Another good one now out in paperback, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie . Here’s a repost of my review from last June, A little book about the little books about the little houses on the prairie and other places.
A reconstruction of the little house on the prairie depicted in the novel by Laura Ingalls Wilder at the Little House on the Prairie Museum in Independence, Kansas, one of the stops along the way in Wendy McClure’s new memoir, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.
On my desk sit several library copies of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and I can’t sit down to work or even walk by without a twinge of guilt.
I checked them out to have on hand to refer back to while I was reading Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie , and I’ve been doing that, going back and forth from McClure’s book to Wilder’s books like a responsible book reviewer and blogger ought to. But I keep thinking of the little girl who can’t read them while I have them.
I don’t know if I’m preventing her from re-reading her favorites or if I’m getting in the way of her discovering books that will become her favorites. I don’t even know if she is a little girl. I’m sure there are little boys who love these books too. I just haven’t met any. That includes my own sons who, despite being voracious readers from a young age with expansive tastes and a willingness to follow the adventures of female protagonists, never showed any interest in the wanderings of the Ingalls family.
But even if there are boys out there who are missing the books I have out of the library, I think the Little House books are girls’ books, not in their being about “girl” things, but in their being special to girls because they are so much about being a girl. They are about being a daughter and a sister and, eventually, a young wife. And, although nothing particularly or explicitly is made of it, they are about navigating through the world from inside a body that happens to be female.
I knew this about these books, knew they were special, special for girls, long before my sisters read them. I knew it without, as far as I recall, having read them myself when I was young. I don’t even remember being aware that they existed when I was a kid. But I must have known about them. I must have read them or some of them or parts of at least one of them. How else would I have known, known both that they were so well-written and that they weren’t written for me, not the way Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans were written for me. Not even Farmer Boy, the one book without Laura, the one with a boy as its main character, was written for me. How’d I know? I just did. Somehow I knew about them and understood what they were when the TV series premiered and I knew that show was different and in a way lesser.
So I’m not surprised that a little girl who loved the Little House books has grown up to write her own book about how much those books meant and still mean to her.
For a while I had a close imaginary friendship with the Laura of On the Banks of Plum Creek, who felt closest to my age in those books. I was eight or nine; I had knowingly conjured her up to talk with her in my head. I daydreamed that she’d shown up in the twentieth cenruty and I had to be her guide…
…I wanted to take Laura to North Riverside Mall. In my mind I ushered her onto escalators and helped her operate a soda machine. I took her with me on car trips and reassured her when the station wagon would pull onto the expressway ramp and accelerate to a speed three times faster than the trains she rode, faster than she would have ever imagined a human being could travel. It’s okay, Laura, I’d tell her.
But Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life is more than a nostalgia trip in the guise of a literary appreciation.
It’s McClure’s journalistic account---part memoir, part travelogue, part nostalgia trip---of her attempts to reconnect with the world the Little House books had created in her imagination and the little girl who was her heroine and imaginary friend and to discover how much of that world was real and reachable.
It starts with an almost accidental re-reading of Little House in the Big Woods, indirectly inspired by her mother’s death from cancer. From there, McClure moves on to re-reading the whole series and then the books Wilder wrote that were not part of the series and the columns she wrote for a local newspaper and the books and short stories written by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was for a time the famous author in the family, biographies, scholarly appreciations, a travel book called The Little House Guidebook---a guide to all the Ingalls family homesites, of which, if you only know The Little House on the Prairie through the TV show, you’ll be surprised to learn there are many, the Ingalls moved around a lot, usually to leave another bout of bad luck behind---which McClure gives the subtitle “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend But Were Afraid to Ask,” and even a cookbook. The next thing we know, McClure is buying a butter churn off eBay and churning her own butter in the kitchen of her apartment in Chicago and baking recipes from the cookbook. McClure is pleased to report that her Vanity Cakes didn’t turn out half-bad.
One of the things McClure is surprised to discover in her outside reading is that Laura Wilder played around with the chronology of Laura Ingalls’ life. In reality, Wilder was too young during the time her family lived in the little house on the prairie to remember what happened there, so she made herself older in the telling of The Little House on the Prairie. In other words, that book is more of a work of fiction than McClure believed it to be and finding that out caused her to wonder how much of the other books were made up as well.
