LauraPalooza 2010: Putting the "Oh!" in Mankato

We went to LauraPalooza last week. Yes, it was really called “LauraPalooza”: the first-ever combined academic conference/fan fair/geekcon devoted to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and YES, it was all that and a bag of cracklings.

Last Wednesday Chris and I drove up to Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN, a town that has no real historical significance to the Little House books, though I understand that on the TV Little House on the Prairie, Mankato was where various characters went whenever they had a tragic illness. But what was our sickness? LOVING LAURA INGALLS WILDER. And we were not there to be cured, nor were the other 150+ folks who showed up for this thing.

Yes, that is the brown poplin with the poke bonnet!!!!!

The night before the official conference kick-off we attended an ice-cream social, where we met a great many of the Laurarati (I like that term better than “bonnetheads”), including a few folks in costume. I had a great time talking to Melanie (above), and somewhere on Facebook there’s a photo of her downing a beer on Friday night in her poke bonnet, and I am very very  sad not to have seen that in person.

My friend Shae, who I’d met about fifty-seven internet years ago at something called “JournalCon” in 2001 (and hadn’t seen since) had decided to attend, and she in turn had just met Eleanor, and from that first night on it was clear that they were going to be our conference buddies.

I also got to see my friend Sandra again (who runs The Homesteader and Beyond Little House) and FINALLY meet Erin Blakemore, whose book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf, is coming out in October. The three of us were doing a panel on Saturday called “Loving Laura in a Lindsay Lohan World,” and I’m proud to say we thought that up months before the whole Lindsay prison thing.

As early as the very first night, people were willing to give Chris the Boyfriend of the Year Award just for attending LauraPalooza with me, but he shrugged it off, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. (Although it’s true that in exchange, I’ve agreed to watch The Cremaster Cycle in its entirety with him.)

That night we ALSO got to see Dean Butler, who played ALMANZO on the TV show, and who is now making documentaries about the real-life Wilders, and he was at LauraPalooza to show his new Laura video, and… and okay, let me just get this photo out of the way, because OMG ALMANZO:


(Did you know that he was also the guy in the movie adapation of Judy Blume’s Forever? I just found this out from Sandra! If it turns out he also had a part in a movie based on a VC Andrews novel my head will explode.)

On Thursday morning the conference began in earnest, with presentations ranging from academic papers to creative writing (Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s amazing book chapter!) to a lecture by a high school physics teacher about how he figured out that Almanzo and Cap Garland could only have traveled about eight miles during the seed wheat trip in The Long Winter, based on calculations of average sled speed and load weight and snow friction and angle of drag, and how he used this data to find the homestead of the guy who sold them the wheat. NO, REALLY.  Jim Hicks, who gave that talk, needs to have his own Discovery Channel show about solving literary and historical mysteries with science.

But the more scholarly stuff was great, too. I was really impressed with Jenna Hunnef’s paper on homestead claims and Michelle McClellan’s talk on the meaning of place in the Little House homesites. I also met Pamela Smith Hill and John Miller, two of my favorite Laura biographers, and loved the talks that they gave. I learned about the political strategies behind the Homestead Act, the weather anomalies of the Hard Winter of 1880-81, and the theory that Almanzo Wilder may have had polio instead of diphtheria!  There was so much information that by the end of the first day we were exhausted.

The conference ballroom

On the second day,  LauraPalooza attendees had the option of visiting the Betsy-Tacy houses in Mankato and seeing where the Betsy-Tacy books took place. (Note: Betsy-Tacy fans are HARDCORE. There are tons of casual Little House fans in the world, but the moment you pick up a Betsy-Tacy book for the first time, a secret alert goes out to Betsy-Tacy fans everywhere and they send a representative to fly out to your house on a pink feather to recruit you. I’ve only read three books so far but they are great.) When we got to the houses there was a Maud Hart Lovelace impersonator ready to show us around.

Maud Hart Lovelace impersonator

She had the best handbag ever.

Mrs. Lovelace's lovely bag

It was actually a little surreal walking around with her as she showed us Tib’s house and the bench on the hill and all the other spots from the books, because she wasn’t projecting her voice the way a tour guide would, but instead spoke softly and gently as she recounted the storylines of various Betsy-Tacy books as if they were her own Maud Hart Lovelace memories. The thing about the younger Betsy-Tacy books, though (and this is why I love them so far), is that the plots sound really bizarre when you try to describe them, and after awhile I found myself thinking that maybe we weren’t on the tour at all but were just coincidentally following a woman who truly believed she was Maud Hart Lovelace and was deep in the throes of a lovely delusion. Anyway, we enjoyed that.

