll be a fourth and a fifth. Wilder combines reading skills, history and values that are being ignored in much of education."
Other authors and other series from the past remain popular among young people, but you won't find Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys in the Calvert School curriculum. Dahl makes Wilder a major part of her "ninth-age" (fourth-grade) studies, and the "Little House Guides," which Dahl edits, are big sellers in the Calvert School's worldwide correspondence school, in which 15,000 children are enrolled.
"Wilder is a natural for home schoolers," says Dahl. "She teaches about love, strength and security in the family. She teaches that it's important to have and practice religious beliefs, though she doesn't shove religion at you. And she teaches that it is also important to get as much education as possible."
The passages in Wilder's accounts of growing up on the U.S. frontier from the 1860s to the 1880s become increasingly more difficult as the characters in the stories mature. It's this feature of the "Little House" books, says Wilder biographer William Anderson and others, that makes them excellent supplements in a reading curriculum: Children reading the books mature with the characters they're reading about.
Except for some rather stilted dialogue, Wilder's descriptions are so vivid that they light the fire of recognition in those of us with roots in the frontier.
In "The Long Winter," Wilder writes about being snowbound in DeSmet, S.D., where Laura Elizabeth Ingalls met and married Almanzo James Wilder. In the book, Almanzo and a friend risk their lives to buy wheat to save the town.
On a bone-cracking sunny morning after a three-day blizzard, Wilder writes, "There was not a track on the waves of snow, not a print of rabbit's paw or bird's claws. There was no trace of a road, no sign that any living thing had ever been on the frozen snow fields where every curve was changed and unknown. Only the wind had furrowed them in tiny wavelets, each holding its own faint line of blue shadow, and the wind was blowing a spray of snow from every smooth, hard crest."
Seventy-nine words, nine of two syllables, none of three. Says Dahl: "These are lessons in how to write, in building vocabulary, in studying Latin roots."
They're also familiar to those raised, as was Wilder, by homesteaders or their children: A true blizzard does wipe away all signs of living things. The coldest days are always sunny.
And larger truths: Women suffered as much as men on the frontier, and many of them carried their families through decades of deprivation. Teaching was one of the ways women helped their families survive. Wilder did it at 16, "commuting" 12 miles from DeSmet, a speck of a prairie town where my grandfather, traveling salesman Harry Carlson, once peddled hardware.
This being the late 20th century and the "Little House" books having been popularized in a long-running television series, a little industry has grown up around Wilder's creations. You can buy a book of Ma's recipes and one of Pa's fiddle music. The "My Little House on the Prairie Home Page" on the Web will serenade you with "America" as you read.
But it's not that bad, not nearly so bad as the blatantly commercial American Girls historical series. You can visit most of the Laura Ingalls Wilder historical "sites" on the Great Plains, in Florida and in New York without encountering huge crowds. (Dahl has toured all of them twice.)
If you want to read Wilder again, or if you'd like to begin, Dahl suggests starting with the third of nine in the series, "On the Banks of Plum Creek."
Millions have been there before you. Millions are there now. Baltimore County libraries were doing a brisk business in Wilder last week. It's nice to think she is still popular a half-century or more after she penned her prairie books.
Pub Date: 12/06/98