The Wilder Life
By Wendy McClure
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $25.95
I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we all traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory, where Pa built us another house, out on high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?
We remember the strangest things: the way rabbits and wild hens and snakes raced past the cabin to escape a prairie fire, or else how it felt when the head of a needle slipped through a hole in the thimble and stuck us hard, and we wanted to yell, but we didn't. We moved on to Minnesota, then South Dakota. I swear to God it's true: we were a girl named Laura, who lived and grew up and grew old and passed on, and then she became a part of us somehow. She existed fully formed in our heads, her memories swimming around in our brains with our own.
Or that's how it felt to me at least. That's how it still feels sometimes, if I really think about it. I mean I don't believe in reincarnation, and obviously Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't either, not with her respectable Protestant singing-off-key-in-woodenchurches upbringing. It's just how reading the Little House books was for me as a kid. They gave me 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's a classic childhood delusion, I know, and in my typically dippy way I tended to believe that the fantasy was mine alone, that this magical past-life business was between Laura and me and no one else. Surely I was the only one who had this profound mind-meld with her that allowed me to feel her phantom pigtails tugging at my scalp; I had to be the only one who was into the books that much.
This was despite the fact that I was just one of the millions of kids who discovered Wilder's books in the 1970s and '80s, not too long after the entire nine-book series was released in paperback in 1971, and around the same time the TV show Little House on the Prairie aired on NBC. Girls in earlier eras would have read the books in hardcover editions, perhaps as gifts from nice relatives who themselves loved the books as children.
(And let's be honest here: if you didn't already know and love the Little House books, they would look and sound an awful lot like something your grandmother would foist upon you as a present, what with their historically edifying qualities and family values—basically, the literary equivalent of long underwear. In fact, I'm surprised that my grandmother didn't give them to me, though had she done so, they might have gone unread, along with the etiquette guide and the thick, small-print, illustration-free book about the Amish. Thank you, Grandma. Sorry, Grandma.)
Readers of my generation, though, could buy the Little House books cheap through Scholastic Book Clubs, and a great many more found their way to them after watching the TV show. And we were maybe the first generation of readers to be completely out of recollection range for the era these books recorded — we were born so late in the century that even our grandparents had only secondhand knowledge of covered wagons and dresses with bustles. The books were no longer really about anyone's "good old days" anymore — nobody I knew, at least — and as a result the world they described, the woods and prairies and big sloughs and little towns, seemed to me almost as self-contained and mystical as Narnia or Oz.
Except even better, because unlike those wholly fictional realms, the "Laura World," as I'd come to think of it, was a little more permeable. It shared space with the actual past, so things from it could make their way into my world, where I would look for them everywhere. No doubt it helped that countless family restaurants and steak emporiums of my 1970s suburban childhood went for rustic, antique-strewn decorating themes, with knickknack shelves full of tin cups and assorted old-timey crap. It didn't take much more than, say, the sight of a dusty glass oil lamp on the wall above a booth at a suburban Bonanza to make me feel like I was communing with Laura while I ate my cottage fries. Which I preferred to think of as "pan-fried potatoes."
Not like I was a dorky kid or anything.
Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. Copyright 2011 by Wendy McClure.