Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 10, 2011

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

I was one of those girls who dressed up in cast-off long dresses and straw hats and day dreamed about horses and covered wagons. I was mother of the president of a (two person) Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. So no surprise I loved The Wilder Life, in which Wendy McClure not only muses about her childhood adoration of the Little House books, but kind of lives the dream as an adult: buying a butter churn on eBay, which probably cost “enough to pay for one of Mary’s semesters at Iowa College for the Blind” and using it (while watching TV), retracing routes to Laura’s former homesteads (wading in Plum Creek!) — though hardships include a rental without GPS, interviewing devotees, figuring out the lines between Wilder fact and fiction, and trying to charm her way into an overnight in a dugout.

As a children’s book editor, Wendy is often asked about favorite childhood books and notes that some people nod almost smugly when her answer includes the Little House books. She feels uncomfortable, because of course she’s an adult now, and beyond the sunbonnets and blue skies can see holes, contradictions, and elements of racism, while still holding onto what’s good. She can be crazy about Laura and also irritated by the crankiness of Mrs. Wilder through chapters focusing on particular times, places, or themes, each ending with moving revelations. I expect everyone will have their favorite chapter. As someone who’s read a lot about Laura’s only child, Rose Wilder Lane, I was glad to have company, especially as we found similar things endearing and not-so-much. Wendy gives a brief overview of Rose’s life and suggests that beyond fuzziness re who wrote the books (and she offers evidence about why there should be no dispute about a collaboration) Laura-lovers often dislike Rose most of all because of her sadness. I think she’s right. The Little House books are so much about overcoming disaster and moving on with a good attitude, whereas Rose struggled with depression, which must have been particularly hard in that time and place and living with a chirpy, energetic mom who for all her strengths likely found “moods” pretty hard to understand. Tending to chickens isn’t the cure for all blues.

Just as love holds together the Wilder family through rough weather and roads, the loyalty, humor, and truth-telling of Wendy’s boyfriend forms the heart of this memoir. For Christmas, Chris gives Wendy “The Little House Guidebook,” a travel guide to the homesites, which she “mentally subtitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask.” Chris reads some novels for the first time and sometimes joins Wendy on journeys to landmarks, bringing new perspectives and charming us with his willingness to share this passion or obsession, never trying to parse the line between. One of my favorite scenes is when they rent a covered wagon in a South Dakota camp for wanna-be-pioneers and it hails pretty ferociously. It’s not an easy night. In the morning, the first thing Chris says is, “We have to go check on the wheat.”

No wonder there’s a happy ending here, as Wendy finds a sense of place both in the past and present.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation! It sounds like a great book. “We have to check on the wheat,” lol. I’m about to start the very last book with my girls, and it’s sure been fun to go back and live in Laura’s world this winter.

  2. Oh, nice to hear about this one. I’ve been curious. Shall have to pick up a copy (as soon as I’ve checked on the wheat).

  3. What a great way to get through the winter with your girls. Do they all want to be Laura? In the book they talk about how Mary used to have more girls wanting to be like her, and the books were even called the Laura-Mary books.

  4. I found a lot to love here. First, it takes you back to Laura World, albeit with humor and some adult sensitivity. But she talks about how it’s the toast in the books, the details, that just don’t grow old. And the food — the doughnut jar! — in Farmer Boy that redeems that volume, which she, like me, considers more supplementary. Jama, you’ll be glad to know she tries her hand at some prairie-ish baking, and doesn’t balk at a recipe calling for two pounds of lard.

  5. I just checked to see where I am on the library list for this one. I can’t *wait* to get my hands on it!

  6. What a guy Chris is! This is also on my TBR list… I traveled with my whole family plus father (who introduced me to Laura) to the Ingalls’ De Smet, SD, homestead and family burial plot. It was a touching experience. Not sure my boys quite understood the fascination, but they did look cute in the hats they had them wear in the prairie schoolhouse. 🙂

  7. At first they were Mary and Laura, but as Mary went off to college and sort of bowed out of the story arc, they migrated to Laura and Carrie (which I think is a much better personality match). It was definitely realistic to read about the Long Winter with real blizzard winds howling outside!

  8. Oh, that is cute. Yeah, you don’t want to be Mary when she’s pretty much cast out of the books, and I always liked Carrie. Growing up my sister and I role played more with Little Women, though as she was older, had darker hair, and a better vocabulary, she got to be Jo. I’ve kept a soft spot for Amy.
    I think Long Winter has been keeping a lot of people company these past years through not just bad weather but all sort of hard times. In The Wilder Years, Wendy buys a coffee grinder which I always fantasize about to grind the wheat, and twists hay (although she opts not to burn it!)

  9. I miss reading it! I expect it will turn many back to the Little House books, but I’ve, as usual, got another history obsession happening here. What I liked was the time traveling and wicked 21st century sense of humor.

  10. You know, we did try out our hand wheat grinder after that (from a garage sale). We discovered that it doesn’t actually make flour, just cracked wheat, so if we ever did need to use one, we might want to look into another one…
    I think everyone should have a copy of The Long Winter in their 72 hour emergency kit!

  11. Irene, what a fantasy journey! How cool that your father introduced you to Laura. And you’re such a great mom of boys, even if they may not always appreciate it at the time.
    My daughter and I had dreams, but were daunted by the car time over flat land. The closest we got was reading Kathryn Lasky’s book about the family journey (which did give us some warning that there could be disappointments.) Wendy interviews Meribah Knight, star of that book, now grown up: who does happily see the trip as a worthwhile adventure.

  12. I’ve heard so much about this book and really need to get to My Laura Love inspired me to write my own strong pioneer girl story.
    In re-reading the books with my boys, I was at first uncomfortable with the “elements of racism” you mentioned, but I found these scenes were excellent discussion starters about the ways difference can make us feel threatened or superior. It’s also interesting to see little Laura is the one to see the similarities and not the differences the adults are so caught up in.
    I’ve visited Mansfield, MO (Laura and Manly’s home) several times and remember once asking an innocent question about a Laura book I’d recently read. The woman there got very offended and told me they didn’t see that book as having any authority whatsoever. My mistake!
    Thanks for the follow!

  13. Irene, I didn’t know we had Laura in common! xo

  14. Thanks for coming over here! I loved your interview today at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, and cannot wait to read May B!
    It’s great you could use those moments as discussion starters and yay to you for reading them to your boys. The books show us a complex world, with the various characters seeing it differently, and it’s not always pretty. Even more reason to read the books.
    Hmm, not sure you should assume your innocent question was your mistake. The Wilder Life shows how representatives at the various Wilder sites, like most historic sites, can be invested in their own version of history. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other valid views.

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