By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN If you could go back in time and meet Laura Ingalls Wilder in person, what would you ask her? Fans of “Little House on the Prairie” might want to start thinking of their questions, because Mrs. Wilder is coming to Winsted Monday, Nov. 19.
Well, maybe not the real Mrs. Wilder, but a close second. Her name is Melanie Stringer, and she’s a New England-based historian who specializes in Laura’s life and the context surrounding it.
“The running joke with people who know me is that I can relate anything back to Laura,” said Stringer, who has been studying American history, women’s history, and Laura Ingalls Wilder for more than 20 years.
Stringer does her presentations entirely in character as Mrs. Wilder. She dresses head-to-toe in clothing authentic to the era, and she answers questions in first-person style.
“I encourage active participation from the audience, and welcome questions to lead the discussion,” Stringer said.
She portrays Laura as an adult, in about the year 1898. At this point in Laura’s life, she and her husband, Almanzo, have been married 13 years, and they have a daughter, Rose, who is almost 12.
Almanzo and Laura have both recovered from diphtheria, but Almanzo continues to suffer from the infection’s aftermath. The family is also coming back from hard financial times, and they’re in the process of building a new farm on the outskirts of the Ozark town of Mansfield, MO.
Audience members can ask Stringer anything they’d like to know about Laura’s life. Some of Stringer’s special areas of expertise include Native American encounters, a woman’s view of farm life, cultural and social expectations of the 1890s, educational opportunities for women and children, the Ingalls and Wilder family histories, and more.
Stringer said it can be fun when people try to get her to break character, either on purpose or inadvertently. For instance, she’s often asked about Laura’s career as a writer, but Laura didn’t publish her first book until 1932.
If there are questions that Stringer is not able to answer as Laura, she might address them at the very end of the presentation. But once she is out of character, she stays out.
Stringer’s programs also feature a hands-on artifact display of everyday items Laura would have been familiar with, such as household goods, clothing, tools, and accessories.
“Frequently, these artifacts become a focus of conversation as well,” Stringer noted.
Hungry for history
Researching Laura’s life has been a fascinating and never-ending journey for Stringer. It all started when she was a young child reading the “Little House on the Prairie” book series.
“That’s how I learned how to read,” Stringer commented.
She also enjoyed the TV series, and she and her cousin loved pretending to be the Ingalls girls. More than once, they even dressed Stringer’s toddler brother in a bonnet to play baby sister, Carrie.
Stringer’s interest in Laura didn’t fade as she grew older. When she was about 13, she asked a librarian why the “Little House on the Prairie” books were classified as children’s historical fiction, instead of autobiography. The librarian pulled out diaries and memoirs from people of long ago, and let Stringer take home reference material that was typically supposed to stay in the library.
“That sealed it for me,” Stringer recalled. “From that point on, I was ravenous.”
As soon as she was old enough to drive, Stringer began visiting historical sites and exploring old cemeteries. She also read all the biographies she could find about Laura’s life.
Stringer continued her pursuit in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in American literature and history from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. (Currently, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies at Harvard University.)
In 2010, Stringer attended her first conference with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association (LIWLRA). There, she met William “Bill” Anderson, an award-winning author who wrote many of the books Stringer had read about Laura Ingalls Wilder. He and Stringer have since become friends, and they enjoy sharing their historical knowledge with each other.
Stringer now serves on the board of the LIWLRA, and is also the owner of Dakota Yankee Research, LLC. On the side, she has been researching Laura’s New England ancestry, with plans to create a book-length publication someday.
Stringer travels extensively throughout the US, and this is her second large tour in Minnesota. The public will have opportunities to see “Mrs. Wilder” at various cities in the Pioneerland Library System through Nov. 20. (See sidebar for details.)
A few nearby locations include Winsted, Dassel, Glencoe, and Litchfield. All performances are free and open to fans of all ages.
Upcoming Laura Ingalls Wilder presentations are scheduled as follows:
• Friday, Nov. 2 Hector Public Library at 10 a.m. and Grove City Public Library at 6 p.m.
• Saturday, Nov. 3 Swift County Historical Society at 2 p.m.
• Monday, Nov. 5 Clara City Care Center at 2 p.m. and Milan School Cafeteria at 7 p.m.
• Tuesday, Nov. 6 Granite Falls Health Care Center at 2 p.m. and Montevideo Public Library at 7 p.m.
• Wednesday, Nov. 7 The Cultural Centre in Bird Island at 10 a.m. and the Litchfield Public Library at 6 p.m.
• Thursday, Nov. 8 Cosmos Public Library at 10 a.m.
• Friday, Nov. 9 Brownton Public Library at 11 a.m. and Glencoe Public Library at 4 p.m.
• Saturday, Nov. 10 Dassel History Center at 10 a.m. and Fairfax Public Library at 3 p.m.
• Tuesday, Nov. 13 Graceville Public Library at 10 a.m. and Ortonville Public Library at 6:30 p.m.
• Wednesday, Nov. 14 Raymond Public Library at 6 p.m.
• Thursday, Nov. 15 Maynard Public Library at 10 a.m.
• Friday, Nov. 16 Atwater Community Center at 10 a.m.
• Saturday, Nov. 17 Willmar Public Library at 10 a.m.
• Monday, Nov. 19 St. Mary’s Care Center in Winsted at 2 p.m. and Hutchinson Public Library at 7 p.m.
• Tuesday, Nov. 20 Spicer Public Library at 10 a.m. and Lake Lilian Public Library at 6 p.m.