The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, by Wendy McClure

Short Take:  Wendy McClure, Laura Ingalls Wilder and I could totally be BFF’s.


I love trashy novels.  I think I’ve established that pretty clearly.  But you know what goes above and beyond my love of trashy novels?  My love of reading in general.  In third grade, I realized that I could lose myself in a story, and that was amazing.  Books have been a major part of my life, easily the one I’ve held the longest, and the more I read, the more I fall in love with the written word.

And it’s mostly because of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Little House In The Big Woods was the first time I can remember actually reading a story and feeling my own imagination go somewhere it had never been.  As I read, I was seeing people and places in my head that I had never seen in real life or on tv.  I was imagining myself making candy out of snow, dancing to a fiddle, and yanking my sister’s blonde braids (ok, that last one might have actually happened).

This is my roundabout, drawn-out way of saying that Laura Ingalls Wilder played a huge role in turning me into the Book Nerd that I have become.   This is not the place to debate whether or not that was a good thing though, ok?

I started reading Wendy McClure’s book thinking it would be more along the lines of the Julie & Julia thing, that she would be trying to emulate the frontier lifestyle and learn Valuable Lessons along the way or somesuch.  Something fun and fluffy and frivolous to offset all the stress of holiday preparations.  Instead, I found something that’s both much more and much less than I expected.

Wendy McClure and I shared the fantasy of having Laura magically transported to our time and place, so that we could introduce her to the modern world and all its wonders.  It’s an oddly specific fantasy from my childhood that I’ve never admitted to, and apparently, it’s pretty common among Little House readers.  No real reason for pointing that out, I just thought it was interesting.  And to tell my fourth-grade self that I’m not a TOTAL weirdo loser.

The Wilder Life is an interesting mix of historical research, modern day experiments in recreating some things from the books, and road trip travelogue.  While attempting to have a “Laura Experience”, the author jumps into a whole range of ways to get a feel for the real Laura.  She churns butter in her apartment (turns out it’s not that hard), visits some of the sites where Laura and her family lived, and does some pretty extensive research on the real-life Laura.

It was that last part that fascinated me the most.  It turns out, a lot of the Little House stories were heavily fictionalized.  It’s such a strange thing for me to hear.  I always took them as gospel truth.  Some of the nastier realities were glossed over or omitted entirely (like the fact that one of the little houses the family lived in was built illegally on Indian land.  Oops!).

The Wilder Life is also surprisingly hilarious.  Wendy and her boyfriend’s run-in with the End Times cult had me cringing and laughing at the same time.  She has a wry, sarcastic way of making observations that makes even some of the drier historical sections feel more like gossiping with a girlfriend.

There was one aspect that just didn’t work for me, though, and that was the emotional ending.  I was expecting Valuable Lessons, but the light funny tone of the first three quarters of the book is great, and then it kind of goes PLONK once Wendy McClure realizes that instead of looking for Laura, she’s looking for her own home, and still in mourning for her mother.   It’s eloquently written, and evokes a lot of genuine emotion, but the tone just felt too drastically different from the rest of the book.

We all can agree, however, that the TV show was terrible.

And finally, let me just point out that the whole thing about Laura crying because she couldn’t have an Indian woman’s baby has been blown way out of proportion by a few writers analyzing that scene.  Chances are, she thought it was just a really realistic toy, or some kind of pet.  I remember being about 4 and asking my mom for a midget to play with.  I thought they were like adult-shaped people-toys or something.  My mom was appropriately horrified, but what can I say?  Kids are weird.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and a haystick).



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