The Wilder Life
A Chicago book editor sets out to retrace the footsteps of beloved “Little House” author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
There’s an unusually simple test to determine if you need to read Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life. Repeat these phrases, please:
2.Jack the brindle bulldog.
3.Little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up.
If the exercise brings on a wave of nostalgic affection, bingo. The reader is a charter member of Laura World, the half-real-half-fictional place inhabited by fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series. As such, reading McClure’s account – where she traces Wilder’s pioneer footsteps and becomes immersed in Wilder’s allure – feels like catching up with one dear friend and meeting another.
McClure’s pilgrimage takes her to 19th-century Laura landmarks that are untrafficked and obscure outside of fandom; to the place where “a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin,” to the banks of Plum Creek, and the shores of Silver Lake. She also explores, as much as a 21st-century Chicago-based book editor can, the historic details of Wilder’s day. It’s hard not to be entertained as she buys a butter churn on eBay (harder than it sounds) to make her own butter (easier than it sounds).
Don’t worry that McClure’s journey, sparked by a chance encounter with her yellow-bordered old copy of “Little House In The Big Woods,” is one of those ginned-up-book-proposal-in-hand faux challenges. In Laura World, following Wilder’s footsteps turns out to be a surprisingly common rite. McClure is far from alone in her visit to a Laura look-a-like contest, or her encounter with pillowy, life-size “soft sculptures” of the Ingalls family. Her insights and wry honesty elevate the story from gimmickry. Conversational, witty, and questioning, she manages to co-exist with her powerful subject.
Seeing one shockingly cramped Ingalls home, for instance, McClure recalls how Laura and her sister Mary once made their little sister Carrie a button string for Christmas – remember that story? – working on it when Carrie was napping. McClure can’t imagine where they could have hidden the string when Carrie was awake.
“What had once seemed like a cozy scene was now practically a Beckett play, with everyone having to turn their backs to everyone else for privacy.”
She’s also able to reconcile, or at least comprehend, the different subsets of Little House fans, with a particular division between those who loved the books and those drawn in by the very different TV show. Even so, book-lovers might be shocked at McClure’s discussions of how much of the Wilder canon is either fictionalized or embellished. It’s at odds with the primal pull of the books, that entrancing belief that the story is an untouched autobiography.
McClure has a sideline hobby of writing as “HalfPintIngalls” on Twitter, dashing off daffy, pointed, wickedly entertaining comments from the point of view of a tech-savvy Laura. McClure gets her heroine. But the book is farther removed, going for the considered explanation rather than the quick jab. McClure makes less rabid fans welcome too, never assuming that the reader remembers (or ever knew) obsessive details. She diverges into semi-related digressions, from American Girl dolls to a weekend with homesteading survivalists. Still, I don’t imagine the book would appeal to those who have never encountered the "Little House" – there’s just no point of reference.
Near the book’s end, McClure decides her pull toward Laura World has a deeper origin, namely, the death of her mother. But my satisfaction with her ending came earlier and more directly, when McClure came across a travel journal Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote while revisiting an old home long after her own parents deaths, “disappointed and joyful and irritated and wistful.” McClure understands, and finally feels a connection with the real Laura, the one beyond the storybook page that she had been chasing so long.
“I felt like I finally knew the story that continued, that I’d been where it had gone.”