Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wilder Life

As a devoted fan of the Little House books growing up and really anything published by or about the Wilder and Ingalls families, I owned a calico bonnet or two and dreamed of making the "pilgrimage" to all the Little House sites. My mother, NOT a Little House fan, was never open to the journey. Wendy McClure, in her new  book The Wilder Life, takes Little House fans on the trail to Wilder fandom without ever having to leave their own little house.

McClure is not some Laura Ingalls Wilder superfan who has spent year after year visiting Wilder landmarks (that was actually my third grade teacher+). McClure instead rediscovered the books after she was an adult, reading through her copies that had remained untouched for decades. She undoubtedly found in those pages what every adult finds in the nostalgia of returning to a world that had seemed so real as a child and that remains intact when you return to it years later. She found comfort & friendship & the desire to continue that relationship with the Little House world & that piece of her childhood for as long as humanly possible.

The Little House books lend themselves to that feeling of nostalgia through a friendship that the reader forms with Laura Ingalls within moments of opening the first of the Little House books (Little House in the Big Woods although I would understand if you did not truly feel as though you were part of the family until Little House on the Prairie).  Laura is a girl who lives in a different time, a girl who faces hardships unimaginable to individuals born in the latter part of the twentieth century. Although we can never completely empathize with the specific trials & tribulations of prairie life, little girls everywhere knew exactly how Laura felt about sibling rivalries, gender roles, school, parents, boys, the mean girls at school, the holidays and the little joys and disappointments that fill a person's daily life regardless of the period in time they occupy. Although Laura the author wrote about Laura the girl approximately sixty years after she left behind her childhood the stories feel as if they are being narrated by a child the age of the Laura character in the book. Laura Ingalls Wilder captures the precise feeling of being each and every age and girls emotionally attach to the fact that even in this different time and place there is someone who experienced the same thoughts, hopes, petty jealousies, small kindnesses & uncertainties.

As a result, even as an adult I want to be in the covered wagon beside Jack & Ma & Pa & Mary & eventually Carrie & Grace. The simplified version, the sugarcoated version of prairie life (and it was undeniably sugarcoated...the destruction of crops by grasshoppers occupied a brief chapter and the period of Wilder's actual life where she was separated from her family due to financial circumstances never makes her chapter books) is  a place we all want to live & McClure's internal exploration of that yearning to join Laura on her travels and her literal exploration of the homesites of Wilder are a delight for any Little House fan even if you have not stopped by to visit the Ingalls family in quite a while.

For those of you that are interested in Wendy McClure's prairie exploration, read her book or simply follow her on Twitter (@HalfPintIngalls).

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