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
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