My friend Colleen called me one day recently and said “I sent you a book! Call me as soon as you’re done reading it!”
The next day, a brand new copy of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure appeared in my mailbox.
If you have any fondness for the Little House books of your youth, if you ever in your life longed for a sunbonnet or a tin lunch pail or something made out of calico, if you ever hated Nellie Oleson or had a crush on Manley/Almanzo (or Doc Baker – whatever, I don’t judge), then you must read this book.
Like many women, Wendy McClure had been a fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books from the time she was a young girl. She read the entire series multiple times and even envisioned herself living in what she called “Laura World.” And so it was that she got this wild hair and decided to re-discover “Laura World” as an adult by traveling to all the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites around the country – in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Those Ingalls’s got around.
But this is not a book about Laura; it’s about Wendy and her quest to reconnect with her childhood self and the books she held so dear. It’s a hilarious romp through one person’s childhood fantasy tinged with some not-so-charming realities of modern day small town America. Along the way, there are run-ins with overzealous homeschoolers and freaky end-times people. There’s disappointment when she realizes that hand-churning butter in her Chicago apartment produces nothing purer than plain old butter – just like the stuff she buys at the grocery store.
The unlikely hero of the book is the author’s husband who gamely accompanies her on her journey through the Midwest, even waking in the midst of a prairie hailstorm and exclaiming “What about the crops?!” I love him for that!
It turns out that Little House on the Prairie Culture is fairly pervasive for people in my age group. The author and I are age-mates - a term my son’s teachers are fond of - which makes her perspective especially funny for me; we came from the same era of popular culture, we had the same lunch box and both longed to live in the Brady Bunch house. I had my own sunbonnet, made in a night-before-the-school-play-all-nighter by my mother – who was disgusted that I never even put it on my head, choosing instead to have it hang down my back. Just like Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson, I explained. In college, we trudged across campus during snowstorms with great labor shouting “Go get Pa! Carrie is stuck under the plow!” Little House on the Prairie references make snowstorms funny.
But with the paperback books readily available and the TV show in constant rotation on cable channels, Laura continues to find an audience. On a recent visit to Lake Superior, we ran into a boy and his father playing on the shore. The boy was all of 4 years old and referred to his father as “Mr. Edwards.” “It’s a thing,” dad said. “I’m just riding it out.”
And McClure’s book tells us that little girls are still arriving in droves to dress up in pioneer clothing for the annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. A pageant that takes place (I’m not kidding about this!) on the banks of plum creek! For real! Today’s pioneer clothing may be a little more bedazzled than Laura’s but it’s clear that little girls still want to be Laura.
This is the book you need when you’re feeling frazzled and unable to concentrate; it’ll transport you to an era in your life when your biggest decision was white milk or chocolate. Thanks to Wendy McClure, we now have an examination of our childhood hero from the perspective of our childhood brain, a melding of popular culture and fantasy and just a dash of history. But not enough to ruin the fun.