Have you ever liked a book so much that you were afraid you’d scare people off with your enthusiasm? That’s how I feel about The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. (I’ve been writing and re-writing this review for two weeks now).
Part autobiography, part travelogue, it tells Wendy’s story as she visits all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites and attempts to fully experience Laura’s world. She buys a churn and makes butter. She grinds wheat. She wades in Plum Creek. She does all of the Laura things I’ve always wanted to–and got to write a book about it. How awesome is that?
While I haven’t churned butter or ground wheat, I have read the books over and over, and searched the library and internet for as much Laura information as I could find. Several years ago, I dragged BrownThumbPapa all the way to Missouri to visit Rocky Ridge Farm, Laura and Almanzo’s home. He patiently waited while I exclaimed and squealed through the entire house and museum. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand my rapture in seeing Pa’s fiddle.
A friend mentioned The Wilder Life on Facebook and I figured I’d give it a try. So many Laura books that I’ve read have been duds, or re-hashed information that I already knew. (Yes, the Ingalls lived in Burr Oak, Iowa for a time. Yes, Laura and Almanzo’s daughter was divorced and didn’t have children.) The Wilder Life reads like a novel, with Wendy’s experiences and thoughts tying her travels together. She even presents scholarly information, like the details of 19th-century land rights, with dry wit.
In addition to being crazy about the book, I got the opportunity to correspond with Wendy about The Wilder Life and some of the story behind it (squee!). Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Why have the Little House books had such staying power, more than 70 years after they were published?
They were created by a woman who watched the world change. Over the course of the series, Laura sees railroads being built, feels the electricity in a telegraph wire, witnesses daily life transforming itself in countless little ways, from Ma’s patent stove to printed calling cards. We think of the Little House series as books about the past, but they’re about a very modern experience, too.
What brought you back to the Little House books as an adult? Or, like me, did you never leave?
The books had to return to me, actually—for years I couldn’t quite bring myself to revisit them. I worried that they wouldn’t be as good as I’d remembered. But then my old tattered copy of Little House in the Big Woods—the only Little House book I’d owned—resurfaced after years in storage, and reading it again at last sparked the process of rediscovery. Then my boyfriend brought home a vintage boxed set of the paperbacks that he’d found at a used bookstore, and I tore through the rest of the books within weeks.
What were some of the most memorable experiences of your homesite visits?
I knew the first place I wanted to see was Pepin, Wisconsin, the setting of the first book, Little House in the Big Woods. Aside from that, I took the trips whenever possible. Many of the most memorable experiences had to do with weather! I saw Lake Pepin under a layer of thick ice, drove through torrential rain in Kansas, and spent the night in a covered wagon during a hail and lightning storm in South Dakota.
What did you learn about the books from your experiences?
I discovered a lot about the history of the real Ingalls family, which sometime diverged from the book series. At first I thought I was seeking out the “true” story, so to speak, but I found that I continued to look for the world that existed inside the books. I found out that knowing the facts in no way diminished the wonder of the fiction.
Many of the homesteading activities that you did in the book bring to mind today’s urban homesteading movement. What’s the appeal of these simpler times?
I think it’s natural to crave simplicity when we live in such distracting times. (Case in point: in order to focus on writing these answers, I had to turn off my internet access using a special application.) And we’ve recently become much more aware of the way industrialized and globalized production changes our food and affects our lives, so it makes sense that there’s interest in reviving traditional practices. If nothing else, we’re curious to taste the difference.
What’s brought about the renewed interest in the Little House series?
I think the books have much the same appeal now that they had when they were originally published in the 1930s. When Laura Ingalls Wilder’s editor at Harper & Brothers read the manuscript for the first Little House book, she declared it “the book that no Depression could stop,” because she knew readers would respond to its narrative of surviving hardship and living resourcefully. These days, the circumstances are similar, but I think in some ways the books resonate even more for their tangible details they give us. So many of our disasters, like the financial crisis, are terrifyingly abstract, so a book like The Long Winter gives us something to hold on to. Sometimes twisting hay into sticks for fuel sounds so much better than just wringing your hands.
If you’re a Laura nut, like me, pick up a copy from Amazon or your library. You’ll love The Wilder Life!
Disclosure: I didn’t get a free review copy or any compensation. I just loved the book and thought you would too!