Wendy McClure’s “The Wilder Life,” on “Little House on the Prairie”
By Jonathan Yardley,
The enduring popularity of the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of the remarkable phenomena of American literature. Published over about a decade beginning in 1932 — when the author was 65 years old — the books draw upon her own experience as the daughter of intrepid pioneer settlers of the Midwest and West. They create a portrait of the American frontier that has endeared itself to readers not merely here but around the world. Part-memoir, part-fiction, the “Little House in the Prairie” series is an artful blend of realism and sentimentality that has attracted a passionate, if not downright obsessive, following.
By this point the literature about Wilder is far more extensive than the literature she herself created. There are biographies, hagiographies, critical studies, feminist analyses . . . the list is stupendously long. Now Wendy McClure has contributed “The Wilder Life” to it. A freelance writer and children’s book editor based in Chicago, as well as a “Little House” addict since her childhood in a suburb of that city, she “could see Laura Ingalls Wilder everywhere,” by which she means:
“She was no longer just a person but a universe made of hundreds of little bits, a historical fictional literary figure character person idea grandma-girl-thing. I knew there were poems about her and picture books; I found out there were festivals, pageants, plays, websites, weblogs, authorized spin-off series books, unauthorized spin-off series books, dresses, cookbooks, newsletters, fan fiction, albums, homeschool curriculums, aprons, craft items, figurines, dollhouses.”
McClure calls this “Laura World,” and: “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 places in the books existed, but they did, and house foundations had been unearthed, and cabins reconstructed, and museums erected.” Beyond that, she wanted to immerse herself as deeply as possible in Laura World: “What was it like to wear a corset, or tap maple trees, or twist hay?”
So off she went on a series of Laura World adventures, usually accompanied by her boyfriend, Chris, who on the evidence here appears to be a person of preternatural patience; certainly he put up with a lot more of Laura World than most non-addicts could possibly tolerate. As a live-in boyfriend, this means he had to sample “syrup-on-snow candy”; “an authentic loaf of Long Winter bread” made from hand-ground wheat and hand-churned butter; “fried salt pork and gravy, apples ’n’ onions, and buttermilk biscuits”; vanity cakes and other frontier delights, not to mention accompany McClure on field trips to the numerous stations of Laura’s cross.
Not merely that, but he read his way through the entire “Little House” oeuvre, read it intelligently, asked thoughtful questions about it, and on the whole responded to it with what appears to be genuine enthusiasm. I dwell on this because despite the pleasure her own boyfriend took in these books, McClure is totally oblivious to the strong readership they have always attracted among boys and men. Several years ago, in a reconsideration I wrote of “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first book in the series, I recalled that “as a young boy in the 1940s I adored that book, and the eight others that followed” and made the point that “Wilder’s books are open and accessible to readers of both sexes.”
McClure, however, insists on pigeonholing Wilder’s books as the exclusive property of girls and women. Never mind that three of the most important books about Wilder are by men — William Anderson, John E. Miller and, most notably, Donald Zochert, whose biography of Wilder is cited frequently by McClure — or that in the course of traveling “the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway” she encountered boys and men over and over again. She insists that “ultimately what makes the Little House girlhoods so compelling is that they’re real girls’ lives reimagined,” whatever that means. She seems incapable of seeing beyond her own obsessions with and fantasies about Laura World to the larger truth that it is genuinely universal, open to all.
But then self-absorption is the dominant characteristic of “The Wilder Life.” The first person singular in its various permutations appears so often that before long I found the Beatles’ “I Me Mine” thumping away in the back of my brain. McClure seems far more interested in herself than in Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Laura World, or any of the places she saw and people she met in the course of producing this book. Yes, okay, we live in a world where self-absorption is often pandemic, but “The Wilder Life” takes it over the top.
This is a pity, because it distracts the reader’s attention from what she saw and found. Handled with less attention to self, “The Wilder Life” could have been as appealing and informative as Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” and Andrew Ferguson’s “Land of Lincoln,” books of recent vintage in which perceptive journalists explore the odd universes inhabited by people obsessed with the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. These books are smart and funny; by contrast “The Wilder Life,” though McClure clearly is amused to no end by what she fancies to be her witticisms, lumbers along in a forced narrative that never really engages the reader.
Along the way she gives us the occasional glimpse into parts of Laura World unconnected to herself. There is for instance a true obsessive, “a freelance researcher named Nancy Cleaveland,” from whose Web site one can learn “things like the plot numbers of every Ingalls and Wilder land claim; the origin and function of every obscure tool used in Farmer Boy; and the history of every founding resident of De Smet, South Dakota.” There is the 1970s television series “Little House on the Prairie,” the success of which has much to do with the continuing popularity of Wilder’s stories, yet which is scarcely as PG-rated as the books, with its “shootings, fires, fistfights, infant deaths, grisly accidents, and drunken brawls.” There is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Missouri, which includes not only the house in which she spent many of the last years of her long life but also “the museum, the educational center, a gift shop, and a parking lot across the highway.” There’s the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, “a Laura Ingalls Wilder theme park,” with “nearly a dozen buildings and exhibits, including an 1880s schoolhouse, a real 1870s shanty, a replica dugout (the fourth we’d see on this trip), a lookout tower, a welcome center with a gift shop, and a camping area.”
Laura World, in other words, is very much a going concern. McClure discovered that it’s populated not only by “Little House” devotees but by evangelicals drawn to its celebration of the simple life and by apocalyptic End Timers wanting to be prepared to fend for themselves when the day of reckoning arrives. McClure is eager to let us know that the evangelicals “were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage,” but she has no kind words for the End Timers.
If McClure had told us more about these people and less about her own reactions to them, “The Wilder Life” could have been a much better book. Too bad.
THE WILDER LIFE My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie By Wendy McClure Riverhead. 336 pp. $25.95