An Author Returns To 'The Little House'
An Author Returns To 'The Little House'
According to a list that arrives early in her new book, here are a few of the things writer Wendy McClure wanted to do when she was a young girl:
"Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow. Make bullets by pouring lead. Sew a seam with tiny and perfect stitches. Have a man's hands span my corseted waist — which at the time didn't feel creepy at all. Eat salt pork. Eat fat pork. Keep a suckling pig as a pet."
Those who grew up devouring the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder will recognize that list, and maybe find themselves in it as well. The series of novels 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.
"I have one memory of being in my parents' room on their bed and reading On the Banks of Plum Creek," McClure tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block. "It was over 200 pages, and that seemed just unimaginable to me."
As an adult, McClure was drawn back to Wilder's books, enough so that she immersed herself in what she calls "Laura World." She churned her own butter with a crock-and-dash churn she bought on eBay. She actually gnawed on salt pork. And she traveled from one Ingalls family home to another, stopping in Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota. In her new book, The Wilder Life, McClure writes about her adventure.
"It took me to all the home sites all over the Midwest and also in upstate New York," she says. "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 or Little House on the Prairie, the popular NBC show. And then I also cooked recipes from the Little House Cookbook.
"I even tried braiding my own rag rug," she says, before admitting. "I don't have the patience for that sort of thing."
McClure's immersion into the life of Wilder and her family wasn't all rose-colored nostalgia. Her visit to the replica of the sod dugout in Walnut Grove, Minn., the place where the family lived in On the Banks of Plum Creek, was the place that she says gave her the biggest shock.
"You go inside and this place is the size of a freight elevator. And you can't believe a family of five lived there," McClure says. "When you're a kid, it's wonderful. There's even this sort of little sense that it's like Alice in Wonderland. 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. Which now I would think is sort of horrifying but as a kid is wonderful and hilarious."
In reading some of the many books about the Little House novels, McClure learned to further spin out the books' fantasies from the hard reality of the family's life, as in the fact that the little house on the prairie itself was an illegal homestead.
"That's something that was 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," McClure says. "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?' "
At the end of her journey, McClure says she began to think about how her relationship to Wilder's books connected back to her life. It's a process she describes by using the word "unremembering." She says it involves building feelings around memory that you hold on to when the reality is "a little too painful to remember it directly."
"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," McClure says. "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. And I completely forgot about that until I started these trips on my own to see where this other little girl had lived — Laura."
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The Wilder Life
My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
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Excerpt: 'The Wilder Life'
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.