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The Wilder Life: Book Review

January 21, 2013

The Wilder Life
Wendy McClure
336 Pages
Library Book

Wendy McClure loved the Little House books when she was a kid, growing up in the 70s, and reading them over and over. Rediscovering the books as an adult leads her deeper into Laura’s story: poring over census records, churning butter in her Chicago apartment, and, as the centerpiece of the book, taking road trips to some of the important Little House landmarks. She writes about her love of the books, and her discoveries, with a great mix of honest delight and self-deprecating humor.  As beguiled as she might be by the “simpler life” and tapping into the world of the books, Wendy McClure’s a city girl like me, and she sees the humor in her situation. “There was a lot of misguided nostalgia, to be sure, but as someone who had once decided that her writing could only improve if she wrote first drafts in the same kind of orange notebook Laura used, and thus spent an hour and a half searching online to see if some stationery company still made them, I understood.”

What McClure refers to wryly as “Laura World” is an amalgam of the historical past, the Little House books and her own childhood fantasies about a simpler life. McClure remembers a fantasy of whisking Laura into the modern world, showing the young prairie girl all the modern wonders.

The bulk of the book is about her taking road trips to the places that anchor Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story. Most are museums now, albeit tiny ones. Along the way, she meets other Laura Ingalls Wilder fans: the curators of the small museum houses; fans who have only read the books; fans who know Laura mostly, or entirely from TV; devout and emphatic Christians.

I have never watched more than 30 seconds of the TV show for two reasons: 1. Being a blonde with straight hair, I get a lot of “you look a lot like that Little House on the Prairie Girl,” when the real Laura from the books is a brunette! 2. Michael Landon spooks me. I realize this is strange. So, for me, the experience of Laura Ingalls Wilder is solely about the books. Still, a powerful force in my imagination, having reread those books dozens of times, and played “pioneer house” with my cousin in the summers.

“I knew I was seeing things that Laura saw , and Rose saw, and I liked that. We were all sort of the same person who came to this place and looked and looked.”

The weird thing about researching the facts and history behind a beloved childhood hero, is the mixed feeling about learning the ways reality doesn’t measure up. Working from a character who was part historical person, part book character, and part TV character, often with completely different stories and characterization, gives McClure a perfect way to explore the ways reality and story shape identity.

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