Friday, May 20, 2011

The Wilder Life: delving into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the PrairieThe Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, by Wendy McClure
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Young Laura
You know how I am drawn to books with one-year experiments. I'm not sure if this book fits into this category, because it's unclear how long Wendy McClure immersed herself in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like McClure, I loved the Little House on the Prairie series as a young girl, so as soon as I got wind of this book I knew I had to read it. When I was 16 on a cross-country trip with my family, I remember my thrill when we stopped in at one of the Little House locations (I can't remember which one now).

Young adult Laura
Melissa Gilbert as "Ma"
Over the months, McClure rereads all of the books, in addition to anything else she could get her hands on related to the Ingalls/Wilder family; watches the TV series (which she hadn't watched as a child) and Disney's 2005 version; visits as many Laura World landmarks as she possibly can (and there are quite a few); learns how to churn butter, make a haystick, and tackle a number of other homesteading tasks; cooks recipes from the Little House cookbook; attends two Little House on the Prairie pageants; sleeps in a covered wagon; buys multiple bonnets; and sees Melissa Gilbert appear as Ma in "Little House on the Prairie: The Musical." Her loyal, good-natured boyfriend, Chris, jumps into the adventure with her. (In so many of the one-year experiment books I've read, the partner typically gets completely fed up by the end!)

Laura at 70
She explores the following issues in relation to the books and the family history:
  • Racism (Ma was a bit of a racist when it came to Native Americans, and Pa appeared in blackface during a minstrel show)  
  • Whether Laura was a "tomboy" (McClure insists that she most certainly was not--this is not really an issue I personally care about) 
  • The extreme Laura love shown by many girls like me (until the 1960s, the books were often known as "the Laura and Mary books," and McClure expresses shock that anyone could have seen them as anything other than the Laura books!)
  • The bizarre fact that Friendly Family Productions (the company founded by the TV show creator Ed Friendly) was suing the Little House on the Prairie homesite and museum for trademark infringement (because a TV show trumps a historical landmark??)
  • The Wilder family's disenchantment and unhappiness in their older years, and the darker side of the Ingalls family (not portrayed in the books)
  • Rose Wilder Lane's manipulation behind the books, independence, and connection to the American Libertarian Party
The family (Laura's in the middle back)
I really enjoyed McClure's writing style and sense of humor. She notes the irony, for example, when Whole Foods (a place with an olive bar and an artisanal cheese counter) was the only place she could find molasses--a needed staple for the recipes. She and her boyfriend escape from a weekend stay at a homesteading training camp (for lack of a better term) after they realize that most of the other campers are left-behind converts (who are no doubt very excited about tomorrow, the supposed rapture day).

Signing books for fans
Some boys, I'm sure, appreciate the Little House stories, but I would wager that they are vastly more popular with girls. That was one of the best things about them...a children's book series with a gutsy, adventurous female pioneer hero. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, those types of books were rare finds. As McClure says, "The first few Little House books keep boys at the worst, the boys in Laura World will hurl a few witless taunts...and are promptly told to shut up; at best, they might do something spectacularly stupid, like get themselves stung by a whole hive of yellow jackets." Since girls are the ones usually on the periphery (even more so in movies and TV than in books), Laura was--and continues to be--embraced by girls far and wide.

Rose Wilder Lane (who helped her mother get published)
Unlike McClure, I grew up watching "Little House on the Prairie"--I remember when the series came out, and it was after I already loved the books. (Clearly, I'm older than McClure--the show started in 1974!) Even though I knew the series diverged from the books, I LOVED this show regardless...and also regardless of its wild plots, such as the most extreme one I remember--the night when Ma was reading the bible and was thinking about sawing off her own leg! Even though McClure didn't get into the TV show as much as I did, she turned me onto a great blog, "WTF Little House on the Prairie?" The author, Mike McComb, has detailed the wackiest, most traumatic episodes for our edification.

TV Family Ingalls
Michael Landon is Pa for me. And I loved Mr. Edwards--remember the Christmas episode when he trudges miles in the snow to deliver presents for the girls? I grew up with Melissa Gilbert...she is just a few months older than me. I loved her spirited, sassy portrayal of pigtailed Laura, who was often getting into trouble. I identified with her much more than I did with Mary, even though Mary was the oldest child. If I'd grown up on the prairie, I would have been the one always getting dirty. I definitely would not have been Nellie. Too prissy!

The prairie bitch (see below)
The next on my Little House bookshelf will be these two books, especially Nellie Oleson's Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated Prairie Tale: A Memoir


  1. Starting with my 10th birthday, my godmother gave me a Little House book each birthday and Christmas until she ran out of ideas. (I have the sort of "canon" Little House books, plus a few books about the series, plus the cookbook, etc.) I still have them all, I think, some of them held together by duct tape.

    I am wickedly delighted by the existence of Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.

  2. What a wonderful tradition! I love it. Please let me know what you think about the Prairie Bitch, if you read it before I do!

  3. I practically memorized these books. As a child I was a book fanatic and if I liked something, I would read it A LOT. I also had Little Women practically memorized.

    It was interesting to read Laura Ingalls again as an adult. I noticed the extreme poverty more.

  4. Yes--we look at things very differently as adults, don't we?