Friday, January 13, 2012

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure is a memoir that was right up my alley. As a child, McClure was fascinated with the Little House series. She grew out of the obsession, but when she rediscovered her childhood copy of Little House in the Big Woods, she also rediscovered the old fascination. Now, as a grown woman, Wendy does what she wasn't able to do as a child: she travels, researches, and experiments with the life so vividly described by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Over the course of about a year, McClure travels to each of the major Laura Ingalls Wilder home sites. Along the way, McClure makes some startling discoveries about the Wilder family, the history surrounding the Little House books, and, of course, herself.

I also loved the Little House books as a child, though they were not my only favorites. Perhaps the reason I never obsessed over the prairie lifestyle was that, back when I first read the books, my family was living at our own Little House on the Prairie, just outside of Perry, Oklahoma -- part of Oklahoma's Cherokee Strip (or, more correctly, Cherokee Outlet) region. (Laura Ingalls Wilder actually lived in a different Indian Territory, about 140 miles away in Kansas, but I didn't know that at the time. Even she thought that her family had lived in northern Oklahoma, rather than southern Kansas.) We weren't farmers, but we did have a big garden, some fruit trees, and a couple dozen chickens. I never churned butter, but I collected eggs from the chicken coop and made applesauce with apples from our own trees. The farm was surrounded on two sides by cattle, and on the other two sides by winter wheat. (Surprisingly, in the four years that we lived there, I don't remember any hailstorms, wildfires, or plagues of grasshoppers taking out the wheat crop . . . but then again, the wheat didn't belong to my family -- or Laura's -- so maybe that's the key.) So, though Laura and I were separated by about 100 years, I think I got my fill of the homesteading life growing up.

Wendy McClure, on the other hand, went searching or her own homesteading experience, with mixed (and sometimes hilarious) results. It was interesting to compare her opinion of the books with mine -- for instance, she mentions early on that On the Banks of Plum Creek was one of her favorite books in the series, whereas it was one of my least favorite. She relegates Farmer Boy to the status of an add-on, while it's one of the ones I remember most clearly. On the other hand, both of our childhood selves were dismayed and confused at the transition from the rosy conclusion of These Happy Golden Years to the bleak, disaster-filled, and brusquely-written pages of The First Four Years.

I've never felt the need to research the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families, but McClure's findings were fascinating and enlightening. In short, I'd recommend this book to anyone who loved the Little House series as a child. Reading the Little House series beforehand would probably enrich the experience of reading The Wilder Life, but it can be enjoyed even if your recollections of Laura's adventures are a bit hazy.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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