Long before Kit, Kirsten and their American Girl doll-and-book sisters, there was Laura Ingalls Wilder.

If you were a little girl in the '50s, '60s and '70s, you read and reread the well-known author's "Little House" books and loved them for their magical ability to transport you to another time and place. You danced to Pa's fiddle in Wisconsin's Big Woods, scanned the Kansas prairie from the back of a covered wagon, shivered through the long winter in De Smet, S.D., and gathered wild roses once spring finally came.

So it came as no surprise when the new "Little House on the Prairie" musical shattered advance box-office records at the Guthrie Theater this past week. To generations of women, Wilder is far more than a writer or a character in the autobiographical books she penned. Her celebration of ordinary girls in ordinary places made her a childhood friend -- one we may not have thought of in a while, but one long overdue for a celebration like the Guthrie's.

I read the eight-book "Little House" series (not counting the appendix-like "The First Four Years'') during what may have been the peak of Laura mania -- the 1970s. Every classroom in my northeast Iowa elementary school had a boxed set of the books. And every week, friends would gather to watch the Melissa Gilbert-Michael Landon TV show, hurriedly wrapping up homework and wolfing down supper in that TiVo-less age.

On the days between shows, we raced each other to see who could get through all of the books first. Recess meant reenacting various "Little House" scenes, with much arguing over who had to play Nellie Oleson, the general-store owner's bratty daughter. Away from school, Laura's pioneer life kept a hold on the imagination. On pony rides, we were Laura and her sister Mary, scouting the prairie for bad guys. We pestered moms and grandmas to do the old-fashioned things depicted in the books: churn butter, make homemade bread. And those Holly Hobbie sleeping bags and trinkets without which no slumber party was complete? More homage to Laura. Who do you think made that bonneted character cool?

I kept my worn-out "Little House" books in my room well into my teens, finally boxing them up when my family moved to Minnesota. As our old station wagon rumbled north toward Minneapolis -- to a small-town Iowa girl, a scary urban wilderness -- I thought of Laura's many moves and how brave she'd been.

Laura, though, is impossible to box away if you live in the Midwest, especially if you're a newspaper writer. Assignments to southwest Minnesota took me near Walnut Grove, the town in the TV show, and often meant traveling on Hwy. 14, part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. Court hearings for a South Dakota politician had me checking the map to see how close I was to De Smet. To the east, there's Pepin, Wis., and the vast lake Laura and her family crossed as they left the big woods of the first book. She also pops up in unexpected places like Spring Valley, where a city historical display included information about her husband's ties there.

When my daughter was born, I dug out the books from my parents' Anoka attic and put them in her room, hoping she'd naturally pull them off the shelf as she learned to read. But Laura has strong competition these days from the vast American Girl empire, which sells expensive dolls based on the characters in its books and runs shrine-like stores to which young fans make pilgrimages. And so, the "Little House" books stayed put while we survived the Great Depression with Kit, explored the Southwest with Josefina and galloped across the plains with Kaya and her spotted pony.

And that's OK. It's good to have abundant choices when it comes to strong heroines, and the American Girl books deserve their popularity. They're beautifully done and celebrate the same powerful themes as the "Little House" series: family, courage, ingenuity, kindness and responsibility. No doubt this weekend's opening of the new Kit movie will be a mom-daughter must for many.

But the phenomenal ticket sales at the Guthrie are heartening proof that the "Little House" tales continue to captivate. Kit and her fictional sisters may be marketing blockbusters, but it was Laura who was the original American Girl.

Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at jburcum@startribune.com.