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Archive for the ‘Wendy McClure’ Category

I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books when I was young but I didn’t live them, certainly not in the way Wendy McClure recounts in her wonderful The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.  I saved that intense experience for L.M. Montgomery’s books.  McClure may have imagined what she would do if Laura suddenly showed up in her world (befriend her and show her around, obviously) but my childhood years were spent desperately wishing I could usurp Diana Barry’s role as Anne Shirley’s bosom friend.  I clearly lacked McClure’s imagination since I never even considered the wonderful possibility of what to do if Anne ended up in my world, my fantasies focusing primarily on what I would do in hers (teaching in a one room school house sounded hugely appealing).  All this to say, I have the literary fan girl background to understand McClure’s on-going fascination with the books that were such a large part of her childhood and her grown-up attempts to recreate ‘Laura World’, complete with hand-churned butter, hand-ground wheat, and pilgrimages to Ingalls and Wilder homes immortalized in the books. 

Even in elementary school, I loved learning biographical information about my favourite authors.  This lead to a.) my infamous argument with the librarians about why I wasn’t allowed to take out adult biographies at the age of ten and b.) a series of themed oral presentations given to my elementary school class, focusing on my female heroes (primarily authors like L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder but eventually stretched to include Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, among others) that probably I alone remember fondly.  Almost as soon as I started reading Wilder’s books, I wanted to know more about her life.  Laura World, for me, was never really real but that wasn’t a problem.  Even then, truth seemed better, richer, than fiction.  It was somehow reassuring to know even before I finished the series how Laura and Almanzo’s lives turned out.  For McClure however, Laura World seemed very real throughout her childhood and it wasn’t until she began this project as an adult that she appears to have started reading about the real woman behind the fictional Laura. 

Strangely, I found McClure’s experiments at doing things the way Laura or ‘Ma’ would have done them as described in the books (churning butter, grinding flour, all the little domestic chores that seemed so exotic and appealing to my nine-year-old self) the least interesting parts of the book.  Except when McClure and her partner Chris show up for a weekend of homesteading demonstrations and find themselves surrounded by religious, End Days survivalists.  That could hardly fail to be entertaining.  What I really did enjoy were her trips to Laura sites and her exchanges with and commentary on the other fans, seeing how people view the real world of a woman they believe they know from her fictional books or, better yet, a cloyingly sweet television show.  I’ve never actually watched the television show, so I couldn’t really sympathize with its fans when McClure came across them but I loved hearing about them nonetheless.  I loved all the pop culture tidbits (there is in fact a blog called “WTF Little House on the Prairie” that recaps the more outrageous television episodes) and McClure’s encounters with fervid Christian fans praising the books’ values shouldn’t really have surprised me but, yeah, they kind of did.  As McClure notes, it’s strange to see books you hold dear being used or viewed in a way you have never, in all your readings of them, considered.  I also really appreciated McClure’s attention toRose Wilder Lane– not necessarily a nice woman (or daughter) but certainly an interesting one, particularly memorable for encouraging and working with her mother on the books.

Everyone has their favourite books in any series, particularly a series like this that you reread countless times as a child, getting to the point where you just skip the books or sections you don’t like in order to concentrate on those you do.  I was no exception.  Right from the start, These Happy Golden Years was my favourite (followed very, very closely by The Long Winter).  Honestly, I never really liked the early books that McClure seems to adore.  Everything was too episodic and I never felt like the plot was building up to anything interesting.  The little details of pioneer life were interesting but, considering that most of my reading materials at that age were novels focusing on settling the frontier, not enough to sustain my interest.  I liked Mary more than Laura for an alarming length of time (interesting note: the books used to be referred to as the Mary and Laura books, rather than simply the Laura books as is common these days).  But as Laura grew up, as a coming-of-age narrative started to emerge, my interest was peaked.  (And The Long Winter is just thrilling, even though I spend most of it wanting to smack Ma and Pa for being so ill-prepared – I haven’t entirely forgiven them for surviving that winter, actually.  My sense of justice was deeply offended.)  So I was interested to read McClure’s opinion of fans like me who prefer These Happy Golden Years.  The parts she loves about it are the parts I love too and though I wouldn’t necessarily say I found Laura and Almanzo’s courtship ‘enchanting’ I definitely found it satisfying:    

It seems like there are two different kinds of Little House fans: those who claim their favourite book is These Happy Golden Years and those, like me, who don’t.  To be sure, I like the book, in which Laura embarks upon a slow, subdued courtship with Almanzo Wilder and marries him at the end.  But I love the other parts more – Laura’s stint teaching school out at the miserable settlement where she boards with crazed knife-waving Mrs Brewster; the treacherous ride home with Almanzo where both she and the horses risk freezing to death; the terrible and surreal summer storm they encounter on one of their buggy rides.  I get the sense that other people find Laura and Almanzo’s romance more enchanting than I do.  Almanzo’s a great guy and all, but he’s the inevitable guy, biding his time between blizzards and school terms, waiting for the engine of the book’s narrative to slowly wind down to the happy golden ending with the brand-new house with the fancy plastered walls and its pantry drawers full of silverware.  (Well, okay, I really like the part where she gets to have that pantry.)  But somehow there’s a feeling that the world gets smaller, narrowing down to the view out the front door where Laura and Almanzo sit at the very end of the book. 

Really, it’s just wonderful to read McClure’s thoughts on all of the books and to be able to instantly recognize what she is talking about even after all these years.  How could I have ever forgotten Laura’s brand new pantry, with its nifty little drawers for flour and sugar?  Who didn’t want that?  And what reader, what girl at least, didn’t find Farmer Boy the least interesting of the books on her first reading?  This wasn’t Laura World!  How boring the prosperous Wilders seemed compared to the always-on-the-move Ingallses.  But looking at it as an adult, looking at it with full knowledge of how Laura’s life turned out, how much she and Almanzo struggled, McClure gains a new perspective on the least-loved book in the series:

With all its over-the-top dinner scenes and constant allusions to the Wilder family’s good fortune, literal and otherwise, Farmer Boy wasn’t really the smug when-I-was-your-age sermon I’d originally made it out to be, but more a wistful dream conjured up by a woman who’d spent much of her life enduring deprivation.  It was a love letter to the original promise of success and prosperity that had so eluded her husband in his adulthood, when, like countless other settlers, he’d found out the hard way that the farming methods from back East were no match from the dry land of the Dakota territory. 

I feel an overwhelming need to reread some of the books now.  Not all of them – I still can’t bring myself to go back to the earliest ones – but certainly The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years and maybe even Farmer Boy, to make up for all the times I skipped it when rereading the series as a child.  McClure has crafted a wonderful, personal memoir that is fond without being sentimental and always entertaining.  Reading this book felt like rereading the whole series with a good, equally-obsessed friend who was eager to pour over all the details and unashamed to share all her fantastic Laura World fantasies (the kind I had but would have never dared reveal to my own friends, had any of them actually read the books).  It was the kind of reading experience I always wanted to have as a child but I’m thrilled and probably far more appreciative to have had it now as an adult.

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