Her curiosity makes her more determined to take the next step in her plan to connect with Laura World. She sets to visit the places where Wilder lived as a girl and see for herself if what Wilder says Laura saw is there to be seen.
Her trips take her to all the sites of all the places Laura calls home in the Little House books and to a couple of places she lived that don’t get mentioned in the books and finally to a home that is the subject of one whole book but where, significantly, Wilder herself never lived or ever even visited.
Along the way McClure visits museums, observes a Laura Ingalls lookalike contest, spends a night in a covered wagon not sleeping through a tremendous and terrifying prairie thunderstorm, learns that there is a deep divide between Laura fans who grew up loving the books and those who grew up knowing only the TV show---although she was just the right age for it, McClure says she never watched the show when she was a kid and doesn’t even remember connecting it to the books she loved, despite the shared title---interviews various people with their own professional and personal reasons for wanting to connect with Laura World, and buys herself half a dozen sunbonnets of the kind she wished when she was a girl she could wear or rather not wear, like Laura, with the bonnet fallen off the back of her head and the ribbons flying as she ran through the tall prairie grass. And, along the way, her researches and explorations, require her to dabble in anthropology, archaeology, meteorology, cartography, psychology, and even theology, dabbles McClure recounts with both humor and purposeful attention.
Three of the liveliest and most enlightening (for McClure as well as for her readers) sections of The Wilder Life deal with side-trips she makes, two to places not directly connected to the Little House books while the third is connected psychologically.
A visit to American Girl Place has McClure observing that one of the things she loved about the Little House Books was the thing-ness of it all, the “stuff” that helped make up Laura’s world. Looking at all the stuff available to buy to help make up your American Girl doll’s world, McClure observes:
Something about [the displays of stuff], with their images of doll-sized treasure, always buoyed me. I loved the simplicity these miniature things evoked, the way they called to mind uncluttered lives where each carefully crafted object shone with significance. Kristen’s quilt, Molly’s locket---they exuded something of the same aura with which things in the Little House books appeared; I could see them with a bit of the charmed sight of Laura World. On some level I recognized that things on display at the American Girl store purported to be as cherished as Ma’s china shepherdess, Charlotte the rag doll, and the butter mold with the carved leaves and strawberry.
She also considers the question of whether or not the Laura of the books is a tomboy. McClure emphatically concludes she was not. And she reluctantly admits a sneaking admiration for the quintessential mean girl, Nellie Oleson or at least a covetousness towards Nellie’s stuff.
McClure’s professional and feminist approval of the books for sale at American Girl Place had me wishing there was such a store for boys.
The second side-trip is to a farm where the couple who own it and work it offer weekend workshops in “homesteading” crafts and skills such as weaving, canning, soap-making, and blacksmithing. McClure goes to get a more hands-on sense of what it was like to live the life of pioneers in post-Civil War America. She’s stunned and a little frightened to discover that most of the other people visiting the farm that weekend are Christian fundamentalists and End-Timers there to learn how to survive in a post-apocalyptic America that they’re actually looking forward to.
The third side-trip isn’t to a place so much as into a personality, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
It occurs during McClure’s visit to the one house still standing that Laura Wilder could truly call home, the farmhouse in Missouri where she lived out the bulk of her life as an adult with her husband Almanzo and where she wrote the Little House books, which, I was surprised to learn, she didn’t begin to do until she was in her sixties.
Rose was already a successful and well-known author, journalist, and political activist in her own right at that point and it’s a matter of cantankerous debate how much help she gave her mother in the writing of the Little House books, with some Rose partisans arguing that she contributed so much that she deserves credit as co-author. Rose herself never claimed any more credit than the records indicate she deserves---she was her mother’s first and most vigorous editor and her writing teacher, but, when all was said and done, the Little House books were Laura Wilder’s creations not Laura and Rose’s. Still, McClure finds herself deeply intrigued by Rose, who, she concludes, must have been a difficult character for anyone, including her mother and father, to get along with. Despite her fame and her success, Rose appears to have spent her life unsatisfied, uneasy, and unhappy with herself and to have borne an undefined but lifelong grudge against her mother whom she nonetheless loved, was devoted to, and devoted herself to helping turn into the famous author she became.
