March 2011

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

In The Wilder Life, writer and editor Wendy McClure expertly captures the specific way that children escape into books -- in her case the “Laura World” of the Little House series -- and immerse themselves in a fantasy that comforts, heals, and delights. McClure thinks the power of the Little House books comes not necessarily from the entire Little House world, but from a single object like a roasted pig’s tail or corncob doll. These objects can instantly recall a bookworm childhood and they make the romance of prairie poverty less strange. Even though kids today would be disappointed by the meager Christmas gifts the Ingalls received, the exquisite way that Laura Ingalls Wilder described the ecstasy of a stick of candy clarifies the strangeness of romanticizing prairie poverty.

During McClure’s Little House journey, she discovers disappointing, elucidating, and fascinating information. She learns from the book Little House, Long Shadow that the series was informed by “family lore, information and misinformation” combined with Laura’s daughter Rose’s libertarian anti-government politics. It is upsetting to her that the simple books she loved as a child were buttressed by ideologies that are anathema to her. McClure’s childhood imaginations were so powerful that sometimes real experience is a disappointment. The cozy Little House environs appear in person to be more like scenes from a Beckett play, she says. She feels a chasm between her own experience of the books and others, such as Christian homeschoolers, survivalists, or fans of the TV series.

McClure’s sometimes-mystical, sometimes-disappointing experience of the Little House travelogue isn’t dissimilar to my own travel experiences. Travel can be transcendent but there is always a disappointment, a deluded yearning for the past or for conviviality. The innocent comfort of traveling through pages is vastly different from the guilt and complication of driving or flying in a former Big Woods or Plum Creek.

McClure draws connections between her passion for the Little House books and her family, her recently departed mother in particular. Her family background and Little House aren’t integrated seamlessly and sometimes read like a forced way to structure the book. There’s something pat about McClure’s revelation that that her search for Laura and the truth of Little House was a search for her own mother and McClure’s inability to share the books with offspring.
This book isn’t a tedious self-pitying memoir, nor is it another hackneyed experiment memoir, although McClure does change her life in some ways. She rereads the series, takes trips to Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and upstate New York, and buys a butter churn on eBay. One of the book’s strengths is that McClure reads and discovers actual information; she doesn’t just indulge her feelings. The reader learns 19th-century history and a survey of the Ingalls Wilder literature. And the book is light and funny even while it recounts 19th-century struggles. It’s refreshing to read a self aware narrator who isn’t miserable and self-absorbed.

McClure explores the intersections between the book and TV series -- the latter being previously unfamiliar to her -- and the different groups of fans with their disparate parallel Little House memories. The TV series anecdotes are hilarious: imagine Michael Landon screaming “I’m going to blow the whole fucking thing up!” Though the books are more authoritative than the TV series, as they were written by Laura, they have their own artifice.    

The books have a reputation, possibly because of the TV show, of tepid wholesomeness. Yet they are dark and often tell of the Ingalls’, and later the Wilders’, grinding poverty. Sure, it was relieved by a surprise Christmas stocking or a new cow, but ultimately the books are the story of a “failed venture.”
Rereading the books I have noticed disturbing and lovely things: the horrible depiction of Native Americans and the disturbing violence toward children, but also the loving relationship between Ma and Pa. They both have their own hard work, they both love and respect each other, and they clearly adore their children. In a lot of ways, it isn’t the worst family model to follow. And while some fans of the books appreciate the self-sufficiency of the family, the Ingalls gave and received so much help from their neighbors.

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure
Riverhead
ISBN: 1594487804
352 Pages