Published by Penguin on 2011-04-14
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Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder—a fantastic realm of fiction, history, and places she’s never been to, yet somehow knows by heart. She traces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family— looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota. She immerses herself in all things Little House—exploring the story from fact to fiction, and from the TV shows to the annual summer pageants in Laura’s hometowns. Whether she’s churning butter in her apartment or sitting in a replica log cabin, McClure is always in pursuit of “the Laura experience.” The result is an incredibly funny first-person account of obsessive reading, and a story about what happens when we reconnect with our childhood touchstones—and find that our old love has only deepened.
My mom used to drop me off at the library on weekend afternoons when I was about eight. She’d leave to run errands and I would hang out in the library for hours reading whatever struck my fancy on the children’s/YA shelves. Often time I’d gravitate toward the Little House on the Prairie books. I’d read them in one sitting, breathing in the Ingalls family history and wishing that my life could be similar. I remember anticipating weekends so I could rejoin Laura’s family on their next adventure. My mom eventually bought me the nine book set. You know the one. They were paperback and encased in a blue and white checked cardboard housing. I still have those exact books. I haven’t reread them in years but they sit there waiting for me, like old friends ready to catch up at any time.
That’s my experience with Laura. Wendy McClure’s experience isn’t all that different. The Wilder Life is McClure’s rediscovery of the Little House world after the death of her mother. She looks for comfort in the memories of her childhood but finds a more complex world than she imagined.
In The Wilder Life McClure performs homesteading chores like grinding wheat and churning butter, visits all the Little House historical sites across the Midwest, and, in searching for the perfect Little House experience, finds out that *her* Laura and the Laura of others sometimes don’t match up. Along the way she encounters doomsday preppers, survivalists, homeschoolers, and many different people who look for Laura in their own ways.
The message here is simple: Laura means different things to different people. Some fans only know the TV show. Others crave the “simple life” of the books. Others take inspiration from the books for homesteading, doomsday preparedness, etc. Still others look to the books for family values. Even though McClure doesn’t always approve of what these other people are looking for when they try to find Laura, she does show us that the Little House world is complex enough to call for such a variety of interpretations.
I particularly enjoyed McClure’s attention to detail. It’s obvious that she’s read all the scholarship on Laura (academic or not). Though she doesn’t make any new historical insight (to me at least), she does present the complexities of Laura and Rose’s relationship, Laura’s memory of her childhood, and even Ma’s racism in a way that isn’t beguiling. It’s rational and easy to understand and let me look at the evidence in new ways. I did learn a few things. Rose was a founder of the Libertarian Party and, more impressively, was a war correspondent in Vietnam when she was in her 80s. What a cool woman.
I’m dismayed at the Goodreads reviews. Many people gave it one or two stars because it isn’t what they expected. They wanted a memoir tinted with rose-colored glasses. They wanted “more Little House and less McClure.” What they got was an honest memoir about discovery. All I could think was “You didn’t get the point.” McClure starts and ends the story with her mother. All the Little House in between is her journey toward closure. It all goes back to the message: Laura means different things to different people.
The Wilder Life is funny, poignant, and makes me stop and think about the reasons why Laura is important to me. I have an answer to that. Maybe someday I’ll tell you.
© 2014 – 2016, Jessica Workman Holland. All rights reserved.