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Chasing Laura, Part Two

October 22, 2010

Today was the big day. Daughter and I stayed at a hotel in Brookings, SD, which is about 40 minutes from De Smet. In hindsight I’m glad we did this. Upon arriving in De Smet, food and hotel options were pretty limited. Plus we really enjoyed seeing Secretariat last night, which I would highly recommend if you haven’t seen it already.

We arrived in De Smet and drove first to the LIW Gift Shop, which is where you sign up for the tour. (Why do all tours start in gift shops?) We had 45 minutes to kill before the tour started up, so the guide gave us a map to go out and see the De Smet Cemetery, which is where the Ingalls clan, minus Laura and Almanzo, are buried. The cemetery was only about five miles from town, and was in a very peaceful spot. The map they gave us really helped us find the graves quickly, as it’s not a small cemetery. The Ingalls graves were all together at the back of the cemetery in a little roped-off area. Grace and her husband were by themselves a little ways over. All of the markers were newer except for Charles’, which was weather-worn and original. The map also helped us locate other famous De Smet settlers’ graves from Laura’s books. We got to see where the Boasts, Rev Brown and his wife, and Gerald Fuller were buried too. It was really cool.

We made it back in time for the Tour, which took us first into the Surveyor’s House. Those of you who’ve read On The Shores of Silver Lake will recognize the Surveyor’s House as the place where Pa and his family spent their first winter in De Smet before it was even De Smet, thanks to the railroad guys who needed someone to watch their tools all winter. The tour guide we had was wonderful. She reviewed the many moves the Ingalls family made, some of which aren’t included in any of Laura’s books. The Surveyor’s House was small by our modern standards, but must have been like a mansion to Laura and her family, who were used to tiny log cabins and dugouts. We learned there that Laura and Ma were only 4’11”, and that Pa was only 5’2″. All the cupboards and shelves in the Surveyor’s House and in the Ingalls house we saw later on the tour were built specially so Ma would be able to reach everything, which was hilarious. The guide took us into another room in the house that had a square of blue tape on the ground, about 8’x10′, and had us all crowd into the square before telling us that the area we were standing in was the typical size of a claim shanty. There were six growups including me and my daughter on the tour, and elbow room was definitely at a premium. Which led me to an interesting question: How the hell did the Ingalls family stay for months at a time in a house that was slightly bigger than my queen size bed, and not kill each other? It’s worth thinking about. They also had some examples of twisted hay sticks to see, which Laura and Pa spent the whole Long Winter twisting out back to keep the family warm. Back in the day there were no trees on the prairie, so once the lumber ran out at the lumber yard, that was all they had. The guide told us it took 12 sticks of hay just to make a kettle boil. This also led to an interesting question: How many sticks did it take to keep the family from getting hypothermia on a daily basis? And did Laura and Pa have time to do anything else BUT twist hay?

So we loved the Surveyor’s House. We were unable to go upstairs, but the tour company had arranged a mirror that was set at an angle so we could see what it looked like upstairs. We also finally got to see what a “whatnot” looked like. Aves and I have been mulling that one over for months. We also learned that the Surveyor’s House had been moved to this location from its original location out by Silver Lake, when the Ingalls stayed there. Sadly we could take no pictures inside. ūüė¶

Next on the tour was a typical one-room schoolhouse, similar to Laura’s Brewster School from These Happy Golden Years. One thing that was really cool was to see the actual McGuffey readers they used in school. I flipped through the Fifth Reader, which is the one Laura was using in school in Little Town on the Prairie, and found¬†excerpts from classic¬†literature, the Bible, famous speeches, etc. that the kids would be reading before they could go on to the next book.¬†I could see why people were so well-read back then. Nowadays if you get a kid to finish one of the Twilight books, it’s a miracle. I was also excited to see what a pioneer blackboard was like. From what I read in These Happy Golden Years, blackboards were just that…boards painted black. The one in the schoolhouse we saw today was a black-painted board…and the chalk worked great. The schoolroom was COLD, even though it was about 60 degrees outside. There was a stove in there,¬†and¬†I wondered during the sub-zero months how much heat one of those cast-iron stoves would have¬†put out. Probably the smaller the school, the more heat there would be.

The last building at the tour site was the First School of De Smet, where Laura and Carrie attended school. This was a larger building that was pretty beat-up on the inside. The society has not decided whether or not they are going to raise the money to renovate it at the moment, because the cost would be substantial. They have some idea of where the blackboards were, and had actually located some items hidden in the walls of the schoolhouse, which was a little bit Ghost Adventures for my taste.

For the next and last stop, we had to drive in a caravan over to the Ingalls House, which is a house Charles built for his family about five blocks away. The drive took us through downtown De Smet, and although none of the original town buildings except the Lofthus store are still there, you could see what it might have been like. We were able to see a photograph of Pa’s store building, where the family lived during The Long Winter, but the building itself was gone. That was the only downer of the whole tour for me, was that so many of the original buildings I wanted to see had either burned down, been torn down, or no longer existed. I know we’re talking about shanties and other inconsequential buildings from 100+ years ago, but still, if the Ingalls House made it, why couldn’t the rest of them?

Anyway, the Ingalls house was awesome. We got to see the bedroom where Pa died, and the tour guide gave us the inside skinny on the lives of the rest of the Ingalls clan after Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield. Carrie was the one that surprised me the most. She¬†held down her own claim in Colorado, and she married the man who named Mount Rushmore, David Swanzey. She also worked at the newspaper. She seemed so sickly and frail through most of the books, I was surprised that she became so hardy in later life. The house has gone through some reconstruction and restoration, but was really nice for a house that Pa built by hand, and must have felt like a castle after that claim shanty! There were five bedrooms, three on the top floor and two on the main floor, and they were all a good size. There was also a parlor, kitchen and entrance hall. Each of the bedrooms held items that belonged to Laura’s sisters. We were able to touch some Braille things and see an embossed Bible of Mary’s, look at Rose Wilder Lane’s books and office furniture, see Carrie’s jewelry, and Grace’s books. You really felt as if you were in a house with the Ingalls family.

De Smet more than made up for the cheesiness of the Walnut Grove stop from Thursday. Everything felt authentic and the tour guide we had was great. It was a long trip home, over a very vast, immense, endless prairie, but it was awesome to see views that Laura and her family probably saw every day while out there. Get out there if you can!


Chasing Laura, Part One

October 21, 2010

So daughter and I hit the road this morning for De Smet. I have never been through Southwestern MN or SD before, and I can honestly tell you that this trip so far has permanently revised my definition of the word ‘rural’. We live in a small town about 20 mins south of Minneapolis, that I so foolishly thought was in the boondocks. I tell ya, some of the ‘towns’ we drove through on our way here made our hometown look like a burgeoning metropolis. Is it even right to call a place like Revere, which had a population of 100 on their welcome sign, a town??

Up until DeSmet, the Ingalls clan were usually all by themselves in the middle of nowhere. Even in this day and age, rural communities still seem pretty remote and quiet. Every small town we whizzed through on our way here had four similarities: a gas station, a church and graveyard, a bar, and about ten farmhouses. You wonder to yourself how much life has really changed for folks who live here in the last fifty years. Do these guys have the Internet? ESPN? Nintendo Wii? I couldn’t find a fast food restaurant for an hour of the trip, so it’s not a reach to wonder.

Anyhoo. Daughter and I decided we would stop in Walnut Grove, MN, another home of Laura’s, on the way to break up the monotony of eating for four and a half hours straight. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Gift Shop was conveniently located right off Hwy 14. The entrance to the museum was of course located in the gift shop, which sold an overpriced array of Ingalls-themed gifts. The museum itself wasn’t so much a Laura museum as it was a Walnut Grove museum. There were a lot of pictures of Walnut Grove residents past and present, someone’s very large antique doll collection (???), and simulated chapel and school buildings, but overall the museum was seriously lacking in actual Laura stuff. They had some nice pictures of the Ingalls family and some other pics of people like Nellie Owens and Christy McClary from Plum Creek, as well as a whole room devoted to the Little House TV show, but no actual Ingalls memorabilia. Which was weird. We got really excited when we saw a fiddle on the wall with a sign next to it that said “Pa’s fiddle”, but then under that in smaller letters was “is on display in Mansfield, MO”. WHAT????

