Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Wild(er) West

I can't say I've ever spent a lot of time in the Midwest. I once spent a weekend in the suburbs of Detroit, and I was in Columbus, Ohio, for a day on a job interview. I'm not even sure if those two count. (And I was at the airport in Chicago once, but hey, I know airports don't count!)

Still, I've always had an interest in the region - and the pioneers who settled the frontier in the 19th century. As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" and its sequels that portrayed life in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

Even though it was a setting far removed from my 20th century East Coast urban childhood, I found something appealing in the stories of a family's harsh life on the frontier in the 19th century. I'm not sure what the attraction was. I've always been a big American history buff. And part of it, I'm sure, was that kids like to read books about kids their own age having experiences that they could never imagine. (And I've often felt that some of the best books I've ever read are the ones I read growing up).

So I was excited to read that next summer, the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis will stage the world premiere of a musical based on the series. Guthrie director Joe Dowling says that Wilder's work has a "deep and powerful connection to the people of the Midwest."

Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony award for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," is writing the book for the musical. Coincidentally, I'm seeing "Putnam County" on tour this weekend, so I'll get a firsthand taste of Ms. Sheinkin's talents.

Also coincidentally, Jonathan Yardley, a book critic for The Washington Post, has penned a very interesting essay this week on rereading the Little House books.

Yardley discusses the extent to which Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder's daughter, helped her write the books. The conventional view is that the stories are Wilder's, but that Lane helped her mother by polishing the work into a publishable form.

He praises Wilder for portraying "vividly and accurately" the hardships of frontier life. "She was uncommonly observant; nothing seems to have escaped her." He adds that the books also do a good job of demonstrating the vital role women played in settling the West. The female characters "are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did."

(And make no mistake about it, there is a Wilder industry. In addition to the books, there are Wilder museums and historic sites in Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, and places I'm probably leaving off. The long-running television series starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert debuted in 1974 and ran until 1983, and there was a 2005 miniseries.)

Francesca Zambello, who will direct the latest incarnation of the Wilder stories, says that "Reading of the exuberance of these characters as they encountered the immense power and force of the Prairie speaks to our history as a country and a people. It did in the 1880s and it does now. Our musical focuses on the independent spirit of the teenager, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her struggles to become an adult; along side the story of the land — as it becomes the American West."

It sounds promising. I'm just hoping that the musical won't settle for sweet sentimentality but will portray the harder-edged reality of life as Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family really experienced it while trying to settle a harsh, often unforgiving land.

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