Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Musing on Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery

It turns out that people who are passionate about one of my favorite authors are often passionate about another of my favorite authors. I continue to feel this is odd, so I've decided to think about it here, aloud, as it were, to see if I can work it out for myself as more than a random coincidence.

One of the first books I recall reading on my own (beyond beginning readers) is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. When I was in second grade, my mother helped me select it from the Scholastic Book Club order form and told me she felt I could manage it well, and to let my teacher, Miss Mittlestet, know that she had said so. When the book arrived, my mother and I read it together, and over the next few years we accumulated all eight of the books in the series (I'm not counting On the Way Home, but that's a discussion for another post) and I read them over and over and over again. In fact, I read them annually until several years after college. These books were formative in my choice of children's literature as the focus of my graduate work.

Fast-forward from second grade, and rewind from graduate work, and you have me, at age 10 or 11, hanging out with my mother, aunts, and grandmother on a Saturday afternoon. They were playing Scrabble, which I had not yet learned to appreciate, and I had finished the book I had brought with me, so I was bored, and lying under the dining room table. My grandmother went up to the attic and returned with a blue hardcover book with a barely visible title inscribed on the cover and spine: Emily of New Moon, by L. M. Montgomery. I was engrossed in a very few moments, and have remained engrossed since that moment. I expanded my Montgomery oevre, moving into the Pat books (provided by my grandmother) and the Anne books (procured at local book stores), and, when I was several years older, borrowed the fragile, treasured early edition copies of the Emily sequels. Again, I was hooked, but this time not simply on a character or series, but on an author. Again, I read and reread and reread. In the 1980s I received a complete Emily boxed set from my grandmother, and continued to read all three novels annually for over a decade. Like Wilder, Montgomery became integral to my decision to seek a Master's degree in Children's Literature. In fact, my MA thesis focused on the feminist (or anti-feminist) ending of the Emily trilogy.

So, what is it about these two authors, born just over seven years apart, but with vastly different biographies, that resonates with so many of the same readers? The language, certainly, with their vivid descriptions and potent senses of place, but also the characters: strong, engaging, imperfect, human girls, girls with goals and plans and friends and enemies. Girls who might be, who, indeed, became, my friends. But lots of authors of the time wrote similar books, and most of those authors have faded into obscurity. So what keeps people gathering to talk about these authors, their lives, their work?

Please feel free to comment on this, and check back in a week or so for more musings on the subject.

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