There were some nice antiques from the time period as well as a sample sod house. Was it worth the 10$ to get in? Not really. Big tourist trap if you ask me. I bet they make tons of money there just from putting Laura’s name on the door so suckers like me will stop and check it out for 10$ a pop. So tomorrow will be the big trip into DeSmet. We’re enjoying being back in civilization and will probably go check out Secretariat tonight. More posts tomorrow.

Little Road Trip Across the Prairie

October 19, 2010

I have a few things going on this week that are book-related that I thought I would share with you.

I have decided to channel Julia Child this week after enjoying her book My Life in France, by making the first main course she enjoyed on French soil…sole meuniere. Anyone that’s made it or had it, please leave a comment or suggestion! I feel pretty Bobby Flay when I don’t burn mac and cheese, so this should be a challenge!

Also, daughter and I are taking a literary road trip later this week, as I was able to accomplish the impossible..three days off work! We’re going to go to De Smet, South¬†Dakota,¬†the final home of most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family and the setting for several of our favorite books, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, On The Shores of Silver Lake, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. My daughter and I have a rich and proud tradition four years strong of reading these books together before she goes to bed. It will be so cool to see places we’ve only read about in person…the Surveyor’s House where they were the first official settlers of De Smet, the school where Laura, Carrie and Grace went, Pa’s house in town and their homestead claim. Apparently the entire family except Laura and Almanzo is buried there. Plus we get to do the things we’ve only read about, like ride in a covered wagon, write on a slate,¬†and twist hay. Fun times for all! I will take tons of pics.

Back on Track

October 15, 2010

I’m still alive! I have to admit I have fallen off the Modern Library wagon as of late. Here are my not-so-good reasons:

1)I’m not sure who was more horrified two weeks ago: Kurtz right before he died, or me finding out I had to read the long-long version of Heart of Darkness. I had no desire to read anything for about three days afterwards, which is not cool when I have roughly 60 books left on the list. So, executive decision….we’re going to let the abridged version stand, and read on. The short version was bad enough, in my mind.

2) Daughter and I drove from Minneapolis to Kansas City two weekends ago for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately the team didn’t do very well, but on the plus side, I am happy to say I didn’t get one speeding ticket, which is miraculous for a road trip where I averaged 75 mph. (No worries, the speed limit was 70. I love Iowa!) Thankfully the fall soccer season is done and I can have my weekends back…at least, until winter dome league starts up in Feb.

3)I have been playing almost non-stop with my new HTC Evo cell phone. Seriously, if you don’t have one of these, you have Sprint, and you have a renewal period coming up, run, do not walk to Best Buy. It is the coolest thing ever. My favorite app is Shazam, which is an app that if you hear a song on the radio and you’re not sure who it is, you turn this app on and it will tell you the song title, artist and album. What’s not to love?

4) It’s been hard to concentrate on anything in the state of MN¬†lately, what with all the media hype around here about Brett Favre’s disgusting text and picture messages. If I ever got a text with a picture of some guy’s junk, I would throw up. I don’t blame Jenn for not calling him back. I give that whole situation the Big Ewwww.

Okay, so enough of the excuses. Starting tomorrow, I am back on track with W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which I actually did start when we were in KC and was enjoying. Read on, readers!


October 5, 2010

Thanks to Eclectic Indulgence, I just discovered that there are two versions of Heart of Darkness….and I unknowingly read the short-short version. So I will be making a trip out to Barnes and Noble today to get the real version, since we like to be complete at Journeys. I’m sure my re-review will be even more entertaining after I read the long version….it’s¬†intriguing that¬†someone out there felt like half of this book was unnecessary enough that it could be cut out. Knowing Conrad’s writing style, I can’t help but agree. I would have LOVED the abridged version of Lord Jim.