Back at the conference, there was more awesomeness, including Kay Weisman’s presentation on the artwork in Little House in the Big Woods and a great feminist paper by Emily Woster about Little House on the Prairie. We also saw a video interview with an Osage man who posits that the Osage in LHOP wore fresh skunk pelts as a joke on the white settlers, sort of like a 19th-century Punk’d stunt. Gives you something to think about!

Garth Williams FTW!

On Friday night, Dean Butler screened Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I will tell you all to buy as soon as he gets a distributor.  Until then, you will just have to be jealous of me for getting to see Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which stars a real sixteen-year-old as Laura and was filmed in part in De Smet, SD.

Dean Butler at documentary screening

My panel was the last one of the conference, and I’m glad, because while Sandra and Erin and I talked about our own experiences as fans of the Little House books, we wanted people to share their stories, too, and people started to stand up and talk about how they came to love the books.  One woman had had to leave for a few minutes to compose herself when we’d started talking about our families, then she came back in and stood up and spoke so movingly about how the Ingalls family helped her survive her own childhood that I looked for her afterwards but couldn’t find her (and if she’s reading, I hope she writes me).

And then it was over! Or almost: the conference ended with a lunch, a spelling bee (SPELLING BEE!) and an optional field trip to Walnut Grove (where On the Banks of Plum Creek was set). Chris and I needed to make it to Iowa City that night, and since the weather reports were warning of storms and tornado conditions in the late afternoon, we decided it was best to skip lunch and head out to to Walnut Grove early.  We wound up eating hot dogs and Hmong sesame balls at the Walnut Grove family festival.

We’d been at this very same festival last year, but back then we’d had to drive out to South Dakota and missed the judging of the Laura-Nellie lookalike contest.  This year, though, we managed to come back almost where we left off and catch the judging of the Nellie contest. There were only 10 Nellies to 34 Lauras, which I’ve learned is the typical ratio every year. Alas, ringlets are hard to pull off, especially in summer humidity. But you have to love these girls:

The few, the proud, the Nellies

Over at the Walnut Grove museum, more LauraPalooza attendees had started to show up, and from my friend Sue I found out that Erin Blakemore had won the spelling bee, which is so befitting a heroine! We got to finally talk to Amy Lauters, the MSU professor who organized LauraPalooza in the first place and who was signing copies of her book about Rose at the museum store. She was at a table with John Miller and also William Anderson, who was the only Laura biographer that I hadn’t met yet. If the Laura Ingalls Wilder community has a rock star, it’s Anderson, who has written more than a dozen books and probably knows more  about the Ingalls and the Wilders and the home sites than any other living human being. And he was very nice and funny and gracious and took one of my Wilder Life postcards.

By now the heat index was well over 100 degrees, and the air conditioning could barely keep up in the busy museum store (where Nicole from the museum was kind enough to let me leave a batch of postcards). We had only the dugout site at Plum Creek left to visit before we hit the road, and I worried that it would be as hot and crowded as everything else in town. But we went anyway, and somehow the place it was even more gorgeous than it had been the year before. It was quiet and breezy: it was the same Laura World that I remembered.

Crossing Plum Creek

I got my feet wet once again, wandered the prairie a little, and then we got back in the car and headed back east on 14.

*    *    *

Thanks so much to everyone we met at LauraPalooza for being so kind and friendly (and if I didn’t get a chance to meet you, feel free to drop me a line). I have to confess that sometimes the thought of coming to this terrified me—I didn’t know what to expect, showing up with my blue postcards for this book of mine that I hope will be good enough, meeting over a hundred people who all have a stake in this world I’ve come to know and love. But it was everything I hoped it would be.

(cross-posted on

I'll buy you a pony

Santa on a hill Like Frosty says, I’ll be back again someday.

Not blogging has its advantages.  I don’t have to wonder whether the people who send me their blog-related press releases and promotion requests actually read my site. When someone emails me suggesting that I plug their $20 PDF book (!) in my next post, I know right away that they’ve never laid eyes on this page because surely they would have noticed the tumbleweeds and packs of feral dogs roaming around, yes?  If my blog was a mall, nothing would be open except a Hallmark store and a Chinese buffet.  It won’t always be like that, but until this draft of the new book is done I can only offer you egg rolls and Precious Moments.

