Fans and scholars of Laura Ingalls Wilder will gather in Mankato this summer to study all things Half-Pint.
When it comes to seeking out Laura Ingalls Wilder's life as a pioneer, Minnesota is Ground Aught.
The state is where Plum Creek meanders, where Walnut Grove gave up its sod to build houses. Other Ingalls landmarks are within a day's drive: Pepin, Wis., to the east, Burr Oak, Iowa, to the south, and De Smet, S.D., to the west. Mankato -- let's call it "Mid-Sized City on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway" -- is central to them all.
This summer, Minnesota State University, Mankato, will host "LauraPalooza 2010: Legacies," the first conference sponsored by the newly formed Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. The group came into being last summer when Laura fans and researchers gathered in De Smet and realized a common concern about a lack of outlets to share research on Laura.
The conference, July 15-17, is open to the public; registration begins Sunday. Scholars will present their scholarly papers, and the scheduled speakers are respected biographers William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill and John Miller. But organizers also are trying to tempt actors from the "Little House on the Prairie" TV show to appear. There will be craft demonstrations, a "tin pail" lunch and the opportunity to visit Walnut Grove, site of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum.
There's even going to be a spelling bee.
Its very name, LauraPalooza, speaks to the peculiar niche that Laura Ingalls Wilder occupies in Americana. "There's a lot of interest in her as a pop cultural figure," said Amy Mattson Lauters, a professor in the Mankato university's Department of Mass Communications and author of "The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane," published in 2007. "She's a real person who often has fan fiction written about her, and she fictionalized some of her own life," Lauters said, then laughed. "Very postmodern."
"That's actually one of the questions we ask ourselves all the time," Lauters said. Given the incredible and well chronicled story of pioneer settlement, millions have gravitated to the story as seen through a little girl's eyes, where dramas ebb and flow like waves lapping at the shores of Silver Lake. Oxen step through dugout ceilings, grasshoppers arrive in clouds, blizzards blow, Ma worries. There is Jack, and the panther tracks and Nellie Oleson. Laura (and among her fans, she is always called Laura) tells about them all with straightforward candor, which makes them entirely credible.
"Speaking as a cultural scholar, I think a lot of what it is about Laura is the values she expressed in her books," Lauters said. "There's a very strong family center, a very strong sense of independence, and a strong appreciation of the history of pioneer culture."
Timing also helped. Laura wrote between 1932 and 1943, "just as many people were forced to leave their agrarian roots during the Depression," Lauters said. Her stories were rooted in agrarian values "and many of us don't have to look too far back in the family tree to find a farmer.
"And, of course, Laura is a girl who kicks butt."
"Little House in the Big Woods" was published in 1932, when Laura was 65. It was the first book in what would become an eight-volume saga that has sold about 60 million copies and has been printed in more than 30 languages. Her fame has endured. Laura's last home, with husband Almanzo and their daughter, Rose, was a farm called Rocky Ridge near Mansfield, Mo., where the family raised chickens and tended an apple orchard. Today, about 40,000 people visit the site annually.
Then, of course, there's the TV show that starred Melissa Gilbert as Laura and Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls. In 2008, Gilbert played Caroline Ingalls in a musical based on the books; it opened at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and went on national tour.
Such continued interest in all things Laura doesn't surprise Lauters, partly because the books are good reads, but also because the lessons of the pioneer era are not so distant, especially in the Upper Midwest. "My grandparents were friends of cousins of Laura," she said, acknowledging that the connection was a bit of a reach. Yet here she is, in the land of Plum Creek and Lake Pepin and Walnut Grove, looking toward the same horizons that Laura once did, no longer for grasshoppers, but for a glimpse of gumption.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185