Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder-a fantastic realm of fiction, history, and places she's never been to, yet somehow knows by heart. She retraces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family- looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota. She immerses herself in all things Little House, and explores the story from fact to fiction, and from the TV shows to the annual summer pageants in Laura's hometowns. Whether she's churning butter in her apartment or sitting in a replica log cabin, McClure is always in pursuit of "the Laura experience." Along the way she comes to understand how Wilder's life and work have shaped our ideas about girlhood and the American West.
Like Wendy, I loved the Little House series as a young girl. I checked them out repeatedly from the Port Library in Beloit, Kansas - also known as heaven to my younger self. When Amanda reached the chapter-book stage, I bought her the entire set. They remain on my bookshelf, untouched. But after reading The Wilder Life, I am tempted to pull them down and return to "Laura World" - Ms. McClure's pet name for the fictionalized picture of the 1860's.
Wendy's passion for all things Wilder far exceeds my simple love of the stories. She immersed herself in Laura Ingalls Wilder's other writings - published and unpublished - as well as the works of Laura's daughter, Rose, and even college theses and scholarly articles on the topic. This further reading "didn't destroy the world of the books for me - they simply lost it altogether." She couldn't reconcile the carefree Laura of the Little House books with the grown, and all-too-human, middle-aged woman who was "growing fat", according to daughter Rose. Rose also reported that, during a trip to San Francisco, Laura had fallen off a streetcar and hit her head.
In my mind, the world of the Little House books just went up in smoke at the end, their heroine disappearing into clumsy ordinariness and ignominy. It had always trailed off with a vague unspoken disappointment. It's the kind of story we learn over and over again about everything in the world: your life starts out as a wild open frontier that you explore until the forces of time or history or civilization or nature intervene, and then suddenly it's all gone, it all weathers and falls down and gets built over; everyone dies or moves away or becomes a grainy photograph, and yes, at some point you just get fat and fall off a streetcar. Progress - it dumps you on your aging and gigantic ass! (p.24)
Wendy embarked on a quest of sorts throughout the Midwest, visiting all the tourist spots marking Laura's life and travels, searching for something she really couldn't even explain to herself - a connection between Laura World and reality, a merging of the "pretend" Laura with the "true" Laura? Whatever she was looking for, she provides an interesting and comical recap of the process.
For me, the middle section of the book, where Wendy wades through the mire of written material, research and land records relating to Laura Ingalls Wilder, was slow going. But the rest of the book was enjoyable and Ms. McClure's witty, urban voice was an entertaining tour guide. I recommend this book to anyone who read the Little House books and wanted, even for a minute, to be part of that idyllic world.