Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

wilderlife As some of our regular readers may have noticed, I get obsessed with things, most notably Oscar and Lucinda, so I always feel a kinship with others who are also obsessed with things. Even if it’s something that I have no interest in, I do, in the parlance of my youth, ‘know where they’re coming from’. That’s why I enjoyed this book about McClure’s obsession with Laura Ingall Wilder and Little House on the Prairie, despite never watching the TV show, or reading the books, except for an excerpt in a childrens’ literature anthology.
The author is a childrens book editor from Chicago who loved the Little House novels as a child. Rereading them as an adult made her want to find out more about them and by that, it doesn’t mean looking them up on Wikipedia, but seeking out locations from the books and experiences related to the life of a pioneer family of the 1880’s. And she recounts her adventures with great insight and amusement.
In “Laura World”, which is what the author calls her obsession, she experiments with churning her own butter and making recipes from various cookbooks associated with the series. But when she receives The Little House Guidebook, which lists every one of the Ingall’s home sites and tourist amenities, she decides to visit them all in person, sometimes accompanied by her husband. They travel to frozen Lake Pepin in Wisconsin, from where the Ingalls started West, to a sod house replica on the Minnesota prairie and to the Missouri house which Laura’s hubby Almanzo built for her and that she died in at the age of 90. There are also weird offshoots in various locations: a Little House theme park, a musical based on the later books and a Laura Ingalls beauty pageant in Walnut Creek, where the youngsters were encouraged to wear bonnets and long dresses. McClure’s wonderful hubby, Chris, goes along on many of these trips and even reads the books. He’s terrifically supporting, though he often jokingly teases her.
The author herself has a wacky sense of humor which shines through in her commentary, which makes for a good balance as she follows her obsession as far as she can. Like all properly obsessed people, she uses her subject to learn more about issues connected to Laura’s life, such as the land laws of the 1800’s and the relocation of Native Americans. She examines the changing qualities of girl heroines in literature and how the trendy American Girl dolls are an adjunct to that.
There’s also perceptive observations on the impact that the TV series (‘Little House on The Prairie’ starring Michael Landon) have had on a certain segment of American society. Survivalists romanticize the pioneer lifestyle and many home schoolers and religious Fundamentalists see a religious message in the stories, though most of them have not read the books.
McClure does a good job of making her obsession accessible to those of us who don’t know much about the novels or the family they portray. I admired the way she shared the fun of her quest and the layers of meaning within it and the descriptions of the places and people she interacted with. It was an excellent example of how an obsession or hobby can enrich one’s life. While Little House affectionadoes will get the most out of this memoir, it’s still quite entertaining for the rest of us, too.

Riverhead 2011 250 pp. ISBN-13:978-1594487804 available in traditional and ebook formats

2 comments on “The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

  1. sshaver
    July 30, 2013

    For some reason Oscar and Lucinda made me feel miserably claustrophobic (not literally).

    Don’t know why.

  2. Jackie
    July 31, 2013


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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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