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.