The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
New York: Riverhead, 2011.
(reviewed from a review copy)
This summer, after our annual two-day drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia, I climbed out of our mini-van and into a flu. In the roof-top carrier of the mini-van was a banker’s box full of books I’d brought on holiday (because it’s just not a vacation unless you bring along enough reading material to last until the apocalypse), but on our first night at the cottage, we did not unpack that box, and I was left without bedtime reading material. I went, instead, to the cottage’s shelves and found an old Dell paperback copy of The Little House on the Prairie. Perfect. In spite of my exhaustion, I read late into the night, and when I woke up feeling less than well the next morning, I put it down to the long drive and the short sleep.
Not long after, I was back in bed and there I would stay for a few days. The banker’s box sat in the corner, untouched. Not one of the books was suitable for flu reading, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and I made my way through two of the Little House books while shivering and sweating and coughing it out. (Not to be too melodramatic here, but I could identify when the family all had malaria.)
As I read, I was paying as much attention to the books as I was to my response to them: attraction and repulsion. Ma’s racism was something I had not remembered at all, and it disgusted me. It’s always an odd sensation to revisit a book from childhood, but this was particularly jarring. I found the narrator a tad cold, too. But then there was the wonderful catalogue of things and deeds, of blessings and curses, of a world contained and enumerable.
How delightful, then, to read Wendy McClure’s book and find my ambivalence so precisely and humourously mirrored. I am nowhere near the Little House fan McClure is, but her book is so well written, so amusing and richly textured, that she takes us along on her own (re)discovery of the world of the books without our having to match her level of devotion to them.
McClure, who is a children’s book editor and who tweets as HalfPintIngalls, begins by describing the appeal of the books:
Since I edit children’s books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid. When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it’s a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say. Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children’s Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked? I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.
Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess. (3-4)
I do know! Things in all their thinginess is my thing too!
She re-reads the whole set of Little House books, researches the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and begins to plan trips to the creeks, sod houses and towns in which her fictionalized biographies are set. She buys calico sun bonnets. She buys a butter churn. And makes butter with it. Her boyfriend, bless him, puts horehound candy in her stocking.
I flipped through the pages of [The Little House Guidebook] and mentally subtitled it Everything You Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask. And I was still afraid to ask: what kind of a person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly? (26)
What happens when she lets her freak flag fly is a wonderful book, full of humour. Equal parts memoir, biography, picaresque and cultural studies, McClure’s book attempts to reconcile her childhood love of the books with some of their darker undercurrents.
As part of her attempt to live “La Vida Laura,” McClure and her boyfriend go on a homesteading weekend, encouraged by the host’s mention of the Little House books on her website. She is encouraged to bring her butter churn so that she can show the other participants how to churn butter. The other participants turn out to be Christians preparing for the apocalypse.
I was keeping an open mind. And I had gotten used to encountering people of a somewhat more evangelical bent in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan world—plenty of homeschooling moms blogged about the Little House books, for example, and I’d noticed more than a couple fish symbols on the cars in the museum parking lot in Mansfield, Missouri. They were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage. …
From everything I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of the civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn. They were bracing themselves to endure the myriad destructive ordeals that would wipe out infidels, atheists, unrepentant sinners, industrialists, government officials, and Salon.com readers, with the expectation that they, the prepared ones, would be among the worthy few who would be raptured to Heaven…. (191, 194)
This wonderfully humourous clashing of worlds is an opportunity for McClure to investigate the darker side to the homey nostalgia of the books:
I had been searching for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I’d gotten Hippie Half-Pint instead, half full of her crazy, crazy Kool-Aid made from foraged berries.
But that wasn’t the only thing that was making me uneasy. Deep down, I was starting to wonder if the Little House books had more to do with this sort of worldview than I’d been willing to admit. Not the end-of-the-world stuff, of course, but that “simple life” mind-set and all that it rejected. … I thought about the moms who bragged online that their homeschooled kids were not only reading the Little House books but were learning from reprinted editions of the same McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers that Laura and Carrie used, as if all of twentieth-century pedagogy simply didn’t exist. (196)
It is this layered approach that I most liked about McClure’s book. Memoir and biography, nostalgia and honest examinations of the racism in the book, humour and skepticism about the commercialization of Laura world.
On the banks of the real Plum Creek, McClure has a moment of clarity:
I was going to wade in the creek. Others were doing it—both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water. I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors. I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank. The water felt nice. A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described. Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when I was a kid. I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I know the book was true. (232)
I love this passage. The visceral layering of here and there, now and then, experience lived and experience read; the sudden awareness of truth. Isn’t that what the complexity and clarity of re-reading old loves is all about?
This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it highly, not just for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for any book lover who loves a good read.