When I was six years old or so, my dad took me one evening to the store (Meijer's in Lansing, Michigan) and bought me Little House on the Prairie. Almost forty years later, I can still remember walking across the parking lot, holding that bright yellow book. It is the first book I remember anyone giving me. In my baby book, under "Books" on the "Year Seven" page, my mom wrote just one word, "Wilder." My parents at one point became concerned that I was re-reading the books so often and actually took them away from me. I don't remember how long the ban lasted, but I remember calling home from a friend's house to break the news that I'd checked one out of the school library, in defiance of the ban.
But I don't meet too many fellow Wilder fans, and I haven't gone looking for them on the internet, the way I did with Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. So I was very interested to read Wendy McClure's book, which has been popping up in reveiws all over the place. It is the first book about Laura Ingalls Wilder that I've seen written from a reader's perspective (rather than an academic's).
I read The Wilder Life in a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it. I appreciated McClure's investigation of the Ingalls family's life, and I learned things I didn't know, like where the chronology of the actual life is out of sync with the books' narrative. I didn't know that the family lived in the Little House in the Big Woods twice! And I was unreasonably saddened at the news that Ma's china shepherdess has been lost (lost! how could they lose that!). I also appreciated her discussion of the various books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, some of which I already have on my shelves. As with Jane Austen and Dorothy L. Sayers, when I ran out of books by Wilder, I began looking for books about her.
From the beginning, though, I realized that McClure connected with the books on a very different level, what she calls "Laura World":
"I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin . . . I mean I don't believe in reincarnation . . . It's just how reading the Little House books was for me as a kid. They gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had . . . And, oh my God: I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own. I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet. . . "She projected herself into the books, and she also imagined Laura visiting her world, being able to show her the wonders of the 20th century. At the same time, she was greatly disappointed in the books like On the Way Home, which carry the Wilders' story beyond the end of even The First Four Years. She didn't want to think of Laura "disappearing into clumsy ordinariness and ignominy." McClure left the books behind for many years, rediscovering them almost thirty years later.
I can't quite imagine that kind of connection to the books, as much as I loved them. I was content to read about Laura's world, but I didn't need to be a part of it, though I did have a sunbonnet. And a couple of years after Dad gave me the first book, he brought back from a business trip a thin spiral-bound booklet, The Ingalls Family Album, with a sticker showing it was from the actual Little Town on the Prairie, in De Smet, South Dakota! It's an odd compilation of photos and somewhat random documents, like a check Carrie Ingalls wrote in 1910. It has the first photos I ever saw of the family, and of course it made them more real than even the Garth Williams illustrations in the book. They also showed the family aging over the years. So though I wouldn't have thought of it at the time, for me this booklet grounded the family in the progression of their lives beyond the stories.
I did literally leave the books behind, when I moved away to graduate school, but I replaced them before too long, and I still read them regularly. As Hurricane Ike roared around me in September 2008, I sat on the couch reading The Long Winter by flashlight, distracting myself with the roaring winds of the blizzards.
Unlike McClure, I have never visited any of the Ingalls/Wilder sites, though I did buy a copy of The Little House Guidebook several years ago. When I was visiting my sister last year, I saw a copy of The Little House Cookbook on her shelves, and I immediately went looking for my own copy. I've marked some of the recipes, like rye'n'injun, but I haven't gotten around to trying any of them yet. And I feel no need to churn my own butter.
We learn fairly early in the book that McClure's mother recently died of cancer. As I got further into the book, I began to wonder what role her loss played in this journey back to Laura's world, or this attempt to recapture Laura's world. McClure finally addresses that in the last chapter. If I understand her right, there is no immediate connection; she doesn't especially associate her mother with Wilder or the books, her mother wasn't a fan. But the effort she put into this journey allowed her to "unremember," not to forget, but to displace the loss, to replace it with these memories and present experiences of Laura's world. I don't think I fully understand this concept, but it seems to have brought McClure comfort and peace.
As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I already have from the library one of the books McClure cites, Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life.