The disadvantage to not blogging, of course, is that I miss it. I miss putting words out here in the internet world (which is all bright and colorful and blinky) instead of being stuck inside a long messy MS Word document (which is lots of monochrome sadness). Don’t get me wrong, I also love the book work, making paragraphs stick together, or whatever it is I have been doing nearly every day for nearly a year.  After a while it doesn’t feel like writing.  My chapters tend to start with all these scattered bits—notes, and quotes transcribed from books, and scraps left over from other chapters, and putting them all together and tidying up the page feels more like playing some kind of really texty Tetris. Except slower. A lot slower.

Somehow amidst all this, the apartment got clean (OK, I paid someone to clean it) and we put up our little tree and hauled out the Christmas records (our new favorite this year is this one, because I mean, LOOK AT IT, but also it’s really a jam), and got ready for the end of the year (almost, we’re almost there), and the writing will continue to happen somewhere in between (I swear), until sometime around the end of the week when I’ll get to relax, and everything will stand still. And that will be good.

I wish my methodical Tetris-brain was quick enough tonight to tell you more about the past year, which was amazing and strange and both incredibly trying and deeply satisfying.  All I’ll say is that it’s a good thing I took notes. Anyway, Merry Christmas!

Of wheatfields and four-letter words


We made it home from the Great American Prairie Odyssey Extravaganza on Tuesday night. I think I’m still recovering from all the car time, road food, and prolonged exposure to the random whims of Midwestern “oldies” stations (like playing Russian Roulette, where the bullet is something like “St. Elmos’s Fire”), but here is a brief compendium of our travels:

  • Miles driven: about 1400
  • Covered wagons viewed, replica or otherwise: 7
  • One-room schoolhouses: 6
  • Replica sod dugouts: 4
  • Haysticks used for purely decorative purposes: 3
  • Number of times an exhibit guide or sign purported to explain the origins of the phrase “sleep tight”: 3
  • Number of times an exhibit sign refuted commonly explained origins of the phrase “sleep tight”: 1
  • Sunbonnets purchased: 4 (YES I KNOW)
  • Old iron stoves: at least 12
  • Outhouses: 4
  • Nineteenth-century parlor organs: 6
  • Live pageants: 2
  • Live cows: 3
  • Girls in sunbonnets: 600 (estimate)
  • Miniature horses: 2
  • Leeches encountered in Plum Creek: 0
  • Times we heard “Afternoon Delight” on the radio: 2

I’ve been putting up pictures and more are forthcoming. Remind me also to tell you about the night we thought lightning would zap us and our covered wagon/camper thing into oblivion.  Oh right, I guess I’ll just put that in the book. Anyway, it was an amazing trip.  Sometimes it was grueling, but sometimes the stars were singing.

I’ll be making one more trip this month, to NYC, where I’ll be reading at the launch party for Love is a Four-Letter Word on July 29th at 7pm, along with Maud Newton, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Amanda Stern, and Dan Kennedy. If you’re in town, come by and say hello, and if you’re elsewhere, check out the book. Even though I have forsaken the glamorous big-city publishing world to roam the prairie and collect commemorative plates, it is still totally exciting to read Susan Toepfer’s piece about it in True/Slant and the reviews in WSJ and the Paper Cuts blog at The New York Times. It has been a weird, occasionally isolating summer, with all this writing and long drives through cornfields, and so it’s nice to experience a little taste of that jumpy happy post-publication stuff.

If you are reading this on and not through one of those fancy newfangled feed-reader thingies, you will notice that things look different today.  That is because I finally updated my WordPress software and the new version rejected my old customized theme like a bad kidney.  I just installed the same theme that I have on my other site and slapped up a new banner today. It’s a quickie resdesign and I’m still tweaking things, but I actually sort of like it. My plan is to eventually incorporate into—just move the rss feed and all the archives over and have the URL refer to the newer site (which can be done, right? I don’t always know how these things work!)—but for now this is just a step in that direction.

In some ways, that’s been the most exasperating thing about working on this book: having to take so many small steps, whether it’s writing a couple hundred words in a night, or doing just enough laundry, and keeping it all going, wherein “all” is several dozen tiny wheels that squeak along and take forever.  But I’m getting somewhere, yes?  When will it feel that way? 200 pages?  You’d think that since we drove over a thousand miles last week that I’d have a sense of how it all adds up in time, but no, I don’t.  Well, never mind, I’ll get there somehow.

