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Wilder's stories come alive for 33rd year

The Ingalls family arrives on the set of "Fragments of a Dream" near Walnut Grove. The Wilder Pageant will be hosted for the next three weekends in Walnut Grove.1 / 3
Laura Ingalls, played by Anna Larson of Westbrook, looks out the back of the covered wagon on the set of their production near Walnut Grove.2 / 3
Cast members pose on the set of "Fragments of a Dream" near Walnut Grove3 / 3

WALNUT GROVE -- Tall grasses wave in the breeze as, in the distance, a team of horses leads a covered wagon along the banks of Plum Creek. Music begins to play and, if you look closely, you might see fireflies dancing in the distance as the sun sets over southwest Minnesota's prairie landscape.

The scene is pristine -- almost magical -- for those who grew up reading and watching the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder and, for three weekends each summer for the past 33 years, the community of Walnut Grove comes alive with the retelling of the famed author's tales of prairie life.

Beth Kleven has been a fixture on the Wilder Pageant grounds for the past 30 years. Her role this year, as it has been for many years, is to narrate Wilder's words straight from the book, "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

"Our spirits were high as we bounced and trotted into Walnut Grove," narrated Kleven as activity began to bustle around her on a late June day during a full dress rehearsal. She and her fellow castmates have already endured a full five weeks of rehearsals, though work on this year's pageant actually began last August.

Why Kleven comes back year after year, she doesn't quite know. After three decades, it's become a part of her life.

As the pageant narrator, Kleven shares the story of the trials and tribulations Laura Ingalls and her family endured in southwest Minnesota.

"(The pageant) talks about how difficult things were for her here," said Kleven. "Of course, when she writes her books, she paints it in rather a lovely golden glow, as you do when you look back to your childhood."

The approximately two-hour performance includes 15 scenes, showcasing everything from the Ingalls' arrival in Walnut Grove to building the church, an experience at the Oleson Mercantile, the grasshopper plague, Christmas, Laura's party on Plum Creek and Mary's blindness.

"We talk about the fact that they lost crops to the locust plagues, which were just terrible out here, along with prairie fires and Pa having to walk to Mankato to get a job to support them after they lost their crop," said Kleven. "It's really a series of rough incidences, but all strung together with good humor and family togetherness."

Hundreds of people attend the "Fragments of a Dream" pageant each evening during the summer performance season, coming from across the United States as well as countries around the world.

"I think it appeals to people because it's an old-fashioned view of life," Kleven said. "It's a sweet look at life, so I think that's what draws them here."

This year, Kleven has four grandchildren starring in the production, including Matt Kleven, who portrays Willie Oleson.

Anyone who has read the "Little House" books or watched it on television, knows of the Oleson family -- most notably Nellie.

For the third consecutive year, 15-year-old Amy Van Dorsten has been cast as Nellie -- a role she wanted as soon as she tried out for her first pageant performance seven years ago.

"It's totally just the opposite of my usual personality," Van Dorsten said. "I like being a brat."

Performances of "Fragments of a Dream" begin at 9 p.m. tonight, July 16-17 and July 23-24, on the pageant grounds located one mile west and one-half mile south of Walnut Grove.

Other events scheduled in Walnut Grove are:

* Plum Creek Rendezvous, today and Sunday, with a black powder shoot at 1 p.m., located two miles south and one mile west of Walnut Grove.

* A Laura and Nellie Look-Alike Contest for girls ages 8 to 12. Registration is at noon, contest at 1 p.m. today and July 17.

* Logger fishing derby for children ages 12 and younger, 10 a.m. July 17, Lake Laura.

* Family Festival, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, July 17 and July 24, Walnut Grove City Park.

* Special guest appearances by "Little House on the Prairie" TV show personalities Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder, on July 17; and by Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, on July 24.

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Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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