It’s Friday, and what better way to kick off the weekend than to celebrate the power of books? Today’s guest-post in the series A Book That Helped Me Grow comes from Karen Beattie, author of the terrific book Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost. She reflects on Laura Ingalls Wilder and other Midwestern writers (and if you’re anything like me, her words will make you want to re-read the whole Little House series). Thank you, Karen!
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
–My Antonia by Willa Cather
I am 10, sitting in the deep valley of the two hills between my grandfather’s brick bungalow and my family’s house, which is a 100-year-old white clapboard four-square with a wide front porch and green shutters.
The deep summer grass feels like velvet under my skinny legs, and I watch as the wind gently blows across the hills, turning the grass into waves. I have my journal and Strawberry Shortcake pencil. I look out over the Des Moines River valley, the vast landscape of rolling hills and big blue sky. Here, it is quiet, and vast, and empty. I am writing my story.
I grew up on the prairie – in the countryside of Iowa. My four siblings and I roamed the hills and explored the creeks and took hikes through the cornfields. We built stick forts, found baby rabbits in the fields, collected ladybugs, and searched for arrowheads in the plowed fields in the spring. My dad told us about the Woodland Indians who lived there long before us. We kept our arrowhead collection in a glass case in the living room. We spent evenings sitting outside watching the sunset or storms roll in from the west.
My grandmother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse until she married my grandfather. I never met her because she died of cancer a few months before I was born, but she gave me a beautiful gift. She instilled in my father, who then passed on to me, a love for books.
I have vivid memories of my dad gathering us kids onto his bed at night and reading poetry. “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree….” He would read from the Joyce Kilmer poem. From him I learned to love language, and the rhythm of words.
We had a collection of Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder in our house, and I devoured them. I played in the fields during the day, and at night I read those books and imagined travelling with Laura and her family as they moved from the big woods in Minnesota to the prairie of Kansas, and then the Dakotas in a covered wagon. I imagined going to sleep with the sound of Pa’s fiddling. I imagined riding horses across the rolling prairie hills.
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie books were my gateway books into other Midwestern writers. In high school I read Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneer and My Antonia. Later it was Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres and then Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.
Midwesterners who live in “flyover country” often suffer from a deep insecurity. We fear that all of the important things are happening on the coasts. That if you’re smart and talented and want to be someone, you need to live in New York City or Los Angeles, or someplace exotic.
But these female authors who wrote about the prairie, of the landscapes I knew, understood my love for this land. They wrote about the emptiness, the subtle beauty, and the understated way Midwesterners navigate through the world. They acknowledged that the prairie where I lived was more than flyover country, and that the people who lived in it were important too.
These books helped me to grow because they told me that my story—the story of an introverted, shy, insecure girl who lived on the prairie—mattered.
Karen Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost (Loyola Press). She has a Master’s Degree in journalism and has written about art, faith and culture for many publications. You can read more of her writing at KarenBeattie.net. She lives with her husband, daughter and geriatric cat on the north side of Chicago.