The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
Riverhead Hardcover (2011) (ISBN 1594487804 / 9781594487804)
Nonfiction (memoir/literature), 352 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date 4/14/11)
Reason for reading: Review copy; 24-Hour Readathon, Spring 2011
Opening Lines: “I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we all traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory, where Pa built us another house, out on high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?”
Book Description: Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder-a fantastic realm of fiction, history, and places she’s never been to, yet somehow knows by heart. She retraces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family- looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota. She immerses herself in all things Little House, and explores the story from fact to fiction, and from the TV shows to the annual summer pageants in Laura’s hometowns. Whether she’s churning butter in her apartment or sitting in a replica log cabin, McClure is always in pursuit of “the Laura experience.” Along the way she comes to understand how Wilder’s life and work have shaped our ideas about girlhood and the American West.
The Wilder Life is a loving, irreverent, spirited tribute to a series of books that have inspired generations of American women. It is also an incredibly funny first-person account of obsessive reading, and a story about what happens when we reconnect with our childhood touchstones-and find that our old love has only deepened.
Comments: My particular youthful literary obsession wasn’t Laura Ingalls Wilder, although I did read all of the Little House books at least once and watch the first few seasons of the TV series they inspired (in first run – I was 10 years old, prime Little House-reading age, when the show debuted in 1974); mine was Louisa May Alcott. Nevertheless, I can relate to Wendy McClure’s girlhood immersion in what she came to call “Laura World,” and I’m rather relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only avid young reader whose favorite literary characters became regular residents of her inner life.
While her devotion to the Laura legend fades as she enters adolescence, Wendy rediscovers her love for the books when she unexpectedly comes across her old set while packing up her parents’ house, and reading them again as an adult inspires her to learn more about the woman who wrote them. The Little House books are fictionalized memoir, with some disagreement over exactly how fictionalized they are; despite any controversy there, their vivid descriptions of frontier life and depictions of a “simpler” time have given them new popularity among home-schooling families.
Seeking a better understanding of who Laura really was, and why so many people embrace her story as they do – as well as something else she really can’t define – Wendy decides to explore Laura World beyond the books, testing recipes from The Little House Cookbook, teaching herself to churn butter, and making plans to visit the various places Laura and her family lived.
As Wendy takes readers – and her very supportive boyfriend, Chris – along on her odyssey, she recaps the Ingalls/Wilder family saga, discusses the various points of contention between the stories and various biographies, and shares her impressions of the people and places that comprise what remains of Laura World today. The writing is reflective, revealing, engaging, and often very funny. The Wilder Life will particularly resonate with any reader who has engaged in a long-term literary or cultural obsession of her or his own (which I suspect covers quite a few of us), and I’m glad I took this trip with Wendy McClure.