Little girls on the big prairie

Through these classics of childhood, a kid could suffer the privations of starvation in the flashlight-lit privacy of her own imagination -- and live to cherish the memory.

By Melanie Rehak
Published April 13, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

A good friend of mine recently told me what I consider to be an emblematic anecdote about what it means to be a little girl who reads books.

When this friend was 9 years old, she went with her family on a fancy cruise through Scandinavia, a trip full of planned activities and dinners with lots of silver and china. There were no other children on board besides her brother, and as it happened, she was in the throes of an obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the "Little House" book my friend was reading on this cruise, Laura and her older sister Mary endure a particularly hard winter. At some point during this difficult season, each girl is given what seems to her to be a miraculous, extravagant gift: a single baked potato. As it was the late 1800s on the Great Plains, and there was snow everywhere, and the Ingalls family didn't always have money for luxuries like salt, they ate the plain potatoes and were grateful.

Back on the luxury cruise liner in 1973, my friend was so enmeshed in this tale, so convinced that she, too, was living in a log cabin and wearing a patched, hand-me-down calico dress, that when she joined her parents for dinner in the ship's dining room she insisted on having a baked potato. Naturally, it had to be plain. Her parents -- whom she had started to call "Ma" and "Pa" -- were mystified.

"It was solidarity with Laura," she explained to me, years later. "It was absolutely crucial that I showed my allegiance to her. It made total sense to me."

And, despite the decades that have elapsed since I last read the Little House series, it made total sense to me, too.

I, too, once enacted private demonstrations of my loyalty to Laura Ingalls Wilder that were misunderstood, or just plain missed, by the world at large. It didn't matter that her story unfolded in another century and another, rural setting. To me, she was simply a girl like myself -- a girl with straight brown hair and a tendency to run just a little bit wild. I can remember waking up one morning in my native Manhattan, all ready to go out and roast a pig's tail over an open fire, just the way the Ingalls family did. It seemed only natural. Concrete? Gone. Takeout Chinese? Never heard of it. More than anything, I longed to see someone construct a log cabin by hand.

Of course, pig's tails are rather hard to come by in modern-day Manhattan. But even though I never got around to lighting that particular barbecue, I truly believed that I knew what it would be like to do it.

Laura was not alone. Like many little girls who grow up reading far into the night by flashlight, I had a whole coterie of literary friends who dwelled somewhere in the liminal space between imaginary and real. These fictional girls, much more than my actual peers, were the friends who advised me and challenged me to think about things outside the world that I already knew. All the real girls I knew were a lot like me, after all. I wanted to know what else -- and who else -- was out there.

And so I met Betsy Ray, the gap-toothed heroine of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, set in Minnesota at the turn of the century. In a world of housewives and mothers, Betsy wanted to be a writer. (There was no lack of determined little girls in that household -- her sister Julia wanted to be an opera singer.) She kept a cigar box filled with paper and pencils nailed up in the V of a tree in her yard, and went up there to write when the spirit moved her. Later, her mother transformed an old theatrical costume trunk into a desk for Betsy, which seemed to me to be just about the best thing a writer could possess.

Betsy and her friends, Tacy and Tib, made up a deliciously symmetrical trio -- a blond, a brunet and a redhead -- which appealed to my sense of equality, although such balance never seemed to occur in real life. They were always having exotic adventures. When they were 10 years old, they fell in love with the king of Spain. In "Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill" they write him a letter that reads:

We are all in love with you and would like to marry you but we can't, because we're not of the blood royal. Tib especially would like to marry you because she has a white accordion-pleated dress.

These girls had guts! They knew their chances were slim, but they took a shot anyway. Though I was not particularly interested in falling in love with anyone myself, I knew chutzpah when I read it. There I was, living in the big city, and all I did was traipse back and forth to school every day. It had never even occurred to me to fall in love with a prince, much less a king. But after reading about these girls' ambitious plans, I vowed to think big. My world had expanded irreversibly.

Then there was Petrova Fossil, my favorite of the three orphans in Noel Steatfield's "Ballet Shoes," set in London in the '20s and '30s. She and her sisters, Pauline and Posy, had been adopted by an archaeologist who subsequently disappeared for many years, forcing the girls to train as performers in order to provide for themselves. Petrova was surrounded by ballerinas and actresses, but she wanted to be a car mechanic or a pilot. Midway through the book, a friendly garage owner who boards in the Fossil house gives Petrova "a suit of jeans, just like garage men wear, only, of course, her size."

Prior to reading these words, I had never dreamed that such garb existed in my size. I was the only girl in my class at school who had a collection of Matchbox cars, and I had a burgeoning interest in mechanics myself. At last, I had a friend who understood.

As happy as I always was for Petrova, who hated her dance classes vehemently, I envied her as well. And so I did what any envious little girl would do: I imitated her. Every time we stopped at a gas station on family road trips, I went in to see what the mechanics were doing. I collected pamphlets on car repair and dreamed of opening a repair shop with my father some day. I had the feeling that Petrova, wherever she was, was looking upon my actions approvingly, and her existence gave me courage. Sometimes, in the cool of those gas station garages, I held consultations with her in my head about things like carburetors and fuel lines. Later on, when I was in high school, I joined a group of boys who were rebuilding an old engine after school under the guidance of a Latin teacher. I would be lying if I said that Petrova didn't come to mind once or twice during those long sessions with pistons and greasy rags. She had survived my adolescence intact.

And somewhere, right now, I bet there's a little girl asking her mystified parents for a pair of garage mechanic's overalls.

Melanie Rehak

Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic.

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