Seeking Solace in Laura’s Little Houses: Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life

I’ve been waiting a long time to read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. I think that I first saw it through one of my L.M.M. colleagues shortly after the conference last year.  I quickly started following her on Facebook and Twitter – including her profile @HalfPintIngalls in which she tweets Laura related news and thoughts. I believed that this would be a book about her visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historical sites as well as learning something new about Wilder that I didn’t know before.
What I got was something even better. A very complex memoir, that explores the delicate emotional connection a person has with a writer that they read as a young person and the very fascinating world of Laura (or any kind of) fandom. A book about healing that will be among the books that will stay with me for a long time. 
I don’t normally give five stars on and I did for this book.
McClure returns to what she calls, Laura’s World, after her mother dies. A year or so before that, it is her mother who tells Wendy that her copy of Little House in the Big Woods is in the “to be sold pile” at their garage sale; forcing her to rescue it from certain doom. The book sits on her shelf until one day after her mother’s death she starts reading. 
Even if you have not read The Little House Series, any readers can relate to the feelings McClure describes about stepping into a world and wanting to explore it as a child, befriending the main characters and even trying to replicate some of the experiences that you read about. This isn’t about being an impressionable child, no, I think it is about seeking places of safety and solace when we are children. Whether that is the world of Little House, or as McClure writes, “the woods and prairies and big sloughs and little towns, seemed to me almost as self-contained and mystical as Narnia or Oz” (3).
This is the set that I read from as a kid.

That being said, I am from McClure’s generation, who grew up with the T.V. show and received a set of books for my seventh birthday which I’ve read so many times, that the spine of my copy of Little House in the Big Woods is frayed and cracked. 
I understood her desire to go back to the local library and read the books over and over again. I could completely relate to how soothing the rhythm of the titles felt to her. It is the same for me. “I remember studying the list of books in the series; their titles appeared in small caps in the front matter of every book, and I loved the way the list had its own rhythm…” (5). 
They were reliable. Whenever things got a little strange, one can always return to the world of log cabins and wide open prairies and re-live the story. Even if, as McClure says, it was inevitable that Laura meets Almanzo and marries him, there is something comforting in that too. And, like McClure, I wanted to know everything I could about Laura. I’ve read most of the biographies out there and dig through articles to see what work is being done. Lately, I keep looking over my shoulder, as if someone is going to stop me from studying children’s lit and write about Almanzo Wilder. As if it is some universal joke.  The fact that McClure did, well, its like she’s opening up a new kind of dialogue for those who read Laura and want to study her as well.

Anyone who studies Wilder immediately discovers that unlike what we believed as a child, things are not as they seem. There are contradictions in the Laura of the stories and Laura the writer. Although Rose, Laura’s daughter, and Laura would say that everything she wrote in her autobiographical fiction happened, we learn that this isn’t necessarily the case. We learn that Laura was to young to actually remember what it was like to live on the prairie, or, that she left out an entire year of her life because it didn’t fit into the story that she wanted to tell. 
There is also problematic racist overtones in a two of the books which we can argue was subject to the times in which she wrote, but, still doesn’t necessarily sit well with our modern sensibilities. In particular, Little House on the Prairie because of how Native Americans are discussed. It also doesn’t help that the ultimate father figure, Charles Ingalls settled illegally on what was Osage land. Knowing this and knowing how we loved the books as a kid, how do we resolve what we love with what we know? 
When McClure visits the Little House on the Prairie Museum, she reads a laminated letter written by a Virginian school girl who had written on both sides, but because the letter is solidly stapled, she cannot read what it says on the back  She wonders “if a second-grader’s book report held the key to what had actually transpired in that literary portrayal of white settler/Native American relations” (130).  
She tries. She explores how contemporary T.V. and stage productions have tried to resolve this, you get a sense that it remains complicated.  When she finds the door to an abandoned well that could of possibly been built by Pa she writes: “For various reasons-all the history, all the confusion- this place hadn’t felt like Laura World to me; it still didn’t, but this little wooden door in the ground made me feel like I’d least reached its threshold.” 
McClure could have easily made a resounding conclusion about the site, the historical anomalies as to where the Ingalls might have lived and the complicated political implications of the fact that they’d been there in the first place, but she doesn’t. She lets it stay unresolved. 

She also doesn’t hide her disappointment when she gets to Pepin or when she realizes that she just wants to leave DeSmet a day early and feels better that she did so. Listening to her own needs rather than pretending to be what the preconceived notion of what an ultimate fan should be, shows how much McClure is really giving herself to explore Laura’s World on her own terms.
However, that doesn’t mean that McClure doesn’t totally gets into the pageantry, sunbonnets and the intricacies on how to use an antique butter churn. But, there is always the element of the observer in all that she does. Like when she wades in Plum Creek: 

I was going to wade in the creek. Others were doing it-both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water. I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors. I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank. The water felt nice. A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described. Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when i was a kid. I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I knew the book was true. (232) 
McClure’s provides excellent descriptions of the places she meets, provides colour commentary of the people she encounters and is often willing to laugh at herself and the odd situations she gets herself – such thinking she is going to spend a day learning about homesteading and discovering that she and her boyfriend Chris (who honestly should probably get some kind of “best boyfriend” award for how much he supported her on her travels) are spending the night with an end of days cult. “From everything that I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn” (194). 
Seriously, the fact that she links Twilight and Little House kind of makes McClure my hero.

When, our world completely changes with the loss of a parent, grandparent or dear friend. When, we wonder how we will define ourselves in a world without them in the same way that they were before, there is a comfort in returning to something that we once knew – even if that something is a little changed and not how we once knew it.  This is what I also loved about McClure’s book. 
Although it is probably clear to her now that it was her mother’s death that was the catalyst for this pilgrimage through Lauraland that had her buying butter churns, making apples and onions for the Little House Cookbook and spending hours on the internet studying Laura, she  doesn’t really understand that while its happening. McClure hints at it, perhaps subconsciously knew it, but she continues on, trusting that there must be a reason for her rediscovered obsession.  I’m sure that one of the complexities surrounding Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane was a special piece of this puzzle. 

I often wonder, as McClure does, what Laura Ingalls Wilder would think about this thing called the internet and that people who have grown up with her books can connect across boundaries that go beyond the physical country borders.  For a woman who traveled west and saw the building of the railroad, the automobile and the typewriter, I would like to think that she would kind of thing it is cool.

That is the thing, isn’t it? Wondering what your favourite author will think about the world we live in now. Wondering if you could take her on a tour of our lives and she would understand what we are dealing with. Much like, we want to understand hers. I think that McClure’s The Wilder Life is giving us a way of doing just that.


About Melanie J. Fishbane

My novel, MAUD: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery was published in 2017 through Penguin Random House on April 25, 2017. I hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here I talk about my writing process, things I love, and creative people who inspire me.
This entry was posted in Authors, Blogging, Book Reviews, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink.

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