Back when I wrote my post about the forthcoming Pioneer Girl and talked about the website set up for it, a number of people made it clear to me that I really needed to find a copy of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and read it.
Far be it from me to ignore my faithful readers, so the next time I was poking around on Amazon, I added it to my cart. Since that order also contained my patiently-waited-for new Bujold and another book I’ve been dying to read for years, it was a real toss-up which one was going to get my attention first. I’m afraid Ms. McClure lost out to Ms. Bujold on that front, but I was none the worse for the wait, and The Wilder Life was most definitely worth waiting for.
I so enjoyed this book. The author has a knack for finding the humor in the most ridiculous situations. Deciding to revisit the Little House books after coming across her childhood copy of Little House in the Big Woods, McClure embarks on what even she calls an obsessive desire to not only reconnect with the books, but to immerse herself in what she dubs “Laura World”, her imagined prairie where sunbonnets are worn and butter is churned and Pa and Laura always look west while Pa plays the fiddle and Mary learns her Bible verses. Through her explorations of All Things Laura, McClure eventually learns a great deal not only about Laura Ingalls Wilder, but about herself. And we get to go along for what is, at times, a hilariously funny ride.
McClure starts fairly small—ordering nearly every book she can find written by Wilder and about Wilder. Then she needs to actually experience the life to get deeper into Laura World, which starts simply enough with making the recipes from The Little House Cookbook—like the sugar syrup candy that’s so hard it makes your teeth stick together—to churning butter (the image of McClure sitting in her Chicago apartment with an actual butter churn is priceless, especially since we’re treated to a treatise on how hard it was to find an authentic churn and not some new knock-off reproduction)—to grinding whole wheat berries (in a hand-cranked coffee mill, of course!) to make Long Winter Bread. Eventually she heads off to a Homesteading Weekend she discovers on the internet, only to find that everyone else there is a member of some creepy Doomsday cult preparing for the coming Apocalypse (incidentally, I am not unfamiliar with canning, and I can tell you that canning butter is a terrible idea. If they ever eat any of it, the apocalypse they experience is not going to be at all what they were expecting…). Honestly, that chapter alone was worth the price of the book.
This is all related with a great sense of self-deprecating humor, like she’s saying “See how insane I am? I am churning butter. In my Chicago apartment. Because I can.” Eventually, McClure progresses to visiting home sites, discovers the posthumous battle between Team Laura and Team Rose and the more contemporary battles between the Kansas homestead site and the producer of the television series over copyright infringement, and starts to wonder why all of this has become so important to her. It’s kind of interesting, that, because it was fairly obvious to me why she was doing it pretty much from the start (I shall leave it for you to discover, though). Her experiences at the various home sites are varied and interesting and in some cases almost spiritual, which, if one is a huge Laura geek (like yours truly), is completely understandable. I would lovelovelove to go to Mansfield and see Pa’s fiddle. Because, seriously. PA’S FIDDLE. Or to see the Dakota homestead and sleep in a covered wagon (I’ll pass on the thunderstorm, though) and see the Surveyor’s House and imagine all the riches in its brimming pantry for myself.
But I have to say, I honestly think that even non-Laura fans will enjoy this book. Everyone can relate to being obsessed with something, and in that sense the overall scope of the book is universal. We all have moments where we look back on childhood memories with unreserved fondness, and for people who spent a good chunk of their childhood immersed in books, we often have memories of those books that are really powerful, that often reach well beyond the confines of the book. I could totally relate to the author’s explanation of how she wanted to show the Laura of the books around in her more modern world; I wanted to do the exact same thing, when I wasn’t mentally teleporting myself to Walnut Grove to give Nellie Oleson a piece of my mind or to DeSmet, Dakota Territory, to twist a hay stick or two. In McClure’s case, her love for these books is clear, and her need to delve into Laura World not only reaffirms her love for them, but strengthens it.
It’s also a pretty brave journey, overall. There are aspects of these books that are troubling to modern readers, certainly—Ma’s overt racism and the casually awful treatment of the Native Americans has always bothered me, and the minstrel show is a real facepalm moment too—and the way women’s roles are depicted is totally idealized (Ma may go on and on in the books about never working the land except for her vegetable garden, but truth time: Ma worked in the fields as much as Pa did, as did most frontier wives). A closer look at these things could have potentially ruined McClure’s memories of the books and even disallusioned her. Instead, those examinations only helped her to understand the world she was exploring more thoroughly. By coming to terms with the problems the books present in her world, McClure was able to somehow get herself one step further down the road to Laura World.
And there is also the very real issue of the reality of places not quite living up to our imaginations, or that the people in those places are not exactly the awesome people you think they are. Silver Lake, for example, is long gone, and while Pa always knew best in the books, in real life he made a few mistakes. One of the reasons I’ve always delayed my longed-for trip to the various home sites is that I am afraid they won’t live up to my expectations, and I don’t know if I could bear that. So I really admire that she was brave enough to let her imagination confront what’s actually there. As McClure discovers that there are really two Laura Worlds—the one in the books and the one that exists in the here and now—she also learns that here and now, for all of us, isn’t such a bad thing.