It’s also at the Missouri farmhouse where McClure gets the best sense of what it was like to live the life of Laura. But it’s the wrong Laura! The grown-up and very real writer Laura Wilder, not the girl who was the creation of that writer.
McClure’s travels take her to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota where she visits the sites of Laura’s many homes or where those sites are supposed to be. As I said, none of those homes are still standing. McClure has to content herself with recreations of the log cabins and shanties and sod house and none of them quite do the trick. One of the sadder moments in the book is when McClure finds herself string wistfully at a dip in the prairie where the dugout featured in On the Banks of Plum Creek probably was.
It turns out that McClure comes closest to finding what she’s looking for during a visit to a house she came close skipping on her tour.
This is the farmhouse in far upstate New York where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband Almazno Wilder grew up, the setting for the one Little House book McClure felt and feels the least connection to, not just because Laura herself doesn’t appear in Farmer Boy, but because the Wilders’ life as depicted in the book came across to McClure as just a little too perfect.
As a girl, McClure found it easier, and somehow more natural and more fun, and even comforting, to identify with the deprivations and hardships of Laura’s still happy girlhood than with the ease and contentment of Almanzo’s happy boyhood. As a grown-up, her feelings towards the Wilders bordered on resentment.
Pa and Ma Ingalls struggled to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s head and were not always or even routinely successful at it. Mr and Mrs Wilder were adept at whatever they turned their hands to and were rewarded for their efforts. Laura grew up learning how to make do or do without. Almanzo grew up having to learn when to say when. The Ingallses almost never had enough of anything. The Wilders were always on the brink of having, comparatively, too much. This didn’t make them pretentious, show-offy, smug, or self-satisfied. The Wilders were not only rich, or at least relatively rich compared to the Ingallses, they were good.
Strangely, and to her chagrin, it’s while she is in the homey yet for its time well-appointed and well-stocked kitchen of the Wilder farmhouse that McClure feels her affinity with Laura most strongly:
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 of a wistful dream conjured up by a woman who’d spend 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 the 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 this place she’d never been or seen. On my trip west I’d been trying to get to the furthest reaches of a word I thought I knew. Without even expecting it, I’d found the most secret and remote part of it here. I knew it wasn’t the house itself, here in this almost impossibly green and lush countryside; it was more that this place marked the spot in the other world, designated the place where this amazing Farmer Boy, the Child Who Always Had Enough, lived in Laura’s head…
At a certain point in her book McClure has to give up looking for Laura, feeling that she’s come as close as she can and thinking, forlornly, that the harder she tried, the more distant from Laura and Laura World she was feeling. And at that point, The Wilder Life stops being about McClure’s attempts to connect with the spirit of Laura Ingalls or even with the little girl McClure was, the little girl who loved Laura. It might be more accurate to say that the book stops appearing to be about either of those themes and it becomes openly about what it’s been about all along, a middle-aged writer named Wendy McClure writing about being Wendy McClure. We leave Laura World for Wendy World. And to put it bluntly, Wendy World isn’t going to be as interesting to readers who are reading The Wilder Life in order to visit Laura World.
Wendy World is a world of relative privilege and carefully protected privilege, at that. McClure was able to write The Wilder Life because the McClure Life is a writer’s life. Writing is McClure’s job and visiting the museums and window-shopping at American Girl Place and teaching herself how to churn butter are things she needed to do to do her job. But from the outside it might look as though she’s being paid to take little vacations and indulge a hobby. Nice work if you can get it, but it means Wendy World contrasts mightily with Laura World in a very important way---the Ingallses were not privileged. They were mostly either poor or living on the brink of poverty. Their lives were full of risks that they took out of necessity and desperation. The natural and logical connection you’d expect a grown-up following Laura’s family’s trail to inevitably make would be to the grown-ups in Laura World, to Ma and Pa Ingalls. You’d expect---ok, I expected---that it would begin to weigh on McClure how lucky she was not to have been born Laura or a Laura, that she’d have something to say about how hard Charles and Caroline Ingalls had it, how hard they had to work just to put a single meal on the table while she’s free to waste entire days churning butter (in a churn she bought off eBay without, apparently, much worrying about where the money for it would come from) just for the fun of it.
