The Wilder Life

wilder lifeWendy 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.

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23 Responses to The Wilder Life

  1. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed this book though it made me realize I am not as obsessive a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder as some people. Though I would like to visit some of the home sites. And I used to have a sunbonnet, but my mom made it for me when I was much younger. I think that her quest had more to do with her own mother’s death than she believed. My copy of Pamela Hill’s book has been backordered now for months and apparently so has the library’s.

    • Jenny says:

      My aunt once visited most of the home sites. From this book, I can’t tell if it would be interesting or not — there are some good museums, but apparently the original sites and buildings are all gone. Of course they are. The books that would have made them precious weren’t written until decades later.

  2. Deb says:

    I like the part where they go stay with a group that lives the 19th century life–and find the people do reactionary, they have to slip out one night (hoping no one sees the Obama bumper sticker).

    I, too, am waiting for Pamela Hill’s annotated book. I’m not a Little House obsessive–I started reading the series because I’d finished the entire Anne of Green Gables series and was trying to find another heroine like Anne–and I thought the Little House tv show was absolutely the worst, maudlin and utterly false. I enjoy the Little House books, but I always think Laura was trying to say something without actually coming out and saying it: why could her father never settle down in one place; why her mother was so emphatic that one of her girls be a teacher; why Laura married so young (I suspect, in part, because she didn’t want to be a teacher–that was her morher’s dream, not hers). I hope Pamela Hill’s book will cover some of these questions.

    • Jenny says:

      I was a little uncomfortable with that part about the people who wanted to learn homesteading techniques because they were waiting for the apocalypse. It smacked a little too much of “my version of obsession is cool, but these people’s obsession is nuts.” I suppose we all have to draw that line somewhere.

  3. Teresa says:

    My library’s copy of Pioneer Girl is on back order. I think the publisher seriously underestimated the interest because they ordered it in advance of publication.

    This book has been on my list and off my list several times. I couldn’t quite decide if it was meant to be funny or serious–nor could I decide which I would prefer. It sounds like a little of both, which might be just right.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, you nailed it — on almost every page she is both funny and serious. I wasn’t expecting it to be serious, because I only know McClure from funny contexts. But this book hit a good balance.

  4. Jeane says:

    I liked the Little House books when I read them as a kid- but I didn’t realize people were fans to this extent. Makes me curious to read her book.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s interesting. She talks about the consumerist side of it as well as the real value of the books as literature. It’s pretty good.

  5. JaneGS says:

    I really enjoyed The Wilder Life and I definitely think you got both McClure’s and Wilder’s nostalgia for what never really was–oh, the power of the imagination when fueled by fiction! I was excited to get the annotated Pioneer Girl, until I read that the annotator basically discounts the now-accepted theory of Rose Wilder Lane’s heavy involvement in the development of the LH books. I still want to read Pioneer Girl, but I may have to tune out the annotation.

  6. Did McClure not read my posts on Wilder’s novels? How irritating. How sloppy.

    Young Laura is not nostalgic, (she’s six, and knows little abouthow the Osage live), but rather in the grasp of the Prairie Sublime (see above links). The details attached to the baby’s eyes are linked to all kinds of other stuff in the book. Laura’s response to the baby is aesthetic.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I wasn’t suggesting that young Laura was nostalgic, but that grown-up author Laura was. These books, after all, are literature (as you point out in your posts.) It is the adult author, not the child, who created that narrative arc about freedom and self-reliance even against obstacles and apparent failure — an arc that is the most evident in Little House on the Prairie, and that superficially pertains to the Osage as much as to Laura’s own family.

      Not that I am disagreeing with your idea about the Prairie Sublime and Edmund Burke. I think the two notions can fruitfully co-exist.

  7. bybeebooks says:

    I’m a huge Bonnethead.

  8. whatsheread says:

    I thought this book was just fun. I’m not a Bonnethead to the extent that I would be willing to buy a butter churn, but I will admit to having the Little House cookbook and to having had made some of the recipes in there. (I may have owned a bonnet at one point in time and dressed as Laura for Halloween one year too, but that was decades ago!)

    • Jenny says:

      I’m pretty sure almost every girl I know was Laura for Halloween at one point. Almanzo seems to have been a less popular option…

  9. Hahaha I would never buy a butter churn, though I admit that my sister owns a drop spindle and spins her own yarn like a baller. My only pioneery skill is candle-making. I’m a superb candle-maker. I can do dip candles AND candles in tin molds. (I cannot, however, render beeswax into usable candle form. So I am not ultimately useful at all. :/

    • Jenny says:

      Do you think about your post-apocalyptic skills? I do. I have practically nothing. I can cook, that’s about all. Candle-making is extremely useful! Perhaps I can barter French lessons for some candles!

  10. I’ve always loved the Little House books. I read them over and over again as a kid, and a couple of years ago I re-read the whole series. It was fascinating to read it again as an adult, knowing how fictionalized the stories are and knowing more details about their lives. I haven’t read this one but I’m looking forward to Pioneer Girl. (And I had not only the bonnet, but also the dress.)

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read the series several times as an adult, and twice to my kids. (It’s awkward to stop in the middle and explain pioneer-Native American relationships to a four-year-old, or why Pa is dressing up as a “darky.”) The books are hugely enjoyable, and I think even more so knowing more about the reality. They are profoundly satisfying in a way other books about that era don’t manage to be. Maybe it’s the aesthetics, as Tom points out?

  11. vanbraman says:

    I enjoyed this book as well. I have quite a few books about the Wilder/Ingalls family. They settled in Wisconsin and New York near some of my ancestors, so the books give a glimpse into the life of my family.

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