If, as a kid, you ever longed for a sunbonnet and a sod house, you'll love Wendy McClure's smart and sweetly hilarious memoir The Wilder Life.
If, on the other hand, you have no idea what I'm talking about, you are not among the legions of fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, seven enduring children's classics based on Wilder's girlhood on the American frontier in the 1870s and '80s (and one, Farmer Boy, based on her husband's early years).
The books, which Wilder wrote when she was in her 60s, capture the adventure and hardships of growing up in rural Wisconsin, Indian Territory (later Kansas), Minnesota and Dakota Territory. Since the first, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932, they have found countless enthusiastic readers around the world and been translated into 40 languages. And that's just the tip of the sunbonnet.
McClure (I'm Not the New Me) is a columnist, blogger and children's book editor in her 30s who rekindled her girlhood love for the Little House books when her parents, preparing to move to their retirement home, had a garage sale and her scuffed copy of Little House in the Big Woods turned up.
Soon she's recalling her intense identification with the Laura of the books, which "gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had, that I had nearly drowned in the same flooded creek, endured the grasshopper plague of 1875, and lived through the Hard Winter." For a kid in the Chicago suburbs a century later, the Little House world is "at once as familiar as the breakfast table and as remote as the planets in Star Wars."
Her reawakened interest in that world grows when her boyfriend, Chris, buys her a complete set of the books. (Chris earns Boyfriend of the Year status for throwing himself cheerfully into what follows, from reading all the books to driving cross-country on McClure's Laura tour.) Soon she discovers the delicious irony of how easy it is to pursue the books' frontier magic via the Internet:
"I knew there were poems about (Laura) and picture books; I found out there were festivals, pageants, plays, websites, weblogs, authorized spin-off series books, unauthorized spin-off series books, dresses, cookbooks, newsletters, fan fiction, albums, homeschool curriculums, aprons, craft items, figurines, dollhouses. Also, a guy in Minnesota believes she is God." She finds everything from "a Marxist feminist critique" of the books to a Japanese anime version. And, she writes, "you really don't want to know the extent to which Little House on the Prairie spanking references have been lovingly cataloged on YouTube."
That last, of course, is a reference to the television series, which ran from 1974 to 1983. McClure wasn't a fan during her childhood and finds when she watches it as an adult that it has almost nothing to do with the books. (Frankly, speaking as another devoted fan of the books in my childhood, she's kinder to the TV series than I would be.)
But she will find fans in what she calls Laura World who hardly know the books exist, like the woman who visits one of the Little House museums and refuses to believe that a photograph of the real Ingalls family — Pa, Ma and daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace as adults, in dour 19th century poses — is genuine, because they don't look like the actors on the TV show.
About those museums: Practically every stop on the Ingalls' peripatetic travels — the site of every log cabin, sod house and frame cottage Charles "Pa" Ingalls built, and he was a one-man development wave — is marked by some sort of museum or historic site, and McClure eventually sets out to visit them all.
At first her longing for "la vida Laura" can be indulged at home. She tries recipes from one of the Little House cookbooks — although the one for vanity cakes stops her cold with its first ingredient, "1 to 2 pounds of lard" — and buys a dash churn online to make her own butter.
Her research also raises questions about just what is fact and what is fiction in the books. Wilder omitted some periods of her childhood, like the year the family spent running a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, which ended when they left town in the middle of the night to avoid creditors. And many characters are composites, notably the infamous Nellie Olesen: "The fact that Nellie wasn't any one person but rather a composite of three of the real Laura's antagonists' worst traits makes her even more terrifying, some kind of blond Frankenstein assembled from assorted bitch parts."
Of course, Wilder never claimed the books were factual. A thornier issue is how much her only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, contributed to the novels. (Rose is quite a character in her own right, a globe-trotting reporter who later became one of the founders of libertarianism.)
McClure follows the allure of Laura to museums and pageants, to "homestead weekends" on self-consciously old-fashioned farms, to the charming Missouri home where Wilder lived as an adult and to a night of camping in a sort-of covered wagon at the Ingalls Homestead, the site of the actual Little House on the Prairie.
Along the way she meets all manner of enthusiasts. She's struck by how many seem to view the books as a kind of 19th century Martha Stewart lifestyle guide: "Sometimes when I hear folks maunder on about how simple Laura's lifestyle was I wonder if they've ever thought about all the hauling and fetching and stowing and stoking it took just to boil a pot of water." She also encounters a group of pretty scary "end timers" who view the books as how-to guides for the coming apocalypse.
But mostly she meets people who love the Laura of the books, a tough and independent girl who faces a world more difficult and dangerous than most of us can imagine, protected by a loving family. And, like McClure, they love the books' memorable re-creation of an America that — even with a Laura road trip — can't really be found any longer, a world of tremendous peril but also of endless horizons.
And, although she's too self-deprecatingly funny to maunder on about it, McClure finds herself, too. One trigger for her reborn Laura obsession is her mother's death from cancer, and by the book's end she has found a link among Laura's life, her mother's and her own.
If you're a fan of the Ingalls family saga, The Wilder Life is a trip worth taking. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going shopping for a new set of Little House books.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.