It doesn’t happen. McClure never relates to Charles and Caroline as fellow adults. They remain to her Ma and Pa, with poor Ma seen as something of a humorless killjoy and quiet scold. In the end, McClure presents herself as resolutely and possibly perpetually a daughter.
She finishes her travels and the book vaguely disappointed with the whole experiment and I can’t help feeling that the disappointment stems from her avoiding the obvious conclusion---that the reason she could not reconnect with Laura World in the way she’d hoped was the same reason her namesake from Peter Pan couldn’t return to Never-land.
This really isn’t any of my business and it only mars the last chapter or two of what has been for the most part a fun and likeable book. It just seems to me the obvious place to have gone with it and McClure needed somewhere to go. She hasn’t come up with any other ending and after the trip to the last Ingalls landmark the book doesn’t conclude so much as just wind down.
What did bother me all the way through The Wilder Life was that McClure didn’t take more opportunities to let us to hear the voice of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
There are places in the book where a direct quote from one of the Little House books would not only fit in nicely but positively cry out to be included, and when McClure writes her way right on by those places it’s as if we’re watching a scene in a musical in which the leads build up to a song and then decide not to bother to sing it.
The wind was blowing steady and strong. Not a cloud was in the huge sky, and far and wide on the immense land there was nothing but shimmering light passing over the grasses. And down wind came the sound of many men’s voices, singing.
The teams were coming into camp. In a long, dark, snakelike line as they came over the prairie, horses plodding side by side in their harness, and men marching, bareheaded and bare-armed, brown-skinned in their striped blue-and-white shirts and gray shirts and plain blue shirts, and all of them were singing the same song.
They were like a little army coming across the vast land under the enormous sky, and the song was their banner.
Laura stood in the strong wind, looking and listening till the last of the column came into the crowd that gathered and spread around the camp’s low shanties, and the song blurred into the sound of all their hearty voices. Then she remembered the water pail in her hand. She filled it from the well as quickly as she could, and ran back; slopping water on her bare legs in her hurry.
That was from By the Shores of Silver Lake. The most direct way to connect to Laura Ingalls’ world is through her own writing, but if McClure had done that, if she’d stayed home and read her way through the series for us, The Wilder Life would have been a very different sort of book, a work of literary criticism instead of journalism. But, considering her continual frustration at not being able to find Laura in the museums at the vanished homesteads, it’s a bit surprising that she doesn’t take another tack and try to find Laura in the landscape that Ingalls wrote about with such passion and attention to detail.
Despite her love for the outdoor world Wilder depicts with such loving detail in her books, McClure keeps looking for Laura World inside. There are good reasons for this, one being that Wilder was as passionate about the interiors of her world as she was about the exteriors and her descriptions of those snug, cozy, and above all safe places, full of love and shared joy, are among the best things she wrote. (Little House in the Big Woods and The Long Winter are largely inside books.) Another, of course, is that it’s inside where the stuff that drew McClure into Laura World---the oil lamps and corncob dolls and strings of onions and Ma’s china shepherdess---the touchable things that could provide her with a physical connection to Laura herself were to be found inside.
But the interiors don’t exist anymore. The exterior world, the landscape, does. And the best field guide to it was written by Laura Ingalls herself.
This is what has always jumped out at me from Ingalls’ writing and probably what I thought would interest my sons about the books, her skill at evoking a sense of place, of capturing how the weather was, how it felt to stand in the prairie grass or under the trees in the big woods of wade into Plum Creek.
If you’re going to put yourself in Laura’s place, stand where she stood, then it makes sense to compare what she says she saw to what you’re looking at and note what’s changed and what’s still there.
