Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book Review: "The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie"

Growing up, I LOVED the Little House books with an ardor that even my eventual alliance with Nancy Drew could not equal. I carried the yellow-bound paperbacks, which I received as boxed set from my aunt, around until they literally fell apart, and I even remember discussing the books with my classmates in the tiny Southern town where I went to elementary and middle school. 

Although I replaced my frayed books with the full-color editions that came out in the mid-2000s, I now have a more ambiguous view of Laura and her books. In addition to the horrible television show (sorry, but it is a ridiculous, preachy, exhausting mess) and the books' discomfiting racial issues, there is also the fact that certain groups, such as extreme right-wing conservatives and super Christians, have seemed to have appropriated the books as their own. Added to Rose Wilder Lane's (Laura's daughter and assistant with the books) libertarian streak and the books' hypocritical view of the government (there is a great deal of anti-government sentiment that conveniently ignores the federal assistance that the Ingalls family received)  I can't look at the books in the same way.

Despite my complicated view of the Little House books, I was excited to read Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, where the author decides to enter the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder by doing the things that Laura did (churning butter, twisting hay sticks), researching Laura's life, and visiting the places mentioned in the books. On her quest, she is accompanied by her seemingly saintly boyfriend, Chris, who not only reads all of the Little House books but also willingly does things like sleeping in a covered wagon and road tripping to various Ingalls-related sites.

This is a rather slim premise, but what McClure lacks in substance she usually makes up for in style. For the most part, she relays her misadventures with great panache and humor. This is particularly evident in the middle chapters, which show McClure's attempts at cooking recipes from The Little House Cookbook and her road trips to places like Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almonzo lived. A run-in with an "end of days" group at a homesteading skills weekend (she and Chris, worried that the group members will hear them in their tent, write notes to each other to plan their escape) to an experience sleeping in a rented covered wagon are two highlights of the book, for McClure manages to merge the absurd and mundane together to create a comedic moment that, nevertheless, seems real and related to her quest in some way.

I also appreciated McClure's exploration of her conflicted views of the books, their writers and participants, and their legacy. She even tries to understand the viewpoint of Rose Wilder Lane, a divisive figure that many people (even, or perhaps especially, fans of the books) tend to dislike for a number of reasons, including her complicated relationship with her mother and the fact that she blatantly plagiarized from Laura's unpublished memoir to write her own (fictional) novel. Given that McClure could have easily gone the fan girl route while letting her "calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly," I appreciate her candor and her acknowledgement of the less-than-perfect or ideal aspects of Laura World.

The book does drag in places, most notably the opening and the ending. Both sections are more rooted in McClure's personal life and less related to Laura Ingalls Wilder's works, and both address McClure's personal life, specifically the illness and death of her mother. There is also a part where McClure has a mini-crisis while visiting De Smet, South Dakota, which is as puzzling for the reader as it is for her.

This book isn't perfect, but it is entertaining and informative, particularly for those who grew up reading the Little House books. At a mere 249 pages (at least on my Nook), it is a light, quick, fizzy summer read, perfect for taking to the beach or reading on a plane. McClure's ability to weave in information while keeping the prose engaging makes this a supremely enjoyable way to revisit a childhood favorite and a cultural touchstone. It even made me want to embark on my own Laura World adventures, even if they only go as far as dusting off my copy of The Little House Cookbook and making up a batch of apples 'n' onions.