Kelly Ferguson’s book chronicles the two weeks she spent retracing the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book opens in an antique clothing and costume shop in Missoula, Montana, where Ferguson buys her outfit for the trip: a floor-length bright blue flowered dress, the closest available facsimile of a prairie dress Laura would have worn. To explain her decision to make this journey, Ferguson reveals that she’s been obsessed with Laura since her mother gave her the yellow-covered Harper Trophy Edition box set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books for her sixth birthday. Ferguson not only reads the books, she immerses herself in them; she carries the characters around in her head like imaginary friends.
Ferguson describes how, as a child, she believed that Laura understood her and how reading the books helped calm her anxieties. In her mid-thirties, Ferguson again turns to the books for advice when she realizes that while everyone around her has moved on with life, she is stuck—she’s still living in Durham sixteen years after graduating from the University of North Carolina, still waiting tables as she’s done since her sophomore year. She decides that she needs a change, and, like her heroine Laura, Ferguson heads west. On her way to Montana, she sees a road sign advertising the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, inspiring her pioneer journey. Admitting that she feels like she’s never grown up, Ferguson plans to retrace “the physical path of Laura’s coming of age” in order to “relive and rebuild” her own.
She begins in Pepin, Wisconsin, where she dons the prairie dress for the first time. Ferguson describes in hilarious detail the ordeal of suiting up in this dress that is about half a size too small: “I began the gymnastic routine required to get in the dress, like a prizefighter performing his warm-up exercises.” Self-conscious in her costume, the first time she wears it in public she imagines Willie Oleson (a character from the books) showing up to taunt her.
Ferguson’s obsession with Laura and the books is apparent. She frequently compares herself to Laura and her life to Laura’s, and she finds solutions to her dilemmas by imagining what Laura would do. Tempted to call her boyfriend, who hasn’t called her in days, Ferguson decides that if Laura could survive a long winter by subsisting only on coarse brown bread, she can wait one more day for a phone call. Ferguson calls her boyfriend “My Manly,” the nickname Laura gave her husband Almanzo. Ferguson’s Manly gives her kitschy gifts that she compares to the trinkets Laura’s family collected through their travels. She daydreams about their elaborate South Dakota prairie wedding and her trousseau of “petticoats, bustles, a polonaise, a lace jabot.” So engrossed is Ferguson in her adventure that she sometimes introduces herself to strangers as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Ferguson’s vivid descriptions of the landmarks she visits juxtaposed with stories about these places from the books provide the reader with visual documentation of the changes these places have undergone. She enlivens these accounts with historical data about record-breaking weather phenomena, the Indian Removal Act, and the Dust Bowl.
Ferguson’s pivotal moment occurs when she detours off her charted course to follow a sign pointing toward Carthage, South Dakota. Carthage is where Chris McCandless—the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild—worked before heading to Alaska, where he starved to death in the snow. The writer compares McCandless, John Thornton from Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and Almanzo Wilder as described in The Long Winter, concluding that unlike these risk takers, her “fear of change, fear of consequences, had kept [her] stuck.” She realizes that she must decide to either “risk and come of age, or wander in circles.”
As a result of this revelation, Ferguson begins to understand and accept herself after years of feeling weird, invisible, like she didn’t belong. She’s then surprised when strangers begin striking up conversations with her. Her final destination is the last house where Laura lived and where she wrote her books. Here Ferguson finds strength and inspiration in her heroine, who, like Ferguson, was a literary late bloomer who first lived her life in order to write about it later.
After the journey ends and the romance with Manly fails, Ferguson moves to New Orleans and writes this book about her adventure. Her humor animates her prose, and her thoughtful ruminating resonates. Anyone who cherishes a childhood hero will appreciate this book, as will anyone whose life has faltered on the road to adulthood.