To-Do List

Write sixty gazillion pages for book project.

Email about five hundred people to interview for the book.

Find a maxi dress that doesn’t make me look like an nightgown-wearing loony lady.

Write BUST column.

Plan road trip to Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota to see Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites in July.

Order Walnut Grove Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant tickets.

Plan trip to New York City to read in July .

Plan trip to upstate New York to see the Farmer Boy house in July.

Outline sixty gazillion thirty gazillion more pages for book project in July.

Build fancy and slightly twatty author site at

Install air conditioners.

Upgrade WordPress software on

Find new blog template for because upgrade will probably make modified layout go wonky.

Tell people that I have a children’s book out.

Put hilarious Emily Flake flash animation on to promote new anthology.

Go to Kiddieland before it shuts down for good.

Write a real entry sometime.

Author talks, Bloggangangers and little houses

Old post office

Alert! I’m doing an author talk at StoryStudio Chicago on Saturday, May 30th, along with Stephanie Kuehnert and Simone Elkeles, and we’ll be talking about living the literary life, Chicago-style (because that’s what the program says), which lately for me involves whole days spent indoors eating nothing but pitas from the Al-Khayyam bakery on Kedzie and watching all kinds of unspeakable stuff that I’ve Tivoed from the Hallmark Channel. (For research!) Anyway, both Stephanie and Simone write young adult novels, and seeing as how I write for an adult market and edit for a children’s one, it sort of balances out to YA, right?  I think between the three of us we’ll be able to help you. And I promise that if you come to this it will way be better than if you’d just written me an email asking whatever it is you want to know about writing and publishing, because when you email me it puts off the completion and subsequent publication of my next book by at least forty-five minutes. I’m almost serious here. Really, just come to this thing on the 30th.

It’s great to be writing a book and working on it every day, and yet there are so many things I would rather be doing than writing a book. For instance I wish to high heaven that I could take part in this VC Andrews Reading Challenge (see also here!) because for the past two years or so Chris and I have been going through the books in the original Dollanganger series, wherein I read them aloud to Chris while we’re on long car trips (he drives, I read) and then we thoughtfully discuss the various motifs that appear throughout the series, such as The Lifestyles of the Rich and Dismal (Do the Foxworths always have to go with the heavy draperies and crystal goblets and extremely long dining tables? With all that money, couldn’t they could figure out how to be less creepy?) and Extreme Ballet (Cathy’s pirouette-and-slap fighting technique is unstoppable!).  We are on Garden of Shadows now, which is way much better than the horribly-paced soapy fizzle of Seeds of Yesterday; so much better, in fact, that I’m pretty sure the ghostwriter studied the proto-feminist themes of Daphne du Maurier in grad school, because it is kind of loaded!  I wish I had time to write a paper on it or something!  But read this excellent recap of Flowers in the Attic instead. You will not be sorry.

Oh, and GUESS WHERE I WAS LAST WEEK.  And I was here, too. That’s practically all I can tell you right now, but I will say that when I was in Missouri I met the awesome Catherine Pond, who saw some of the same stuff I did and became my friend. It made me very pleased to know that another writer could tell I was a writer, because, like I said, when you spend half the week at home eating pitas and rearranging sentences and being stuck for hours at a time in the chewy pita pocket of your own mind, you can kind of forget what you are, and sometimes you just need to get out and see little houses.

(Incidentally, I’m interested in hearing from people who have intriguing or hilarious anecdotes about visiting any of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, so drop me a line if you have something to share.)

Chris and I are off to New York this weekend, but more when I get back. See you on the 3oth, too.

Thankfulnesses, an incomplete list

Home; gainful employment; the very nice electric kettle that goes off with a ding when the water is done so that it doesn’t all boil away; baba ganoush; that the refreshingly non-dysfunctional part of my family is in fact my entire family and my boyfriend’s family too; the president-elect; that I have resisted reading the terrible Twilight books this whole time and can now just see the terrible Twilight movie to get caught up culturally; Maker’s Mark; hilarious and kind boyfriend who charms everyone and supports me unconditionally; I-Pass; Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer; that I have friends who give me encouragement and inspiration and funny-as-hell emails and free oatmeal; Google Docs; the sense of relative wholeness that I have enjoyed for at least three years now and never want to take for granted; peanut butter; zoos; heated car seats; art; you. HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE.