In this new nonfiction book, Wendy McClure does a great job presenting her adventures "with" Laura Ingalls Wilder. Clever, wise, funny and insightful, her journey on the path of discovery with the Little House on the Prairie books is also an excursion of self-appreciation and understanding.
I sometimes come across unusual books that remind me of my own history. The Wilder Life is one of those special treasures. My own mother was reading the Little House series to my three sisters when she was pregnant with me. At 13, 11, and 8, my sisters were still enthralled by the novels penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When given a chance to help choose my name, 'Laura' was a resounding favorite. Knowing that backstory, I have always identified with Laura, and been proud of that bond. Ms. McClure takes the path I have often longed to take—an actual trip to the locales mentioned in the books and in other works by or about Laura. In her journey, she realizes some truths about her own relationships, and beliefs. The culminating discovery of peace and completion brings her to say to her boyfriend, "We're done with the Laura trips...I'm home."
McClure was caught in the Little House wave of the 1970's, when the nine-book set was re-issued. Writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books, she remembers "...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." It was a feeling shared by many girls, but McClure's passion for Laura's life experiences and writing continued to follow her to adulthood. She likens the place she calls the "Laura World" to Narnia or Oz—a complete world, "self-contained and mystical" and yet as real to her as her own day-to-day existence. She was determined to flesh out the real Laura, and flush out the real stories.
So McClure went on the road. Sometimes alone, often with her boyfriend, she sought out the places in the Little House books that still exist in one form or another. Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin were on the itinerary, with stops scheduled where there were annual pageants, museums and reconstructed log houses and soddies. Was the "real" Laura to be found in any of these places?
Reading The Wilder Life was both a rejuvenating and a cathartic experience for me. While it may be true that today's flurry of activity keeps most of us from reenacting yesterday, the understanding of those past experiences are, in themselves, important. It wasn't enough for McClure that she merely visits the places of meaning and importance in Laura's life. McClure wanted to reconcile the fictional Laura with the real one, to find her in places with the intention of experiencing Laura's vivacity, courage, and adventuresome essence for herself. In doing so, she reconnected to her own late mother, and found a way to walk on her own path, knowing that, "...we would know all the little houses, a bright NOW in everyone." McClure's entertaining humor, skillful writing and belief in the purpose of her adventures brings those little houses within the reach of all of us.
Wendy McClure is an author, a columnist for BUST magazine, and a children's book editor. Her essays have appeared in the The New York Times Magazine, The Chicago Sun-Times, and in a number of anthologies, and she has published two earlier works: I'm Not the New Me and The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan. She was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and now lives in Chicago with her boyfriend, Chris, in a neighborhood near the river. Visit her website.
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