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Little Classroom on the Prairie

Laura_Ingalls_Wilder.jpgUpcoming immersion focuses on the life and times of quintessential prairie girl Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are beloved for their portrayal of the pioneering Ingalls family as they established their home on the Midwestern prairie during the 1800s. Based on the author's life, they have been widely read for the past 75 years and adapted into numerous television shows, films, and stage plays.

Not only are the books a treasured piece of popular culture, they also offer valuable insight into the real lives of people who settled in this area during the westward expansion of the late 19th century, and provide a picture of the political, economic, ecologic, and social climate of the times.

Says Amy Mattson Lauters, professor of mass communication at Minnesota State University-Mankato, "Laura took pains when she was writing to make things as accurate as possible. She was aware that she was telling her own story, but she also knew she was writing history and she was careful to get it right."

Lauters, who is an expert on the writings of both Wilder (pictured above), and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, will be one of the presenters at the winter LearningLife Immersion, From the Big Woods to the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House Books, on February 26.

Lauters is the author of The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane: Literary Journalist, a primary contributor to the blog "Beyond Little House," and the organizer of the LauraPalooza academic conference in Mankato.

A Lifelong Passion

Her fascination with Wilder began when she was a little girl, and has turned into a lifelong passion. "My grandmother had a friend named Ruby, who was of one of Laura's cousins. One day, when she was visiting, I must have been bugging the two women more than usual, because Ruby introduced me to the books to give me something to do.

"She explained that this was a book about her cousin...and I can still remember my first impression was 'how does this elderly lady have a little girl as her cousin'" Lauters recalls with a laugh.

She continues, "but I was hooked. Knowing that Laura was not just a girl who could kick butt, but a REAL person, too, made for a strong connection. It made me realize that history is filled with actual, living, breathing people doing very real things and living extraordinary lives."

Part of Wilder's attraction, Lauters says, is also her cross-generational appeal. "For young people first reading her books, they see another kid, just like themselves. A young girl who is kind of a tomboy, and struggles with a lot of the same, universal issues that they do.

"For adults, Laura is a historian, autobiographer, cultural studies expert. She really defies classification. In her life, she was a farmer, a poultry expert, and an author. She was a true pioneer--not just in terms of where she grew up, either. And she raised a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was a pioneer in her own right, being one of the 'mothers of the American libertarian movement.'"

Pioneering farmers: socially, economically, technologically

Also presenting at the immersion is Hy Berman, professor emeritus of history at the University of Minnesota, and a specialist in labor history, Minnesota history, and 20th-century U.S. history. Berman will focus on the time frame and context in which Wilder grew up and wrote about, especially Minnesota, where Wilder's book On the Banks of Plum Creek is set.

"The characters in these books were farmers in a time when the farming economy was undergoing massive changes," Berman says. "Understanding the historical context in which they are acting is crucial to understanding where we are as a society today. We cannot understand the Minnesota of today without understanding the struggles of the past."

Dan Philippon, University of Minnesota professor of English will also be using the context of the books to discuss agriculture and society, but from a slightly different perspective. Philippon plans to examine representations of agriculture and food in the "Little House" series, and address how the ideology of the books both supports and contests the industrial agriculture of today.

Although the Wilder's name is in the title of the immersion, Philippon agrees the appeal of the course is broad. "Anyone with an interest in food, food writing, and the sustainable food movement will find something of value," he says.

"We'll discuss how the series both engages and evades the area's environmental history," he says. "I'd also like to show how the depiction of cooking and eating in the series offers a message of social engagement--one that is at odds with the myth of rugged individualism represented by the Wilders' westward movement."

Philippon, whose own family has travelled to several of the Little House sites across the Midwest, would also like to use those experiences to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a model for sustainable food production and consumption in a globalizing world.

"I think it will be a fun day, no matter what angle you want to look at the material from," says Lauters. "Whether you're interested in the pop culture aspect, or are into history--both U.S. and Minnesota; whether you're into women's studies, agriculture, or cultural studies; or even if you just have fond memories of the books from when you were a kid, there will be something for everyone."

The LearningLife Immersion, From the Big Woods to the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House Books will be Saturday, February 26, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., on the St. Paul campus. The cost is $125, which includes lunch, and morning and afternoon refreshments.

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