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An Author Returns To 'The Little House'

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An Author Returns To 'The Little House'

An Author Returns To 'The Little House'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Here are some of the things that writer Wendy McClure wanted to do when she was a young girl.

Ms. WENDY McCLURE (Writer): Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow. Make bullets by pouring lead. Sew a seam with tiny and perfectly straight stitches. Have a man's hands span my corseted waist, which at the time didn't seem creepy at all. Eat salt pork. Eat fat pork. Keep a suckling pig as a pet.

BLOCK: Those of us who grew up devouring the Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books will recognize that list, maybe find ourselves in it, too. The series was based on Wilder's memories of her childhood as her pioneer family moved across the Midwest in their covered wagon with good old Jack, the brindle bulldog, alongside.

Well, Wendy McClure decided to immerse herself in what she calls Laura World. She gnawed on salt pork, churned her own butter with a crock-and-dash churn she bought on eBay, and she traveled from one Ingalls family home site to another in Wisconsin, Kansas, South Dakota.

She's now written a book about what she discovered about herself on this adventure. It's called "The Wilder Life." Wendy McClure, welcome to the program.

Ms. McCLURE: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: I wonder if you have a visual memory of yourself as a young girl reading the Little House books. Where would you have been?

Ms. McCLURE: I have one memory of being in my parents' room, on their bed and just reading "On the Banks of Plum Creek," It was over 200 pages, and that seemed just unimaginable to me.

And I remember lying back and holding the book over my head, which I think was sort of maybe an uncomfortable position but being so absorbed.

BLOCK: How old would you have been?

Ms. McCLURE: I think I would have been about seven or eight.

BLOCK: Now when you, as an adult, rediscovered the Little House books and started diving into Laura World, you ask yourself this question in the book: What kind of person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico, sun-bonnet freak-flag fly? Why don't you run through just where that took you when you did that?

Ms. McCLURE: Well, it took me to a lot of places. It took me to all the home sites all over the Midwest and also in upstate New York. I watched every TV or movie portrayal of the Little House books that I could find, whether it was a clip of Japanese anime on YouTube...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McCLURE: Or "Little House on the Prairie," the popular NBC show.

(Soundbite of television program, "Little House on the Prairie")

Mr. MICHAEL LANDON (Actor): (as Charles Ingalls) How do you like your room?

Ms. MELISSA GILBERT (Actor): (as Laura Ingalls) Wonderful.

Unidentified Child (Actor): (as Carrie Ingalls) Yeah, and I've decided something.

Mr. LANDON: (as Charles Ingalls ) And what's that, (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Child: (as Carrie Ingalls) Home is the nicest word there is.

Ms. McCLURE: And then I also cooked recipes from the Little House Cookbook. I even tried braiding my own rag rug.

BLOCK: Yeah? How'd that go?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McCLURE: I don't have the patience for that sort of thing, I realized.

BLOCK: So you learned that pretty fast?

Ms. McCLURE: Yeah.

BLOCK: So you end up going to Laura Ingalls Wilder look-alike contests. You spend the night in a covered wagon, and you describe in the book what you learn that ends up either omitted or incorrectly portrayed in the Little House books, and a couple of them really stand out, one that the little house on the prairie itself was illegal. It was an illegal homestead.

Ms. McCLURE: That's right. That's something that is never really mentioned in the books, that Pa really was probably very knowingly occupying illegal land, hoping that it would eventually open up for homesteading. There's kind of no excusing Pa on those grounds.

At the same time, I think I appreciated the book for at least asking some of the hard questions. It's Laura herself who dares to ask the question: Why are we here anyway, if this is the Indians' land?

BLOCK: As you were going around to the Little House sites around the Midwest, was there one that was just sort of more of a jolt than any others, one that was just really at odds with your impression of what it was from the Little House books?

Ms. McCLURE: I think when I saw the simulated dugout. This would be in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, the place where they lived in the book "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

And so you go inside, and this place is the size of a freight elevator. And you can't believe a family of five lived there.

BLOCK: This is the sod house, right, that they build into the banks of the banks of Plum Creek.

Ms. McCLURE: Yes, the sod dugout, yes.

BLOCK: Which is such a magical thing to think about, really, isn't it, living under the ground.

Ms. McCLURE: Mm-hmm. Oh, when you're a kid, it's wonderful. I mean, you know, there's even this sort of little sense that it's like "Alice in Wonderland." I mean, that chapter where they move in is called "The Door in the Ground." And it sounds wonderful, even when the ox runs over the dugout site and his foot goes through the ceiling, you know, which now I would think is sort of horrifying. But as a kid is just, you know, wonderful and hilarious.

BLOCK: Well, Wendy McClure, at the end of this journey, after the cabins and the museums and the Laura look-alike contests and all of that, you end up realizing that you've also, as you've been going, been trying to figure something else out about your life, not just about Laura but something essential about yourself.

Ms. McCLURE: I realized my feelings about my mother passing away were tied up in this, that I was, in a way, trying to revisit my own childhood in kind of an oblique way.

And after a while, certain things came back - remembering my mom telling me about her own life as an Army brat and moving all over the place, which seemed really unimaginable to me. But then when I read the Little House books, it really sort of gave me the opportunity to sort of understand what that was like.

There were times when my mother took us to look at a house where she'd once lived for a year or a few months. You know, and I completely forgotten about that until I started taking these trips on my own to see where this other little girl had lived, Laura.

BLOCK: You describe it an interesting way, not just as remembering, but the way you phrase it in the book is this was a process of un-remembering. What did you mean by that?

Ms. McCLURE: I meant un-remembering as you sort of make a place for something, even if it's a little too painful to remember it directly. It's something that you have in its place. You know, of course I remember just as much as I un-remember now. But at the time, it was something I really needed to do.

BLOCK: Wendy McClure, author of "The Wilder Life." Thanks so much.

Ms. McCLURE: Thank you.

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