And since McClure says that part of what drove her out to the woods and the prairie and the banks of the creek was to see how much of the world Wilder wrote about was real, it’s even more baffling that she doesn’t show herself testing what Wilder wrote against what’s actually out there.
I wondered about this. I wondered if it was simply that McClure thought that her likely readers wouldn’t need to have quoted to them passages they knew by heart, although I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy hearing their favorites read back to them again and again. I wondered if she assumed that they’d be reading her book the way I was, with Wilder’s books within reach. I wondered if it was the case that she was afraid that if she started she wouldn’t be able to stop. I certainly could understand that.
It turns out to have been a question of rights.
Under the fair use laws, writers of more scholarly works are freer to quote liberally from their sources than writers of books intended for more popular audiences like The Wilder Life.
But since I didn’t know that while I was reading The Wilder Life, the missing quotes---missing as in I missed them---had me asking some questions. What does McClure, as a writer and editor, think of the books and of their author’s talent? Does she like them as books? Does she think Wilder could write? Maybe McClure thinks the yeses she’d answer to those questions are such givens it would be redundant to bring them up. After all, if the writer whose travels she’d been following was Mark Twain, how often would she have had to stop her narrative in its tracks to tell us, That Sam Clemens, boy, could that guy write!
But I think the authors of children’s books need all the puffing they can get because a lot of adults take it for granted that writing for children and young adults is a lesser art form.
I think Wilder could write, beautifully.
Wilder’s plain, naturalistic prose of mostly unadorned declaratives is appropriate to the story of a country girl who grew up with little in the way of material comforts and had to make do by taking comfort in whatever she did have and find happiness in the company of her little family and delight in the sensual beauty of whatever small plot of ground her father was homesteading for what was usually an unsettlingly small time.
But it’s far from artless. And it reminds me of the another author’s deceptively simple style, a writer who was her daughter Rose’s near contemporary, a writer who was pretty good himself at telling how the weather was.
I assume you’re reading this with a copy of In Our Time within easy reach so you can leaf through to Big Two-Hearted River and see if you can’t find passages that remind you of this one from Little House in the Big Woods:
After awhile there was sunshine in the woods and the air sparkled. The long streaks of yellow light lay between the shadows of the tree trunks, and the snow was colored faintly pink. All the shadows were thin and blue, and every little curve of snowdrifts and every little track in the snow had a shadow.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some books to the library. Somebody’s missing them.
The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure, published by Riverhead Trade, is available from Amazon. There’s a Little Edition for Your Kindle as well.
Excerpt: Wendy McClure on Nellie Oleson’s evil superpowers.
All hail Nellie Oleson, New York-born daughter of a Walnut Grove mercantile proprietor, later the most exquisitely dressed country girl in Dakota Territory! With her utterly scrumptious nastiness she completes the spectrum of Little House girlhood types, from good Mary to not-so-good Laura to bad, bad Nellie. from the moment she’s introduced she gets right down to her bratty business, wrinkling her nose, sticking out her tongue, and yanking hair.
Fine, so it’s not much of a repertoire---even by nineteenth-century school-yard standards these seem like awfully basic moves. What really gives Nellie her evil superpowers, though, are the enviable shiny details of her life---her ribbons and lawn dresses and wax dolls and candy sticks---all of it paraded before Laura and Mary when they visit her awesome carpeted house in the “Town Party” chapter of On the Banks of Plum Creek. While I’m fond of the sweeping prairie grassed of my Laura World, somewhere in my sub-conscious dwells a Nellie World, too.
Which, well, looks an awful lot like American Girl Place. Though while Nellie Oleson is exactly the kind of girl who would own an American Girl doll, had they existed during her timek, she herself could never be an American Girl character. Really, one of the most brilliant things about the American Girl marketing concept is that Felicity, Kristen et all are like nice Nellies, friendly girls who wouldn’t yank their possessions away from you, the way Miss Thing in Plum Creek snatched back her doll from Laura…A visit to American girl Place always satisfies the secret hope that I used to have reading that chapter as a kid---my wish that Laura would just suck up a little and try to work things out with Nellie so she could play with her stuff. (Pathetic, I know.)
---from The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure.