The Wilder Life

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.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

14 responses to “The Wilder Life

  1. So cool! I haven’t reread the books since I was a teen, I guess, but I read them a bunch when I was younger.

    And I was lucky enough to have a mother and grandmother who were indulgent, so I remember my grandma making me fried green tomatoes (which I didn’t like), and molasses candy (with ice, not snow), and other non-fire involving stuff. (We also made acorn cakes, since native Americans in our area had made them. My Mom deserves some sort of medal for adventurous parenting.)

  2. I have to admit I have never read a single Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Are they more of an American phenomena, perhaps? But the book sounds fun – I’m always interested in books about books and how they develop out the fictional content into other lines of enquiry.

  3. I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed this book. I saw a review of it in an indie magazine and put it on my list. I was fascinated by those Little House on the Prairie books and the show too!

  4. Loved the Little House books, but I haven’t re-read them as an adult either. I had forgotten all about molasses & snow candy! I remember my sister & I tried to make that on our back patio one winter. My mother was horrified that we would actually eat it, but that may have been more because of the molasses than because of the snow!

  5. I have this book on my shelf waiting to be read. I enjoyed the Little House books when I was growing up, but I wasn’t obsessed with them or anything – it will be interesting to see how I like McClure’s book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. I haven’t read any LHOTP books, but have seen a lot of the TV episodes. I remember my favorite show pertaining to that kind of ‘genre’ was The Waltons. Yep, a bit earlier in time. And to my surprise, they’re rerunning the series now.

    BTW, I’ve saved your list of 50 Greatest British Writers. Just got from our public library Muriel Sparks’s four novel compilation (Everyman’s Library, Alfred Knopf): The Prime of MJB, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver’s Seat, and The Only Problem. Which is your favorite? The first one sure is the most well known.

  7. I was given a set of the LHOP books when I was young, but I didn’t appreciate them perhaps as much as I should have. Same with Anne of Green Gables, though I tried those as an adult, and liked the first one very much.

    It’s challenging to research the backgrounds of these childhood books, I think, because what if you find out the reality behind the stories is not as simple or old-fashioned or fun as you had always hoped it would be? Personally, I think I prefer to enjoy the magic of the books and not delve too deeply into the authors’ personal lives.

  8. I still have all my Little House books from when I was a kid. I have parted with a good many of my childhood books but those, no way. I have a friend who is a big Wilder fan and has been to all of the Minnesota and Wisconsin sites. If she hasn’t read this book yet I think she is planning on it.

  9. Jenny

    I am a huge fan of the Little House books (yes, even as an adult) and would love to read McClure’s book. I agree that the Ingalls/ Wilders would absolutely have traded simplicity for comfort! During their time, they were always trying to “improve” what they had with the latest technology — new stove, glass windows, insulation, plow for the farm, whatever they could afford. It wasn’t our technology, but it was the best they could get, within the context of independence.

  10. Bardiac — that’s awesome! My mom helped me figure out how to made the hard tack bread they traveled with, if I’m remembering correctly, and that was fun.

    Litlove — I would guess they are more of an American phenomenon, although I couldn’t say for sure. It would certainly make sense, though, as they are so much wrapped up in the American myths of the west.

    Iliana — I’m glad it’s on your list. I think you would enjoy it very much.

    AnneCamille — there’s so much from the books that I’ve forgotten about it, and that makes it fun to reread them, because everything is coming back to me now. It seems like a lot of people have tried to make molasses candy (with varying degrees of success!).

    Julie — I hope you enjoy the book. It’s fun if the reader has shared McClure’s obsession, but certainly not a requirement to appreciate the book.

    Arti — of the three Spark novels I’ve read, Jean Brodie is definitely my favorite. I also read The Public Image and Aiding and Abetting, and they were very enjoyable. I never watched the Waltons growing up. I wonder what I would think now?

    Debby — I can understand wanting to keep the magic of the books you loved as a kid. With Laura Ingalls Wilder, I read enough about her life as a kid to know that there was a more complicated story behind the books, so that wasn’t a surprise as an adult. There is also pleasure to be had from knowing the back story, even if it’s not always completely positive, but still, it seems risky!

    Stefanie — your friend will probably like the book a lot. Good for you for hanging on to those books. In a family with seven kids, I don’t think I felt I owned the books myself, so it didn’t seem right to take them with me. But now I own a set of my very own!! :)

    Jenny — I hope you do get to read McClure’s book. I just came across a passage in Little House in the Big Woods where Pa is singing the praises of new technology and progress. I think there are a lot of contemporary readers who wouldn’t like that!

  11. I just discovered this book when I was browsing at our local bookstore last weekend and added it to the TBR tome. Methinks I’ll have to get a copy sooner rather than later. Funny about those who think of the books representing a simpler time. Every time I think about them, I get exhausted for poor Ma and all she had to do!

  12. I have never heard of this book before, but it sounds good. This sort of book seems to be very popular these days (looking back on literature and also talking about the period, author and the writer’s own life/response to it all), and McClure seems to pull it off well. I remember the scene where they make the candy out of maple syrup and snow! Leave it to me to remember the sweets in the book (though I have always wondered if it would work…). :)

  13. I’ve never read the Wilder books, but I do understand about that obsession with characters until they become the friends you know will always be their and stand by you. Despite not knowing the books themselves, I think I’m going to look out for a copy of this because I’ll understand the impetus behind it so well.

  14. It sounds like an interesting book–and I like that kind of eclectic approach. I was surprised to find out that Laura Wilder was actually a rather repressed, rigid and cold woman who had an ambivalent relationship with her daughter Rose. And that Rose did a lot of the writing of the books.

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