On the lighter side, I found a YouTube video someone made for their English class of Heart of Darkness, which I thoroughly enjoyed and thought I would post here for your entertainment. Check it out here.

#67…..Heart of Darkness

October 4, 2010

Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, spent twenty years at sea after the death of both of his parents. One of these voyages was to the African Congo, in 1889, as a steamboat captain. While on this voyage, he witnessed the horrific atrocities against the native people of the area by the Belgian King Leopold II. Since the Congo was then a private colony of Belgium, rich in rubber and ivory, Leopold assessed quotas of rubber and ivory to each of his subjects as tax. The natives were then worked to death and horribly mistreated by the agents; the wives and children of the natives were held hostage until the quotas were met, and those who could not make their quotas could have their hands cut off, children murdered or villages burned down. You can read more about the Congo genocide here.

Like Conrad, the main narrator of Heart of Darkness, Marlow, spent time as a steamboat captain on the Congo, and also witnessed the atrocities that were happening in the Congo region. Heart of Darkness begins as the narration of one of Marlow’s audience on a boat anchored on the Thames, but switches to Marlow as he tells the story of his travels. What begins as a trip down the Congo turns into a rescue mission, as Marlow discovers one of the British ivory agents, Kurtz, is very ill and needs to be returned to England. Kurtz’ reputation has preceded him to England as a very successful agent, who is on the fast track to promotion, and has thus earned the jealousy and envy of other agents. Marlow travels further and further into the jungle to find Kurtz, and once he finds him, discovers that he is like a god to some of the natives, and owes his success at collecting ivory to the terrorism he has inflicted on other native tribes, whose heads decorate the fence posts surrounding his hut. Kurtz is indeed ill, and dies days after Marlow finds him, crying out “the horror! the horror!” as his last words, presumably as he reviews his life and the horrible acts he committed. Marlow returns to England after Kurtz is buried in the jungle, and goes to see Kurtz’ fiancee, who is still mourning him and describes him to Marlow as a loving and caring man. She asks Marlow what Kurtz’ last words were, and he tells her that it was her name rather than what really happened.

For me, the only good thing going for Heart of Darkness was the length. At 87 pages, it’s the shortest book I’ve read so far on the ML list. As for the subject matter, I found it to be typical Conrad….boring and verbose. I hate the “narrative within the narrative” format, which I believe they call a frame narrative. You never really knew who was talking, because everything had quotation marks. I think Lord Jim had this same format. I found myself looking back a page or two sometimes because I had lost track of who was talking.

Heart of Darkness was one of those books that I expected to be more profound than it was, and maybe it is profound and I just didn’t get it. I finished it and was sort of like, “Huh”, and went to pick up my next book. It made that little of an impact on me. I considered reading it again to see what I might have missed, but because I didn’t really enjoy it the first time around, that didn’t appeal to me either. I got a great comment from Jessica at Park Benches and Bookends about the fact that we have to take into account that Conrad was writing in what was his third language behind Russian and French, so maybe that accounts for the stiltedness of the narrative. Maybe he should have written it in Russian and had someone else translate it into English. I would have been interested to see if that would have made a difference in the flow. Or maybe I just need to chalk it up to Conrad not being my thing, like Brussels sprouts and yogurt.

So I guess I do need to give Conrad a shout-out¬†for not dragging this book out like he did with Lord Jim, which was 300 some pages and excruciating. I should also mention that I am not a short-story person either. They have to pack a real punch in a short amount of time, and that just didn’t happen for me in this book. Amazingly, I think I would have been more interested in learning more about the experiences of the natives, rather than running around looking for this Kurtz guy, who sounds like a real train wreck. Did the jungle make him go crazy, or was he evil all along? Maybe he really was a horrible, evil guy on the inside, and the wildness and lack of civilization in the jungle allowed that to come out. Plus he could take his anger out on the natives who were helpless to defeat him when he had guns.

