Book Spotlight: My Life As Laura by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson needed to know—was connecting with her lifelong heroine the key to knowing herself? She decided to find out. She donned a prairie dress and retraced the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder. From Wisconsin to Minnesota, South Dakota to Missouri, Kelly explored Laura’s past and her own. Part travelogue, part memoir and part social commentary, Kelly discovered how an adult relationship with a little girl, who lived in little houses long ago, can give a sense of purpose for today.
Read an excerpt!
I admit that the origin of the dress mandate was fuzzy at best. All I can say is the instant I decided to retrace the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I knew I would wear a Laura dress. When I first envisioned this costume, my intention had been to browse online, haunt thrift stores, contact a seamstress, research historical garb, etc. What happened: I was leaving the next day and needed a dress.
That afternoon I scouted the local Goodwill, hoping for a miracle in the racks. Nope. I resigned myself to a vintage shop. As a general rule I dislike shopping in a place where a bored employee has nothing to do but stare me down. Help galls me, as I possess a toddlerlike insistence that I can do it myself. A poorling, I do not belong in the specialty spending bracket, and I hate telling people no, so I rank boutique shopping on the comfort par of wool sheets. Waiting until the final hour, I barreled into Mr. Higgins’Vintage Clothing & Costumes of Missoula, Montana, all bluster and little intention
Which explains why I was unprepared for this challenge posed by the owner.
“Do you want to dress like Laura the little girl,” she asked, scrunching up her face and tilting her head, “or Laura the adult?”
The proprietor folded antique bandannas on a display case while I processed. She looked somewhere between forty and eighty, youthful despite the crinkles. I had met her type a few times now, the western woman who could charge an alpine escarpment, dragging her giant dog while I clutched a scrubby tree and panted.
Her unexpected question, and inescapable inflection, made me realize that a thirty-eight-year-old woman dressing like a little pioneer girl was odd. And not odd in a quirky, adorable way, but odd in a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane way.
I inhaled the aroma of antique, steam-pressed sweat and rolled the dilemma around on my tongue, as though contemplating a flavor. This Laura dress issue was getting complicated. A basic getup began with the red calico worn by little girl Laura, but as Laura became a young woman, her wardrobe expanded. Passages detail her outfits—the brown poplin with her ostrich-feathered poke bonnet, her pink lawn, the black cashmere that became her wedding dress, but even if I chose an “adult” Laura dress, I would only be fifteen. At my age the real Laura was a farmer’s wife in Mansfield, and those clothes were not part of the Books.
To my relief, the owner had not asked why I needed a Laura dress, a question way too involved for me to answer right then. She didn’t even blink. As it turned out, my request was routine—in Missoula, Montana, people needed Laura dresses all the time. There were Frontier Days, reenactments of homestead life, and you never knew when Hellgate High might rally for another production of Oklahoma! The more we discussed options, I found myself grateful for professional help. A prairie newbie, I had not considered that I would need a bonnet and apron, or even known that the nineteenth-century style was Victorian. The owner said she was usually buried in calico and gingham, except she had just made a huge donation to the historical society.
We leafed through her back stock of cowgirl outfits and flapper dresses with fringe. When I saw the rack of clown costumes, I began to panic a little. After an extensive search, we were able to roust out three dresses remotely suitable, not one of them a red calico or brown poplin with an ostrich-feathered poke bonnet. I took my options into the dressing room and drew the flowered curtain
Number One was a tiny yellow calico that had the girth of a sock. Number Two, brown with vanilla piping, looked doubtful (size and style-wise), but I tried anyway. It reached an impasse at my knees. I remembered yet another reason why I dislike vintage clothing stores: nothing ever fits. I confronted Number Three, my last chance—the floor-length, turquoise-blue-flowered dress with a scooped neck trimmed in ribbon and lace, cap sleeves, and a fluorescent-orange dust ruffle. Blue was Mary’s color, not Laura’s, but I rationalized that Laura had always wished she could wear blue. I chanted Laura’s mantra when facing the unavoidable—it couldn’t be helped.
In the end, the primary selling point of the blue dress was this: it zipped.
Read the reviews!
“Hilarious, perceptive and true, a homespun story as genuine as the ones that inspired it.”
—Judy Blunt, bestselling author of Breaking Clean
"You won’t detect any drawl in this Southerner’s voice. Ferguson is witty and edgy in a way that feels entirely fresh. This is stunningly, sharp, pitch-perfect writing."
—Neely Harris Lohmann, editor-in-chief of mental_floss magazine
"Grab your bonnet and plunk down in the sunny grass. Ferguson captures the high spirits and struggles of life on the prairie, then and now. A tribute to Wilder, a search for truer self, a twenty-first pioneer journey, My Life as Laura shows us how the books we love lead us to the life we need."
—Eric LeMay, author of Immortal Milk: Adventures in Cheese
Kelly Kathleen Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, a humorous memoir in which she retraces the pioneer journey of her lifelong heroine—in a prairie dress. Her work has appeared in mental_floss magazine, Poets & Writers, the Gettysburg Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Brevity, among other publications. She has an MFA from the University of Montana, and is working on a PhD in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Kelly is a Libra, Cancer rising, Aquarian moon. She is Irish/French/German, lapsed Roman Catholic, and right-brained. Kelly once received a minority scholarship for a machinist certification program at Durham Technical Community College. When she was four, she ate a mothball and had to have her stomach pumped, or she would have died.