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Letters About Literature National Winners 2017

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Brice Jansen

Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,

Usually letters start with an introduction, but I feel that you would like it better if I started with a story. It is the story of how I fell in love with the words you wrote and the life you led, and then how I grew from your lessons, never looking back.

I will admit, I first received your Little House books by accident—they were given to me by my very traditional (and rather stuffy) great-aunt, who told me that I should “learn from the trials of those who came before us.” But being a child with dirt to play in and worms to catch and grass to run across in bare feet, I had other things on my mind. So I stuck your set of nine paperback books as high and as deep on my faded white bookshelf as my four-year-old arms could reach and left them there.

But I fell sick one day. My temperature spiked, and I was plagued with a fever for days on end, and no treatment or medication the doctors prescribed could bring it down. Again and again, I would get rushed to a hospital, stuck with an IV, poked, prodded and observed (a medical term for watching and doing nothing) until my fever broke, and then sent home only to have my temperature rise again, the process repeating. Somewhere between my third and fourth hospital visit, my dad began to bring your books along to keep me entertained. I was homesick for the farm, the wind in my hair and the bright sunlight on my tanned skin, and he thought that your descriptions of prairie life might appease me. Every night, after the nurse made her final rounds, he would crawl underneath the itchy hospital bedsheet, edged between the heart rate monitor and me, and he would read. Soon, his raspy voice would create tales of shrieking mountain lions, swirling seventh-month blizzards, rolling prairie fires full of smoke and ash, and I would fall asleep to the sound of Pa’s fiddle echoing against the walls of a one-room cabin.

I got better—by God’s providence—before we could finish the series. But our tradition continued—every night, my dad would slowly climb the thirteen wooden stairs to my room, where he would lie underneath my pink and yellow flowered quilt, wedged between several of my favorite “stuffies” and me, and he would read. Again I would be lost in the tales of a young prairie girl, living the life you had—gasping with outrage at the mean things that awful Nellie Oleson would say, squealing whenever Pa would tell of his encounter with a “bear” in the dark and fearsome woods, and giggling throughout many of your childhood shenanigans, many of which were eerily similar to my own. And you can say what you want about class curriculum and workbooks and consonant sounds, but I believe that is how I truly learned to read—snuggled up in my purple Dora pajamas next to my sleepy-eyed father, following his calloused finger on the page as he read aloud.

That being said, I cannot say what first struck me about your books, or what has made me read them time and time again, even after I outgrew my Dora pajamas, my quilt’s flowers faded to a light peach-white, and my stuffed animals were packed away in red and green boxes. We are not much alike, you and I. I will not mince words, or try to deceive you. Though I live on a farm, as you did, I do not know much about locust plagues or Indian attacks or government subsidized land repossession. A red Chevy Cruze is my vehicle of choice, not a train or wagon, and though these Missouri winters are cold, a wonderful little invention called central heating has replaced most woodstoves. However, despite these differences, perhaps we do have something fundamentally in common, something that ties us together with starlight thread.

We are both dreamers. Throughout the Little House series, you always seemed to want something greater, something more than cabin life, despite its perfect simplicity. You wanted something that was just yours; something that you could say you did on your own, without help from anyone. Decades later, I still feel the same way, and I believe it was your books that first planted this see of individuality in me. Throughout my high school career, I have worked hard to make sure that I can pay for college on my own, applying for scholarships and entering competitions with reckless abandon so that I do not have to borrow money from my parents or be beholden to anyone. Through Little House, you have taught me that this want for independence is not the desire to leave my roots completely, rather, it is that I wish to bury them down deep and grow.

But even dreamers get down. We get caught up in thousands of tiny things, like a splinter in a plank of oak, or smudges on just-shined glass, or a crease at the top of a page in our favorite book. We are affected by homesickness in the cramped corner of a fighting couple’s home, the bravery of a blind sister, and the death of a beloved bulldog. We dream so much that we forget that reality is a cold and unwavering master, and that makes it hard. Yet, you taught me that through it all, I must endure. I must go on. I am made of the stuff of hayfields; I am the color of the plain when rays of sunset hit it just right. I am made of the little log cabin in a big woods and the sediment that floats between rivulets of creek water. I am the nip of frost along a child’s cheeks and the way the November wind whistles through a forest, so that it sounds like the trees are singing. Your books have taught me that I am all of this and more, and that means I deserve to be treated as such. Today, I do not stand down to anyone, proud of who I am and what I’ve become—just as you were when you stood up to Nellie Oleson when she made fun of you for being a “country girl” in On the Banks of Plum Creek, and to Miss Wilder when she was unfair to your sister Carrie in Little Town on the Prairie. Because of you, I have realized my own self-worth, and I now have the confidence to wear this knowledge with pride.

But many criticize your books—they are out of order, incorrect, and unacceptably fictitious. You include characters and events that are not historically accurate, make illogical assumptions and incorrect judgments. They say you were only two-and-a-half at the time of Little House on the Prairie, therefore making it impossible for you to recount the events of that time accurately. They say that you were erroneous in Farmer Boy, writing from Almanzo’s perspective at a time you didn’t even know him, corrupting a story that should be his. They are upset that you poked and prodded and disfigured the past into pale books bound in checkered covers. To them, your books do not tell the story of you—they instead tell the story of a little girl named Laura, a made-up character in a made-up world, and that decreases their validity. But I feel that it is these “flaws’ that make the Little House series so powerful—even if they are fictional, the truths—life lessons of love, hope, hard work, resolve, compassion, pride—still bleed through. It is because of these truths, hidden so cleverly in your supposed fiction, that I have grown into the person I am today.┬áBecause of Laura’s intellect, I am a learner, curious and intelligent, guilty of pestering my teachers with endless questions and staying up to an ungodly hour to finish a book. Because of Laura’s unorthodoxy, I challenge limitations, acting as a programmer for my school’s robotics team and actively participating in STEM, even if I am “just a girl.” Because of Laura’s determination, I work hard for the things I want, arriving early and staying late, and I succeed because of this. Because of Laura’s affability, I am a leader, a class president, a co-captain of my school’s cheerleading squad. Because of Laura’s experiences, I have come to realize that I am a woman of a thousand pieces, a conglomerate of countless experiences and intricacies, and I am proud.

But they continue to tell me that I could not possibly be affected by your books as much as I say I am because they are illogical and impractical and fictional. And I cannot combat them entirely, because I do not know if they are correct or not—I have no idea if you truly did see Mrs. Brewster standing over her husband with a kitchen knife or if Pa truly spelled the word “Xanthophyll” to win the literacy society’s spelling bee. I have no idea if you really laughed as Nellie danced and screamed along the creek bank with leeches on her feet, or if the grasshoppers made a glittering cloud that “ate every green thing.” I do not know if Almonzo drove his horses twelve miles in forty below just to take you home, or if a pair of Indians really came to your house on the prairie, ate a pan of cornbread (along with its crumbs in the stove), and then left. But I will choose to believe, because even if some of your stories are not quite true, they are true to the nature of your art, and that is what makes them effective. I will choose to believe the tales of a young wild-eyed girl with a love of unbroken horses and a penchant for molasses candy on snow, who trekked across fields, hills, and mountains in search of a better life, who had the gall to say that she would not obey her husband if it was against her “better judgment.” I choose to believe your stories because they teach me strength and grace and determination and how to live life with wild abandon and perfect hope. I choose to believe your stories because that is how I learn from them.

To the dreamers—

Brice Jansen