Glad this one’s over, folks. How did this book get ranked higher than The House of Mirth or A Farewell to Arms?

Grade: C-


September 29, 2010

I wanted to know out there if any other bloggers have ever read a book they were so apathetic about that they can’t even come up with enough to review it. This is exactly how I feel about Heart of Darkness. For whatever reason, I did not enjoy the book or¬†‘get’ the book, and because of this, don’t really feel like writing about the book, either. I just wanted to know if anyone else out there had hit the skids like this, and how you coped. ūüôā

Heart of Confusion

September 24, 2010

Okay….so I’m about four pages from the end of Heart of Darkness, and like I tweeted this morning, I don’t get it. At all. Everything is so vague. Marlow talks for nearly the entire book about what an amazing guy Kurtz is, and I think we get a grand total of six pieces of dialogue from Kurtz when they finally find him, most of which don’t make any sense and aren’t very profound. I get that the guy is crazy. I get that Marlow sucks as a narrator (I remember him well from Lord Jim). I get that the British treatment of the Congoans was horrific. I hate the fact that the story is told from like six removed points of view. The quotes within the quotes are killing me.

Okay, I’ll stop complaining now, and man up for the last four pages. Hopefully something amazing will be revealed. I’d love to hear from anyone who loved Heart of Darkness, and might be able to shed some light on what I might be missing.

Lights, Camera, Blog Action!!!

September 23, 2010

Whoooo HOOOOOO!!! Becky at Page Turners has featured us for this week’s Lights, Camera, Blog Action meme. It’s a fantastic way to get to meet new bloggers and learn more about them and check out their sites. If you get the chance, go check out my fifteen minutes of internet fame and¬†Becky’s blog.¬†They’re both¬†awesome!

If you’re stopping by from Page Turners, Welcome! Thanks for coming on over! Feel free to wander around the blog and check stuff out. ūüôā Leave a comment so I can return the visit to your blog and get to know you, too!

#68….Main Street

September 21, 2010

When most of us think of small-town America, images of white picket fences, tall church steeples, farms, American flags, autumn leaves and apple pie immediately spring to mind. Mom and Pop owned stores. Old people rocking contentedly on front porches fanning themselves. Knowing your neighbors. A quieter way of life that seems to be all but disappearing these days, thanks to suburban sprawl, mass transit and superhighways.

Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 novel Main Street, sought to tear down the wholesome stereotype of the American small town and, according to Stephen Hopewell of¬†The Heritage American, “decry the downsides of small-town life: the ugliness and¬†crude¬†materialism; the rewarding of mediocrity and ostracizing of the weak or different; the false piety, the carefully-maintained class system hidden beneath the veneer of “democracy”.”¬†¬†Main Street is an incisive commentary on both marriage and society, and the pressures both put on people to conform and change.

Lewis¬†grew¬†up in Sauk¬†Centre, MN,¬†a small Midwestern town¬†that served as the basis for Main Street‘s fictional town of Gopher Prairie. As the sensitive and aesthetic son of a country doctor, Lewis grew up a round peg in the square hole of Sauk Centre, knowing well the pain of ‘not belonging’ and how it felt to be laughed at and intellectually alone. He began writing from an early age, leaving Sauk Centre for much bigger cities like San Francisco and New York, where his writing career took off.

