Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

II first read the Little House books when I was in elementary school. I even vividly remember our beloved librarian directing me to Rose Wilder Lane's Young Pioneers after I finished all of the original books. I watched only a few episodes of the tv show based on the books. I even re-read Little House in the Big Woods when I was in college for a kiddie lit class (although in the interest of full disclosure I found it boring then). But I have never been as devoted a fan as so many others seem to be. I was more of a casual take it or leave it fan. And I certainly am nothing on Wendy McClure who sets out to live in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder for a year, visiting the Ingalls homesites, learning to churn butter and grind grain and whatnot, and just generally immersing herself in the potent mystique surrounding this much revered series still devoured by little girls the country over.

McClure finds her old Little House books after her mother passes away and she embarks on a nostalgia-filled re-read, looking for the magic she found in "Laura World." She remembers her obsession with everything Ingalls, how she was Laura, living out the adventures in each successive homestead and having calico dreams. When she decides to make the pilgrimage to the Ingalls homesites, now museums, and to learn to do some of the chores and tasks that the books make sound so appealling, she is looking for something elusive, not just in the books but from her own childhood. And she is willing to go beyond the generally accepted sites that are connected with the books and actively search out the experience itself by overnighting in a covered wagon, visiting a sod house, and staying on a working farm run as if back in the day.

The narrative is both a travelogue of her physical journey and a reflective look at her emotional journey as she finds the places that played such a huge part of her imagination growing up. McClure seems disillusioned by much of what she encounters in her quest for Laura World. She discusses the usual visitor, at least on the days she's there, to the sites, ruminating on what it is about the book that appeals to a certain subset of people. She includes some biographical information about the Ingalls', especially where it varies from the family of the books, but more than about Laura Ingalls Wilder, the book is about her own personal impressions of the places and the people and the time and about what she thinks and hopes she'll get out of her year-long quest. Unfortunately, McClure is more often than not disappointed with what she finds at most of the sites and the people are far from her own kindred spirits. As obsessed as she is with reliving her immersion in Laura World, she ultimately finds that the terrain of childhood once lost is in fact gone forever.

The book itself is a quick and easy read although it starts to feel like more of the same since her feelings and impressions don't change much at all from experience to experience. Her love for all things Laura is still there but definitely tempered. This is not a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder; this is a book about Wendy McClure and her own personal search so readers expecting a biography or history lesson will be disappointed although there is some of each included. Occasionally there is a bit of a mean-spirited tone to some of McClure's observations, specifically when she is discussing her fellow travelers in Laura World; she can be rather condescending about them. That, coupled with her growing disappointment, although based on a fun and interesting premise, makes this fall just slightly short of completely satisfying.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I am both bummed that you aren't a bigger LIW fan and that you didn't love this book but to each his own. I plan to go to Mansfield next summer and also to the Little House on the Prairie (that's the one in Kansas right? Because we're driving through KS.) Thanks to this book, my expectations will be more reasonable.


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