The Wilder Life

Early in The Wilder Life Wendy McClure explains that there are two kinds of Little House on the Prairie people: people who loved the books, and people who loved the TV show. If you’re a Michael Landon/Melissa Gilbert/70s TV fan, you can really stop reading right now. I am a book person and so is Wendy McClure. But she took it a step further, diving into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing as an adult and making it her own personal project to do whatever she could to get to what she calls “Laura world.”

In addition to rereading all the books, McClure buys a butter churn and makes butter in her Chicago apartment. She reads the (surprisingly extensive) academic research on the Ingalls family and checks out the online homeschooling communities that use the books in their teaching. And then she starts travelling around the Midwest, to Wisconsin and South Dakota and Missouri, making a pilgrimage to the places Wilder lived. She drags her boyfriend into this all, as well, and basically allows her modern urban life to be temporarily subsumed by her obsession with Little House on the Prairie. (Not that she abandons modern life entirely: McClure occasionally Tweets as Laura at!/halfpintingalls. My recent favorite: “Pa wants to leave Facebook because he says we have too many neighbors now! And, truth be told, he never had much luck playing Farmville.”)

Are you wondering whether stories of urban butter churning are enough to build a book on? Yeah, probably not. The book mostly reads like memories of scenes from the books, interspersed with stories of driving across South Dakota.You learn a little about Wilder’s life and how it differed from the books, but it’s not a history or biography of the family. McClure’s road trip stories, especially one that involves an accidental camping trip with a cult, are funny and sharp, but it’s not a travel book. And while there is a brief discussion in the book about how McClure was, at least partially, using the books to deal with the loss of her mother, that’s mentioned only in passing. It’s an entertaining, fun read–McClure’s writing is very engaging–but it feels more like stories you would tell your friends over drinks than like a fully-formed narrative memoir.

But I don’t mean to make that out as a bad thing, necessarily. It’s like this: a few years ago I saw a stage production of Little Women in London that was awful. Each actor failed at an American accent in his or her own distinct way. They’d mucked around with the timeline and added a bunch of forgettable songs. At one point an actor in a white dress actually played the ghost of Beth. (However, to go on a brief tangent, somehow this terrible production managed to fix the one thing I never liked about Little Women–Professor Bhaer. In the book he seemed so old and serious that it felt like Jo totally settled, but in this show he was played as young and adorably goofy, sort of like Marshall on How I Met Your Mother. That whole relationship finally made sense to me.) But I still enjoyed myself, because I read Little Women so many times when I was little that it was like watching a reenactment of my own childhood. I could tell from the conversations around me that the Brits in the audience weren’t familiar with the book and that the show was not connecting with most of them. But at each new scene I would be bouncing in my seat, “It’s Amy and the limes! It’s the piano!” The Wilder Life made me feel the same way. While the action sort of meanders along, reading McClure talk about Laura and Mary and the Long Winter and the dugout house was like having a conversation with a smart friend about our childhoods. If you didn’t love the Little House books as a child, or if you want a tight, plot-driven story, this book isn’t for you. But if you can remember exactly what Laura got for Christmas, or what Almanzo ate in Farmer Boy, or that you should stay out of creeks because there might be leeches in there for God’s sake, The Wilder Life might warm your heart just a little bit.