The Wilder Life – Book Review

I wanted to go to Laura World: I wanted to visit the places where Laura Ingalls and her family had lived, in Wisconsin and Kansas and Minnesota and South Dakota and Missouri. All these years I hadn’t quite believed that the place in the books existed, but they did, and house foundations had been unearthed, and cabins reconstructed, and museums erected. – from The Wilder Life –

Wendy McClure spent one year of her life pursuing all things Laura Ingalls. Obsessed with the Little House series, she traveled to the Big Woods (which weren’t really so big), Plum Creek, and the many places where the Ingalls family had lived; she churned butter and visited Little House performances, even attending a musical dedicated to the story; she spent hours digging up the history behind the books and learning about the people who played important roles in the books. The Wilder Life is about that journey – but it is also about something deeper. McClure’s mother died from cancer two years before McClure’s obsession with Laura Ingalls really took hold – and immersing herself in Laura World was one way McClure struggled to come to terms with the loss of her mother and what that meant to her life. It is a convoluted journey, a tangential one that seems so tangled at first that I found myself puzzling over where McClure’s story was going. But, eventually, all the roads led back to McClure’s deep sense of loss and the comfort and meaning she sought through the life of Laura Ingalls and the Ingalls’ search for a home.

I read the Laura Ingalls’ books, and like many girls, I loved them. I was fascinated by Laura and not only wanted to be part of her family – I actually wanted to be her. McClure seems to live out this fantasy in her year of discovery. The section on butter churning (where McClure actually locates an old fashioned butter churner in order to try her hand at this old skill) had me laughing out loud.

“Each day had its own proper work,” it says in Little House in the Big Woods, and according the the book, churning was done on a Thursday, which of course made it sound like you needed, you know, a whole day. So I picked a Monday when I didn’t have any plans at all. – from The Wilder Life –

I always thought the Little House series was pure fiction – but McClure unravels the history which became the basis for the books. In fact, the books were a generous mix of reality and fiction, a re-creation of Laura Ingalls’ life that was far more positive than what had actually happened. McClure explores the theory that it was Rose, Laura’s daughter, who wrote the books – a fascinating idea which does seem a bit supported by history, although I ultimately decided that Rose probably did not pen the series.

But what I enjoyed the most about The Wilder Life was not the flawless research, but rather the sociological aspects which surround obsessions like this. Because, let’s face it, we all have them. Children’s books are important in shaping our worlds, they become moral teachers, they help give life to our dreams and fantasies. Through books, many of us find meaning in our lives by seeing the world through a character’s eyes. The Little House books were brought to technicolor through the television series – a series which delighted viewers even though it veered sharply away from the actual books. I loved the television show, but I loved the books more – and so did McClure. In her year of following Laura’s life, she began to understand why viewers and readers were drawn to Laura World, could not get enough of the prairie dresses, the fantasy of simplicity despite the reality that Laura’s world was hard work.

The real story had once been about land, but there wasn’t really any land anymore, just an idea that everyone built on again and again – a movie, a TV show, a musical, a story of good Indians and even better settlers who become wiser every time their covered wagon arrives at the beginning once again. – from The Wilder Life –

While we could all certainly appreciate the pioneer ordeals, the covered wagons, and the long winters, somehow Sweet and Simple had become our own dream frontier, our Oregon that we’d like to reach someday, always just beyond the horizon. – from The Wilder Life –

McClure provides a mix of history, humor and reflection in her book. She reveals how Laura’s story has been reinvented through the decades and now, for many, represents their own search for meaning in a world which is heavy with technology. The idea of  homesteading is now less about acquiring land and building a home and more about becoming self-reliant and returning to the earth.

Then there was the word homesteading. In the course of searching online for obscure butter-making utensils and other such things, I’d come across this word enough times to understand that it no longer meant proving up on a 16-acre land claim the way Pa Ingalls had done. It now stood for the pursuit of a self-sufficient lifestyle – living off the land, so to speak. – from The Wilder Life –

In the end, McClure allows for a personal interpretation of what the Little House books mean for her. She sets aside all the history, all the theories, and gives the reader a glimpse into her loss and her search for a home without her mother – a bittersweet, and altogether satisfying conclusion to her journey. The Wilder Life is less a memoir, and more a reflection on a life lived – it is a fascinating book on many levels. McClure teaches us something about the importance of books in our lives and why they speak to us – especially when we are struggling for understanding in our own lives. Readers who have read the Little House series will undoubtedly enjoy McClure’s thorough historical research. Likewise, readers who have ever fantasized about following the life of a literary character, will see themselves in McClure’s quest.


