I thought about saving The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure until after I had read all the Little House books so the references would be fresh to me, but I’ve had it for a while and really wanted to complete it for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge, especially since some of the other participants were planning to read it, too.
I had won it from 5 Minutes For Books months ago, and Jennifer warned me it was “irreverent.” I wasn’t sure exactly what way that would play out, so that and the fact that I’d run into bad language and such in most anything modern and secular lately made me a little wary. There is a smidgen of bad language and a couple of unnecessary sexual references, but it was all much less than what I was afraid there would be, not that I’m brushing it off or condoning it.
The crux of the book is that Wendy loved the Little House books as a child, even having Laura as her imaginary friend whom she wanted to show her modern world, and then rediscovered them as an adult. She wanted to experience “Laura World,” so she read extensively, tried her hand at churning butter and preparing some recipes from the Little House cookbooks, and then she visited several of the LIW-related museums, homes, sites, pageants, and such. On the Ingalls Homestead she actually got to stay in a covered wagon overnight (for $50 at that time), complete with an electrical hookup and an unexpected hail storm (during which her significant other, Chris, asked “What about the wheat?” Loved that. There actually was wheat, corn, and oats growing at the time, which they checked out the next day, and it all seemed to be okay.) She even saw “Laura Ingalls Wilder: the Musical” with Melissa Gilbert (TV Laura) as Ma!
In some places she had some neat experiences, such as when Chris was reading one of the books, came across an illustration of the prairie, lifted up his eyes and realized he was seeing the exact same landscape depicted in the illustration, or when Wendy stepped into Plum Creek and recognized it from the books’ description. Other times there was a strange disconnect between Laura’s world that she was seeing and and the “Laura’s World” in her own mind, or the one she had thought she would see. She found some absurdities (like what sounded almost like a cult of people preparing for the “end times” by learning prairie ways) as well as some surprises, like the insight she found at Almanzo Wilder’s childhood home (the only home at all related to LIW still standing on its own foundation) when originally Farmer Boy, based on Almanzo’s early life, was her least favorite book in the series. It helped, too, to read in The Road Back, a kind of a travel diary of Laura’s rare visit back to De Smet, where the rest of her family lived, that Laura experienced her own disconnect with things being different from her childhood and missing the ones who had passed on (pp 296-297).
Wendy discusses as well some of the disputed things that came up in her reading and research: whether some of the books’ content was actually fictionalized, how much Laura’s daughter Rose had to do with the books, whether Pa did actually know that the land he was on in disputed Indian territory (here is where some of the irreverence comes in: she calls Pa an “opportunistic jerk.”)
Some of the quotes I found most interesting or insightful:
“I didn’t think of Laura’s life as history. It was more alive than that, and more secret, too” (p. 7).
Speaking of childhood road trips: “I hoped we’d come across the cabin the Ingallses abandoned at the end of Little House on the Prairie. We’d see it in the distance, waiting for someone to come back to it. I wanted that someone to be me: I wanted to find that door and open it and complete the story” (p. 8).
Quoting from Barbara Walker’s foreword to the Little House Cookbook: “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s way of describing her pioneer childhood seemed to compel participation” (p. 38).
She used to come into her room, “describing it’s details to herself as if I’d never seen them before…For a few moments my room felt enchanted, just from the power of observation I’d borrowed from Laura…The story of the Little House books was always a story of looking (p. 61).
“Sometimes when I hear folks maunder on about how simple Laura’s lifestyle was I wonder if they’ve ever thought about all the hauling and fetching and stowing and stoking it took just to boil a pot of water” (p. 165). (I have, too!)
“Sometimes, Laura World wasn’t a realm of log cabins or prairies, it was a way of being. Really, a way of being happy. I wasn’t into the flowery sayings, but I was nonetheless in love with the idea of serene rooms full of endless quiet and time, of sky in the windows, of a life comfortably cluttered and yet in some kind of perfect fend shui equilibrium, where all the days were capacious enough to bake bread and write novels and perambulate the wooded hills deep in thought” (p. 172).
I learned several new things, among them:
Rose suggested that when Laura’s character got too “old,” perhaps they should focus on Carrie as the main character now. Laura replied, “We can’t change heroines in the middle of the stream” (p. 98). I am SO glad they didn’t. I’m glad they followed through with Laura’s life as she grew older and married. (Plus I get really tired of the idea that kids can only relate to kids near their own age. And here I thought that was a new line of thought.)
There is a 2005 Disney version of the books on film.
Ed Friendly, who began the LH TV series, wanted to keep it close to the books, but Michael Landon wanted heartwarming, moral lesson type stories (which he actually could have had by sticking closer to the books…)
Rose Wilder Lane’s book Let the Hurricane Roar was written before the Little House books and took elements from different parts of the Ingallses history. Rose “hoped it would inspire Depression-era readers with its themes of resilience in the face of hardship and the strength of the American character” (p. 168). But I don’t think Laura had conceived of writing the books yet. Wendy has a good section on Rose in Chapter 6, “The Way Home.”
Wendy didn’t like adult Laura’s non-fiction writings as much as I did, and overall she writes from a secular, non-conservative, “postmodern” viewpoint. Everyone I’ve known who really loved the LH books was more conservative and religious, so it was interesting to see “Laura’s world” through that perspective. She can be snarky in tone, which won’t likely sit well with many. But overall this was a really interesting book of a dedicated Laura fan. She even started a Twitter account where she comments as Laura at @HalfPintIngalls.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)