The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

I have thought more than once in my lifetime, and certainly several times in the past few months, about the real woman and real history behind the Little House books, and about seeking out some measure of it somewhere out there in De Smet or one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s other childhood homes. I have not made it to the point of Wendy McClure, who over the past few years visited every homesite and then wrote a book about it, but in other respects we are remarkably alike. We both live in Chicago. We both read and loved the series as children and then re-read them recently—her starting with a copy retrieved from her childhood home, shortly after the death of her mother, and I with the whole series retrieved from my parents’ basement, shortly after the death of my grandfather. Add in a shared sense of humor and I make an excellent audience for McClure’s memoir, The Wilder Life.

At its most basic, the book is the story of a curious woman exploring her own past and Wilder’s, and to some extent the country’s, all at the same time. Re-reading Wilder’s books sparks an obsession that leads to churning butter and making seed wheat sourdough bread in a Chicago apartment, a jaunt to Pepin, WI (site of Little House in the Big Woods), lessons from quasi-survivalist homesteaders, and a full-blown journey across the upper Midwest with stops from Iowa to South Dakota. McClure reads up on the reality of Wilder’s life, gets pretty impressively educated about her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who always sort of bored me, drags her extremely game boyfriend through a series of extremely dorky museums and buys a lot of sunbonnets. The wild ride finally ends when McClure begins to get to the bottom of what’s been driving her through it all along; this is of course required for this kind of book, which annoys me, but it’s the path we take to get there that matters, no?

The most interesting part of that path, for me, was actually the one I’ve trod myself so recently—McClure’s discussion of the books. It’s fun to make jokes about the television series, and I’m glad to have learned about more of the factual side of the Ingallses’ story, but when she talks about what struck her from the stories and their telling McClure reveals how alike at least two (or three) readers of the Little House books are.

She’s intrigued by the way Wilder describes the details that make up a room or a scene, and as a child plays make-believe by outlining the objects in her room in the style of the books: “a green-and-white-checked quilt (I might have even called it a “coverlet”) lay on the bed; on the white dresser sat a little wooden jewelry box. For a few moments my room felt enchanted, just from the power of observation I’d borrowed from Laura.” She contemplates Wilder’s narrative style, noting that “[t]he story of the Little House books was always a story of looking.”

She’s fascinated, like Amateur Reader, by the scene toward the end of Little House on the Prairie where Laura “has an odd, inarticulate tantrum when she makes eye contact with an Indian infant.” The scene is “primal and weird,” and McClure is always on the hunt for new ways to interpret it: “After a while, I began to believe everything and nothing at the same time.” (I hope she makes her way to AR’s blog!)

She examines the family’s actions in light of the illegality of their settlement in Kansas and the various levels of racism in characters across the series. And she also notices all the detailed instructions in the novels, which she sometimes finds confusing, until she can finally visualize the simplicity of the door Pa made at a replica cabin on the prairie:

I’d read it had been built following Laura’s descriptions as closely as possible; certainly the door looked like it had been made per the directions in the book, with its elaborate latch descriptions that to this day I can never figure out: “First he hewed a short, thik piece of oak,” the book says. “From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down and near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot.” Somehow it’s so specific it’s disorienting: One side, in the middle? Up and down and near the edge? Every time I read this passage I follow along as best as I can and then get completely lost. But to look at the door, or its fascimile thereof, you’d never guess it could sound so complicated. I felt both stupid and relieved to see how it works: you pull this little rope, and then this thing goes up.

For the Little House reader, McClure’s experiences fall into two buckets: those we’ve shared and those I’m glad she’s sharing with me. For others, it’s hard to say whether the story of a Wilder disciple would hold the same interest. The book suffers from the sort of lack of tough editing many readers have come to expect from major publishing houses, but McClure’s voice is casual and funny without veering into twee.

The US Federal Trade Commission compels me to inform you that I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Riverhead.

3 comments to The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

  • Ah, McClure doesn’t need to read me. It’s all in Edmund Burke. She needs to read Burke.

    I was just glancing at my posts and was reminded that “always a story of looking” is insufficient. Wilder was even better than that – I’m thinking of the Osage “debate” chapter just before the one mentioned above which is told almost entirely through sounds, which culminates, after the prolonged looking McClure describes, in a profound silence.

    And, of course, the first two novels are full of, and actually end with, song.

    What a sophisticated writer.

    I went to one Wilder exhibit myself, but escaped without a sunbonnet.

  • I’m glad you liked the book; I’ve been curious about it, but unsure whether it’s the sort of thing I’d like — it seemed a little too unserious, somehow. But your description sounds appealing. I’m also hoping to read Little House, Long Shadow at some point, which sounds less autobiographical.

  • Dorothy—I’m looking to read that one too, for a final Little House thing for me. This is certainly less serious than I imagine that to be, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.