The character of Carol Milford Kennicott, Lewis’ high spirited and emancipated main character, has a lot in common with Lewis.¬†An idealistic college¬†graduate living in St Paul, MN, Carol is a city girl¬†when she meets her future husband, Will Kennicott, at a party. Will is a country doctor in Gopher Prairie, a small¬†town about a half hour away from St Paul.¬†They fall in love, and Kennicott proposes to Carol and challenges her to come¬†inspire and innovate his town. Despite Kennicott’s hype, Carol sees nothing but ugliness when she arrives for the first time as a married women in GP. She comes to find it is a small town where everyone knows everyone, everyone talks about everyone, and everyone judges everyone on a daily basis. No step you take or word you say goes undiscussed. Undaunted, Carol tries her best to invigorate the town by throwing creative parties and starting drama clubs, even¬†trying to renovate buildings in the town, but the¬†suspicious and stubborn townsfolks are too set in their ways¬†to change. They¬†look upon her efforts as cultural snobbery, and she looks on their lack of culture as backwardness and ignorance. Although Carol does eventually break into the society of GP, she becomes most drawn to others that are cultural outsiders like herself: her hired girl Bea;¬†Bea’s renegade husband Miles; Fern,¬†a naive teacher; and an effeminate tailor named Erik. Despite her discontent with GP and her husband, who turns out to be the world’s biggest fuddy-duddy, it is her travels to the East Coast and her experiences there as a working mother that drive her back to Gopher Prairie and her marriage.

I really liked this book, because it spoke to me on a very personal level. Growing up in small towns myself, one of which ostracized my mother for being a ‘working mom’ back in the 80’s when all the other moms stayed home, I understood the closed-mindedness¬†of small towns. I also really identified with Carol’s need for purpose in her life. Carol would have been a fantastic working mother, had that been an option in Gopher Prairie. I think she¬†would have been happier in her marriage and in Gopher Prairie had she been able to commute to the city¬†to work everyday.¬† I was lucky to have the option when my daughter was born of staying home with her or working. It sounds like daycare in Gopher Prairie was not an option, nor was having a job as a woman. Carol was an emancipated woman who was unable to be emancipated thanks to small town society. What bleak days those must have been for us mover-and-shaker women out there!

Lewis’ descriptions of Gopher Prairie really¬†help you to feel the isolation of¬† a small town at the turn of the century. Gopher Prairie sounded like it was out in the middle of nowhere, when really it was only about forty minutes away from Minneapolis. While that sounds like a hop, skip and a jump to us these days, it might as well have been ten thousand miles for Carol. Going to the city meant a long train¬†journey, and certainly you couldn’t just go for a couple hours or the day.¬†There were no interstates yet either, so car travel wasn’t even as easy as it is nowadays. I felt so sorry for Carol, because she had no way out of GP, unless Kennicott took her on a trip, which wasn’t easy to schedule since he was the main doctor once the war started. I would have gone stir crazy if I was stuck in my house, only able to hang out with a bunch of fakey backstabbers to break up the monotony. The internet I’m sure would have helped Carol to “travel”, in the sense that she could have connected with other book and art lovers. She would have been a great blogger!!

Carol’s disillusionment of her husband, when she discovers he is also an unapologetic Gopher Prairian just like her neighbors who expects her to conform and shut up, is also very poignant. Kennicott sounds like the world’s worst husband, most nights not even looking at her and barely able to make conversation outside of the same gossip everyone else in town stews in. It was too bad that Carol could not have gone to visit GP before moving there, or lived with Kennicott before marrying him to see what she was getting herself into. I wonder if she would have rethought her decision. Kennicott redeems himself a bit by¬†allowing Carol to spread her wings and leave town for 2 years to be on her own with her son, and he also does the right thing by not making her come home until she was ready to be satisfied with the town. He comes out to visit her in DC¬†and goes to plays and parties, but the minute he gets back to GP he reverts back to his usual, boring self. Ugh.

It’s amazing to me, at the end of the book, to see how so many of the problems Carol experienced would not have existed today, had Main Street taken place in the Gopher Prairie of 2010. Main Street is the story of how women with modern ideas would have tried to carve out a niche for themselves with their limited options back in those days. If anything, at the conclusion of the book, I was very glad that things have changed so much for women and that we are able to have fuller, richer lives than Carol did. I’m sending a big shout-out to all the suffragettes and women’s libbers out there who helped make our lives what they are today.

A sprawling read at 526 pages, this book also qualifies as my fourth book for the Chunkster Reading Challenge.

Grade: A