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Monday, April 4, 2011

Remembering and Unremembering Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

She thought to herself, "This is now."
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

When, at eight or nine years of age, I first read these sentences from the end of Little House in the Big Woods, I was confused. Well, but that now is definitely a long time ago, now, I thought. But it wasn't long ago at all, because there I was, experiencing it, exactly the same now evoked in the book. So this Laura Ingalls Wilder was right, it could never be forgotten. Somehow, she had magically opened up a portal, a direct line between her childhood and her future readers. This strange and profound connection to people I'd never known, places I'd never been, and things that, in some cases, never existed (I found out later), were the track that kept me reading all the way through the series and beyond to the books of diaries and letters Laura never intended for an audience. Although I've gone on to do a lot more reading, I've always carried a little of Laura with me, in ways I never considered before I read The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure.

The book is a memoir of McClure's rediscovery of the series as an adult after a personal tragedy. She gets obsessed with trying to somehow recapture that long-ago life in some way, any way she can. In  the process she goes on an epic journey, always learning and developing insights along the way. No crazy idea, whether it's churning her own butter or camping on a farm in Illinois, fails to spark some kind of connection with the ever-expanding and lost world Laura writes about so lovingly. McClure masterfully sorts out her personal reactions to the book and compares "fact" with "fiction" to allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions.

Topics addressed include:
• The hybrid nature of the books. Are they fiction? Are they autobiography? How can we reconcile the Laura we know from the books with the mysterious Laura who experienced all that and so much more?
• The people who know the books only through the TV series and how their expectations from the historical sites differ. Is the world of the TV series less valid than that of the books?
• The prototypes for ways of being feminine presented in the books. These are especially important to consider, as they influence girls at a formative moment in their development. Do you sympathize with Mary? With Nellie Oleson? Is Laura a "tomboy"? (I completely agree with McClure when she decides that Laura is not a tomboy, just a girl whose femininity encompasses an explorer's spirit and some rugged chores. We girls can do anything, like Laura!)
• The complicated political issues at stake in the West at the time, which is mostly played out when we discover that the Ingalls were one of many squatters on land that was clearly meant for Native Americans and only opened to homesteaders a few years after the Ingallses left.
• The views of Native Americans, which, whether positive or negative, are incomplete in the books, mainly because they're told from a child's perspective, and that child was never to experience Native American culture firsthand, even as an adult.
• The wide-ranging interpretations people put on the books, often to serve their own world views. The prevailing one is that the Ingalls' life was a "simple" one of self-sufficiency. As the homesteading issue shows, times were never "simpler," at least not in the last two millennia, and as McClure points out, the Ingalls relied on technology, like trains and conveniences like stores whenever they were available. Especially entertaining is the story about the serial killers who operated near the Little House on the Prairie -- were they more innocent times?
• The hotly contested role of Rose Wilder Lane in the creation of the books, and in her life in general.
• The way Farmer Boy fits or doesn't fit into the series.
• The way the series peters out, so disappointing for young readers, and so much more understandable for adults. By visiting some of Laura's home sites that don't appear in the children's series, McClure comes to a better understanding of where the story really goes.
• That incredible sense of identification readers seem to come away with so often. Is the reader actually Laura? Who is Laura, anyway?

Possibly the best feature of the Little House series is Laura Ingalls Wilder's talent for observation accompanied by wonder. McClure learned from the best. Her writing transmits a similar finely-observed reality colored with wonder and more often than not, joy. The book jacket claims that it's "hilarious," but my laughter was more about recognition: whenever she has a Laura geek moment or discusses the way the books impacted her as a child, I think, yes, I had exactly the same reaction myself. Of course, McClure is also a writer and an editor who studied in Iowa City, so we have more than one common frame of reference. But the beautiful writing and great research, executed under the aegis of unflagging enthusiasm, will pull you along, too.

And hooray for McClure's partner, Chris, who read the books for her sake, and had the good sense to wake up in the middle of a potentially deadly hail and thunderstorm in DeSmet, only to show concern for the crops. (Would the Ingalls ever see a wheat crop that didn't fail?)

I just happened to have "rediscovered" the Little House books at the end of 2010, when my mother mailed them to me in an effort to clear out the house. I hadn't even thought of looking at what Laura stuff there might be on the internet, and because this book includes so much information in such a fun way, now I never have to. The Wilder Life couldn't have come at a better time for me, and I think it's also appropriate for Americans in general as we face ever-worsening economic hardships. The Wilder Life reminds us all that normal people, like the Ingalls -- like us -- can make it work under the worst conditions.

The Wilder Life will be released on April 14. Click on the ad to pre-order the hardback. For Kindle, click here: The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie