I very much enjoyed Wendy McClure’s book The Wilder Life, which tells the story of McClure’s return to her childhood obsession with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the Little House on the Prairie series. I have no idea what someone who wasn’t obsessed with the series would think of the book, but I was obsessed as a child, and so her story sounded very familiar to me. I read and reread all the books, imagining what it would have been like to be Laura and live in her time and also what it would be like to introduce Laura to late twentieth-century life. I don’t remember when I started reading these books and when I stopped (I haven’t reread them as an adult), but I know I reread them over the course of many years. I watched the television series too, but it was always clear to me that it was only very loosely based on the novels. There was no danger I was going to get them mixed up, as many people do.
My experiences were similar to McClure’s — she read and reread the books and thought of Laura as a friend. Now, as an adult, she comes across her childhood copies of the novels and becomes fascinated by them all over again. The fascination quickly turns to obsession as she decides she wants to try some of the things described in the novels, such as churning butter, folding hay into sticks to burn, and making candy out of molasses and snow. She also decides she wants to visit the Ingalls and Wilder homesteads, which, since she lives in Chicago, isn’t too, too hard to do.
So she sets forth on numerous trips to Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. She even makes it to the town in upstate New York where Almanzo, Laura’s husband, grew up. In between all these trips, she researches Laura’s life and the culture that’s grown up around the books, and she contemplates what her personal and the larger cultural obsession with Little House on the Prairie means.
So the book is part travel narrative, part biography, part memoir, part cultural criticism, and probably some other things as well. I was fascinated to read about the ways that the novels do not reflect what actually happened in Laura’s life; for example, Laura was too young to remember the events in Kansas in Little House on the Prairie, so that book was fictionalized and based on family anecdotes. The stories from Little House in the Big Woods took place after the ones in Little House on the Prairie, after the family had retreated from Kansas back to Wisconsin, even though it’s first in the series. And there are other shifts and omissions that are surprising for someone who took the novels as faithful to real life. McClure is good at discussing the significance of all this.
She is also very good at describing what the home sites are like. She times a couple of her visits to see Laura Ingalls Wilder pageants and festivals, which involve look-alike contests and stagings of the family story. She is decidedly spooked by fundamentalist, survivalist, end-times people who have latched onto Laura’s story and to pioneer ideals generally as a way to deal with the coming apocalypse. She also meets many people whose religious views aren’t quite so extreme, but who admire the Ingalls family for the simple, self-sufficient, godly life they led. Which I think is hogwash. Not that their lives weren’t simple and self-sufficient, and even godly, but this admiration comes from nostalgia for a simplicity that never really existed and rests on a misunderstanding of what the Ingalls’s lives were really like. I suspect at least some of the Ingalls family wouldn’t have minded trading some simplicity of living for greater comfort and security, or at least that’s true for Ma Ingalls.
McClure has an informal, breezy style, and I’m not really a fan of informal, breezy writing, but her voice never gets irritating or over-the-top cute, and she pulls it off pretty well. She comes across as warm and interesting, and a great guide to what she thinks of as “Laura World.” I was certainly very happy to return to the world of the books in her company.