Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Wilder Life

It's starting to feel like I signed up to do a Laura Ingalls Wilder reading challenge. First I reread Little House in the Big Woods (though I still haven't blogged about it) earlier this year, then I read Alison Arngrim's funny and interesting Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, last year I read Little House, Long Shadow, and now I have just finished Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life. I have high hopes of rereading all of the Little House books by the end of the year, but my intentions often outstrip my time.

Back to The Wilder Life. It was wonderful. Well-written, mostly funny, occasionally poignant, often insightful, The Wilder Life is to Little House mania what Julie and Julia is to Julia Child and cooking. Basically, the author, Wendy McClure, immerses herself in what she terms "Laura World" - she journeys to all the Little House sites, tries her hand at pioneer activities such as churning butter, makes some of the dishes detailed in the Little House Cookbook (gives rave reviews to the Apples n Onions), and muses on what she is looking for by this immersion.

As someone who grew up repeatedly reading the LH series, the book was enormously satisfying in that I could so often nod my head in agreement with feelings, observations, and questions that McClure recounts from her own childhood, adolescence, and adulthood reading LH. The scenes she describes in the books were all so familiar to me, as was her response to learning that the books were fiction and that Laura's daughter, Rose, was instrumental in the development of them. She captures my own conflicted feelings over discovering that the Wilder family was opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal, and Rose was a founding member of the Libertarian party. Personally, I find the real Laura and Rose not particularly in the kindred spirit realm, but the fictionalized Laura is definitely one of my childhood friends.

Off and on over the years I have toyed with making a pilgrimage to all the LH sites. After reading a couple of biographies of Laura, my interest in visiting the real houses diminished because I was in love with, as McClure puts it, "Laura World." Then, a different mood would strike and I would want to see where the real Laura lived and developed into a beloved American icon. Having read The Wilder Year, I'm torn again--seeing all the girls in their period dress I think I would find a bit depressing, but being able to do what McClure's husband Chris does would be magical--i.e., when the couple is camped near DeSmet, he happens to look up and sees exactly the landscape Garth Williams depicts when Laura and Pa go to see the railroad being made--the hills, the prairie, all unchanged over the past 130 years. That would be very cool.

I think the most interesting idea in the book is that Farmer Boy, with its abundance and lack of disaster, was Laura Ingall Wilder's own fantasy world. Here's how McClure puts it:
With all its over-the-top dinner scenes and constant allusions to the Wilder family's good fortune, literal and otherwise, Farmer Boy wasn't really the smug when-I-was-your-age sermon I'd originally made it out to be, but more a wistful dream conjured up by a woman who had spent much of her life enduring deprivation. It was a love letter to the original promise of success and prosperity that had so eluded her husband in his adulthood, when, like countless other settlers, he'd found out the hard way that farming methods from back East were no match for the dry land of Dakota Territory.

Suddenly it all made sense--Farmer Boy was Laura Ingalls Wilder's own Laura World, an ideal realm she'd imagined, a homesickness for a place she'd never been or seen.

On Goodreads, I marked that I had finished this book and had given it 5 stars. I felt a bit odd doing this, afterall I tend to be stingy with 5 stars, and I had to question whether I really thought The Wilder Life was equivalent to Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, The Great Gatsby, or any of the other great works of literature that I love so much. I gave it 5 stars because of the way it made me feel after reading it--that is, that I had discovered something integral about myself, what I value, who I am. Wendy McClure's journey to find out what Laura and the LH books meant to her helped me gain a better understanding of what Laura and the LH books mean to me, and at some level that's why I read and why I write. So I stand by the 5 stars.

Final note, one of the first things I noticed about the book is how it replicates the look and feel of the hardcover LH books that I acquired as a child and still have. The physical dimensions, the type face, and the layout all mimic the hardcovers I read, and even the few illustrations seem to have sprung from the pen of Garth Williams. It was atouch I particularly liked, and made me feel at home right away. Nicely done!

For all you Twitter fans, make sure you follow McClure who tweets as @HalfPintIngalls

Here's a typical tweet:
The Long Winter's over, the trains are running, & @ReverendAlden's Christmas barrel is here at last! (What's that weird smell?)


  1. I have been meaning to go back and read the LH series - I devoured those books as a child.

    Thanks for this review!

  2. What a great review! I love how you picked out McClure's insight about Farmer Boy for an extended quote--just the sort of thing that makes this kind of book so valuable. I also like how you defended your own initial decision to grant five stars, since this book succeeded brilliantly in what it set out to do and was personally very meaningful.

    I heartily recommend a pilgrimage to some of the "Laura" locales--preferably with a child who will love the experience! We once made a long detour to DeSmet, South Dakota, at the request of our daughter who was 9 at the time. She had read all the books and took in the details of the visit with relish, and we came home with some nice souvenirs. But the important thing was just being there, seeing the place.

    I'll definitely follow McClure on Twitter--thanks for the tip!

  3. Terrific review. I love how you talk about how the physical qualities of the book remind you of the original; so much of the way we experience a story is through that physical medium and I love how it brings back the memories!

  4. Serendipity. I've just finished reading an omnibus containing Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I hadn't read them as a child and I didn't realise that she had written so many more. I'll look out for The Wilder Life. Thanks.