When I first heard about Wendy McClure‘s opus The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (Riverhead 2011) a couple of weeks ago, it called to me, much like the Aztec gold in the original Pirates of the Caribbean calls to the crew of the Black Pearl. If you read my intro post, you’ve seen a picture of my well-loved Little House boxed set. I re-read these books to this day. They are the literary equivalent of comfort food.
Reading the first few chapters was like reading about my own life. I was delighted to know that so many of the bits and pieces that made an impression on me also made an impression on Wendy: Pa’s ability to span Ma’s waist with his hands on their wedding day, twisting hay into sticks for fuel, and exclaiming about the chinook wind to name a few. I still don’t know how to tell the chinook wind from regular wind, but that seems less important these days. Wendy did NOT mention the pig bladder balloon in her list, which has long been one of the most fascinating parts of the Little House story to me, especially since it is accompanied by a lovely Garth Williams illustration (see p. 15) of two girls frolicking with their bladder balloon as they get butchering time off to a good start. Re-reading as an adult, you notice that it’s also a crafty way for parents to occupy small children who may be underfoot during a busy day. (I actually learned quite a bit about hog butchering one day at my grandparents’ house, but I neglected to ask them if they got to play with a bladder balloon. I’d call them up now, but I think they’d be confused about the late night call to talk about pig bladders in their childhoods. Note to self – ask about balloons next time. All that to say butchering time is BUSY.) But I digress. This is supposed to be about Wendy’s story, not Laura’s.
When I read the reviews, I expected this to be like The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, which I love (Sidebar – add this one to your TBR pile right now. Seriously. You won’t regret it). I thought Wendy was going to do the things that Ma and Pa and their girls do: dry corn, braid straw hats, smoke venison in a hollow log, make bullets, and all the other chores that are described in such fascinating detail in these books. And she does do some of them. She churns her own butter, takes a stab at the maple candy, makes her own sourdough starter, and grinds wheat in a coffee mill to make a loaf of Hard Winter bread. She also signs up for a Homesteading Weekend at a local farm, but when she and her boyfriend Chris arrive, they find themselves surrounded by evangelicals who are preparing for the End Times, which distracts from learning to can and blacksmith and make soap because there is a lot of whispering about “all that is going on” and they are trying to keep up a charade that they’re married since they were afraid to tell the nice church folks that they are actually just living in sin. Wendy already knows how to make her own butter, of course. I read this bit last Saturday, so it was particularly timely.
Unlike me, Wendy did not re-read the Little House series on and off for her entire life. She rediscovered the books as an adult, and her interest in Laura was revitalized. She then went on to read everything else she could find about the life of the Ingalls family and Laura’s adult life. I understand this. When I revisit the series, I am never finished with the story when I’m done with the books, so over the years I’ve bought copies of diaries from some of her travels, and I’ve checked books out of the library of the articles she wrote for the Missouri Ruralist. Consequently, I have learned quite a bit about farm life in the early twentieth century Ozarks. It makes me feel much better to know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the available literature because there are days when I feel like perhaps I’ve taken it too far. The bibliography in this book will provide me with a delightful list of further reading the next time I finish These Happy Golden Years and am not ready to leave Laura behind just yet. I know you’re saying, “But, Princess Consuela, there is another book in the series. Why don’t you just read The First Four Years? It’s right there in your boxed set. It’s the little one on the end.” Well, dear reader, the answer to your query is twofold. 1. It’s not part of the original series, but a book that Laura wrote separately, probably intended as an adult novel. The voice is different, and it doesn’t feel like a continuation of the story to me. 2. It’s depressing. Bad things happen to Laura and Almanzo in this book, and it doesn’t have the rose-colored tint of frontier fun that the other books do to put a good spin on the locust invasions, fires, blizzards, and all of the other catastrophes that the Ingalls family deals with. It’s not what I’m looking for. If I want to read about how depressing her life could be, I’ll check a biography out of the library, which will inevitably recount the death of her baby brother, a rich woman’s offer to adopt her, the family’s stint working in a hotel, and many other sobering details that Laura omitted from her novels. Wendy reads everything she can get her hands on about Laura, from children’s biographies to heavily-footnoted scholarly publications. She subscribes to a newsletter and meets other people who do the same. Really, I just have a mild interest. None of my books are footnoted.
When scholarly publications and recipes from The Little House Cookbook can’t satisfy her obsession any more, Wendy and sometimes Chris embark on the several trips to visit Laura’s various homesites across the Midwest. She’s trying to rediscover the magic of what she calls Laura World, but it becomes a journey of self-discovery instead. The poignancy of this book surprised me, and it made the funny parts even better. Wendy has a great voice, and she makes sure to share some of the more interesting bits and pieces that she learns along the way. For instance, many Little House fans appreciate the various pantries described in the books. I don’t even like to cook, and I covet the pantry that Almanzo built for Laura in their first house. The description of the pantry in the surveyor’s house in By the Shores of Silver Lake is always delightful, too, but I have a preoccupation with food that others may not share. And Farmer Boy is full to bursting with good eating. Seriously, I’m craving pancakes just thinking about it. With butter. And syrup. Ahem. Anyways. While I may not be up to traveling to rural Missouri to see Pa’s fiddle yet (don’t count me out forever, though), I now have a whole new list of Laura books to check out of the library when I’m also not ready to leave Laura World behind thanks to Wendy’s copious research. She’s also previewed them for me, so now I know which ones I can’t miss. One apparently has the entire Ingalls clan pictured with a 70’s spin on the cover, which I have to find and will probably need to own if the art is as amusing as described. Carrie has a Dorothy Hamill bob. ‘Nuff said.
And now, I’m going to see what Google has to say about how one goes about making a Half-Pint cocktail, which seems to be a delightful concoction of vodka, acai liqueur, and Sprite that is served at Little House on the Prairie: The Musical. Wendy and her friend Kara have declared that it tastes like a prairie breeze. Sign me up. Plus, this way I’ll have a drink in my hand while I see what Google can tell me about the startling revelation that Cap Garland may NOT have gone on the quest for seed wheat with Almanzo during the Long Winter. I am fairly certain that I’ll feel betrayed if my beloved Cap did not actually make the trip, and having a drink in my hand will be useful in soothing my frazzled nerves should this prove true. And this brings us back to the heart of Wendy’s story – does it matter what is true and what was fictionalized? Why does it mean so much? It’s the mark of a good storyteller that Laura has touched so many of us so deeply. I, for one, am always surprised at how invested I am in both the truth and fiction of her life. Bottoms up.