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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. Great review Wendy. I loved the books as a girl, and devoured them over and over. I’ve heard that Rose wrote the stories, and I always thought they were very much based on fact.

    I’ve been following Laura Ingalls Wilder (halfpintingalls) on Twitter and she is hilarious. I’m not sure if the author does the tweeting, but she’s been mentioning The Wilder Life on the tweets too.

    • Kay on April 26, 2011 at 13:12

    Wendy, very nice review! I’m very interested in reading A WILDER LIFE. I read all the books, of course, and was fascinated by them. Read them to my daughter and watched the TV show. I loved the quotes you included. I had heard that Rose Wilder was the real author. I always surmised that it might have been a co-author project between she and her mother, but maybe not. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Oh how I loved the Little House books! This sounds like a book I would love.

    • Amused on April 26, 2011 at 18:58

    I’m glad to see you liked this one so much. I started this one during the read a thon and need to get back to it. I think you just gave me the boost I needed!

  3. I would love to read this book. I am also fascinated by the Little House books and about life in that time period in general, and think that this would be an excellent read. I am so glad that you liked it! Fantastic review on this book, and thanks for sharing the quotes as well!

  4. I have loved these books for years – still have them and re-read them often. I knew they were true stories – I will have to keep an eye out for this one.

    • Amy on April 29, 2011 at 10:50

    This book sounds like a terrific combination of research into The Little Hour on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls culture and a memoir of grieving and survival and the author’s search for answers and meaning in her own life. I’m fascinated by the author’s story because, not only was I a fan of The Little House books, but my sister (twin) couldn’t get enough of Laura and her life for years. I always wondered what in Laura and her life spoke to my sister so much that she wanted to wear the same clothes, eat the smae kind of food, visit where she grew up. We all have our obsessions and addictions as you say in your review and hopeful we find in them what we need to help us cope in our own lives.

    • Jacki on April 29, 2011 at 17:36

    I never read the Laura Ingalls’ books but I watched the series over and over with my first home care client; they made her smile in a way that is forever imprinted on my heart. That, in addition to my fascination with the sheep -to- sweater of things, will place this book on very long summer reading list.
    Wonderful review; thank you.

    • Wendy on April 30, 2011 at 03:46

    Elizabeth: I think Wendy McClure does the tweets…she is pretty funny in the book too.

    Kay: I have a feeling you would really like this book – I think an argument could be made either way about Rose writing the books…

    Kathy: I think most women who grew up with the books would find this memoir fascinating.

    Amused: Oh, I hope you finish it – I found it got stronger as it went.

    Heather: Thanks and you’re welcome! I have been surprised that there are not more blog reviews on this book yet – I have a feeling we’ll see more as time goes on and the book gets more attention.

    Sally: Yes, true – but a huge mix of fiction in there too, I think…which is what makes McClure’s take on it interesting!

    Amy: McClure takes about the cultish aspect of following the Ingalls – she meets some interesting people along the way! I bet your sister would also find the book fascinating (in fact, I bet she’s already discovered it LOL!).

    Jacki: Thanks for stopping by!! If you haven’t read the books, I HIGHLY recommend them…they are very different from the tv series (in a good way!)…and McClure makes the comparisons very well in her book 🙂

  5. Great review, Wendy! I only wish you lived on this coast so you could go to Wendy’s event in Brooklyn with me on May 17 – it’s been rumored that she’s going to churn butter on site!

    Yes, Wendy’s @HalfPintIngalls on Twitter. I don’t know how she’s so clever but they always make me smile.

  6. This one intrigues me. I adored the Little House books and read the entire series several times when I was a kid. Never got into the TV series though.

    • Wendy on May 30, 2011 at 07:47

    Lydia: Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment! I totally wish I could have gone to Wendy’s event with you!!!

    Suzi: I hope you get a chance to read the book!

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