Wendy McClure knows the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder — something she calls Laura World — almost by heart. She (like a lot of us, maybe) remembers places she’s never been: the Big Woods of Wisconsin, the little house on the prairie in Kansas, the little town on the prairie of De Smet, South Dakota. But — unlike me, I don’t know about you — McClure goes further into Laura World, into the realm of something you might call a quest. She reads about Laura voraciously: letters, journals, academic monographs, biographies, websites. She visits all the sites of Laura’s family’s homesteads, acquiring several bonnets along the way. She buys a butter churn, and makes her own butter. What is all this in aid of, anyway?
McClure is a smart, self-aware writer. She knows that the obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books (and the television show of the 1970s, and all the other paraphernalia) is partly about nostalgia for something that never existed. The Little House books are novels, not memoirs: you’ll find in their pages some events that never happened, and some events that didn’t happen the way they did in real life; you also won’t find some events that did happen to Laura and her family. There’s a narrative arc to the Little House books: a happy, self-sufficient family that keeps going West, keeps persisting despite difficulty and obstacles, and finally succeeds. Today, many people who read these books are intensely nostalgic for “a simpler time.” Who can blame them?
But Laura’s life didn’t follow that narrative arc, and it certainly wasn’t simple. McClure doesn’t go into exhaustive biographical detail (though she gives some excellent resources if you want to do that yourself), but she talks about some of the differences between reality and fiction, and complicates Laura’s writing process itself by bringing in questions about the role of Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. The late 19th century in the West was no picnic, especially if you were a woman, and double-especially if you were one of the displaced Native peoples Laura and her family encounter along their journey. It was a life of backbreaking, constant labor, even for successful farmers like Almanzo’s family, who at least always had enough to eat. Vigilante justice, changing land laws, disease, high infant mortality, and poverty plagued the Ingalls family.
McClure mentions several times — I might even say “dwells on” — a puzzling incident in Little House on the Prairie, when Laura, who is about five years old, has an odd sort of inarticulate tantrum when she makes eye contact with an Indian infant riding along in a long procession of departing Osage, and wants the child to stay with her. “Oh, I want it! I want it!” Laura begs. McClure can’t quite seem to make sense of this: is it just a meltdown? Is it a cultural divide? Sheer racism?
I would maintain that, for Laura, it’s a moment that tells about the same sort of nostalgia for a “simpler life” that drives The Wilder Life. McClure describes both wanting to be Laura and wanting to have her: she tries to do activities Laura would have done (churning butter, baking bread from sourdough starter, sleeping in a covered wagon), but she also talks about (and buys) quite a bit of merchandise: bonnets, a churn, a haystick. Laura, in the same way, wants to be that Indian child and to have it (Oh, I want it!). She is nostalgic for what she sees as a “simpler life” — a people who, she thinks, are even freer than her family, even more self-sufficient, even more able to live off the land’s bounty. The fact that life was not even a tiny bit simple for the Osage doesn’t enter into her calculations.
The Wilder Life is, as I said, smart and self-aware, and it does a wonderful job of walking the line between the desire to enter into Laura World and the reality of what that world actually is, both in the 19th century and today. It’s also very, very funny: McClure is observant, and as dryly amusing about the other Laura fans she meets (I believe they call themselves bonnetheads) as she is about herself. This book didn’t make me want to run out and buy a churn, but it did make me want to reserve Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, annotated by Pamela Smith Hill, at the library. Another little piece of Laura World for me.