The Wilder Life
The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure (who tweets as @HalfPintIngalls), is a tribute to her fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and life. I’ve read the whole original series, but until I picked up this book, I had no idea that the Little House phenomenon could be so entertaining, emotional and, on occasion, bizarre. Part memoir, part homage, and delightfully snarky in places, this was a very enjoyable read.
The first step of the journey into what Ms. McClure calls “Laura Land” is to cook the meals described in the books. So she grinds wheat, bakes sourdough bread, and makes syrup-on-snow candy, with mixed results (vanity cakes, she discovers, require one to two pounds of lard). And sometimes it’s difficult to explain to friends who rely on iPhones and Starbucks that you’re churning your own butter.
When talking to friends about buying a dash churn, one must be careful when making hand gestures. Do not simulate holding the dash in your hands and pumping it up and down.
With her boyfriend along for the ride, the author plans to spend a few days on a farm which provides workshops to develop such skills. Unfortunately her fellow participants turn out to be members of a survivalist cult focused on preparing for the end times and the collapse of civilization. Her boyfriend, questioned about their relationship, says they’ve been married three years (living together = no-no) and in their tent that night, they write messages to each other rather than risk being overheard. They also decide that if the end times occur, they don’t want to be anywhere near the survivalists, and will take their chances with whatever post-apocalyptic fate awaits them.
Her boyfriend, no doubt won over by her fried apples ’n’ onions – if not by the encounter with cultists – starts reading the Little House books and becomes a fan too. So the two of them decide on a road trip, a journey from Kansas to Walnut Grove to Plum Creek to De Smet. They’ll visit all the Little House sites along the way. This proves to be a great case of fiction meeting reality, especially when she discovers that Laura’s family also lived in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they worked as servants in a hotel, and then left in the middle of the night to avoid paying a landlord (!).
Another thing I learned from this book was that Ma’s brother was married to Pa’s sister, and also, one of Ma’s sisters married Pa’s brother, “and all of this no doubt made Laura’s extended family tree look less like a tree and more like the chemical diagram of glucose.” And then there’s the museum which features the Ingalls family recreated as life-size rag dolls and posed limply in armchairs, which I thought of as Little House in Uncanny Valley.
…in their demented way, they really did look a bit like the Ingallses, inasmuch as one could look at an old photo and render it in pillow form.
One of the most interesting things in the book are the three aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder—the books, the TV show, and the reality. Oh, and by the TV show, I mean the 1974 one starring Michael Landon as Pa, not the Japanese animé series with episode titles like “A Cute Calf Has Arrived!” and “Wheat, Grow Tall!” As for real-life Laura, she’s intriguing. She worked together with her daughter Rose on the books, yet disagreed with her when necessary. For instance, Rose advised Laura to make Carrie the protagonist of Silver Lake, reasoning that book-Laura, at twelve, might be too old for the readership. Laura objected to this, saying that she couldn’t switch heroines halfway through, and she was right.
There’s so much more to discover about Laura Land, especially its politics and its impact on the lives of people today. I enjoyed the road trip/journey back through time, but whenever the author returned to her own life or reminisced about her own family, it just wasn’t as humorous or entertaining, which is why this isn’t a DIK for me. But The Wilder Life still gets a strong recommendation, especially for Little House fans.