Like countless other girls, one of my earliest introductions to historical fiction came in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic “Little House” series. Since I went into museum work and now earn my living writing historical novels (or, in the case of my Chloe Ellefson series, novels about history), those books and others like them obviously had a big impact on me.
Although I’ve lived in Wisconsin for decades now, I only recently made my first visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House Wayside, outside Pepin, WI. My older sister was visiting from the east coast. She loved the books too, so we made our way there to the spot where Little House In The Big Woods was set.
The big woods are long gone. Aside from a few trees scattered about the picnic area, the cabin is surrounded by cornfields. (Not suburban sprawl, thank goodness.)
Today, a replica log cabin sits on the site of the original Ingalls cabin. There is no museum. No interpreters. No gift shop.
Aside from a single display, the cabin is largely empty.
My sister and I knew all that, and we went anyway. We wanted to see the spot where Laura and her family had once lived.
When we arrived, two little girls wearing sundresses and bonnets were racing in and out of the cabin. “They’re so excited,” their mom told me. “We’ve been re-reading the book in the car.”
The next car that parked at the wayside carried three adults. Flanked by a younger couple (her children, perhaps?) an elderly lady walked slowly across the lawn and visited the cabin.
While we lingered, a slow but steady stream of people came and went. One van held what appeared to be three generations of Little House In The Big Woods fans.
Watching the visitors became as meaningful as visiting the site itself. All of us, young and old, had felt compelled to visit this place that we felt we knew so well. What a testament to Wilder’s storytelling! As a reader, it was moving to walk on this ground, so many years after reading the book. As a writer, it was moving to witness the power that stories still have, even in this modern age of computer games and sound bytes.
A brochure printed by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of Pepin, Wisconsin says this: “We trust that all who come to Pepin through the inspiration of Laura’s books will visit …Little House Wayside at the site of her birth. …It may not be what you expect, but as Laura said, ‘Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.'”
Except in our imaginations, and in the pages of a talented author’s books.