When a woman named Laura Ingalls Wilder writes a book with a character named Laura Ingalls, readers assume the book is a true story.
Turns out, the Little House series is only a mostly true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Illinois memoirist Wendy McClure does a fair job of sifting through truth and story in “The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.”
Like McClure, I read Wilder’s books as a child, too, and I’ve visited a number of her locations where her stories are set (any good Minnesota girl with an appreciation for literature and history does). Unlike McClure, I’ve never wanted to sleep in a covered wagon or marvel at a pantry of canned goods.
Make no mistake: Though McClure’s book is not as much about Wilder as it is about McClure, she unearths and clarifies a great deal about how Wilder lived and how she wrote her books, and she does so with transparency and clever writing. Case in point:
- “And yet, I couldn’t quite abide by the idea that the books were fiction, either, even though that was the section of the library where they were shelved. But then, what was nonfiction to us kids, besides the World Book Encyclopedia and The Shaun Cassidy Story?”
- On recreating Wilder’s maple-syrup candy: “I was at least half convinced that I could go outside in the snow with a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s and come back inside with the candy. And I had some idea the end result would be soft like gummi worms and taste like waffles. (Truth by told, I still thought that.)”
- “The fact that Nellie wasn’t any one person but rather a composite of three of the real Laura’s antogonists’ worst traits makes her even more terrifying, some kind of blond Frankenstein assembled from assorted bitch parts.”
Mixed in with enlightening research on Rose Wilder Lane, doomsday preppers with a pre-occupation for canning butter and highlights of every Laura Ingalls Wilder museum from New York State to South Dakota, McClure tells us the story of her own sometimes sentimental obsession with Wilder, her witty husband who entertains his wife’s wacky fascinations and her mother who was as much as nomad as Pa Ingalls.
What’s not entirely clear is McClure’s own truth and story. How much of this obsession with an author born in 1867 is real and how much was manufactured for the purpose of writing a book about an obsession? Even the title seems a little too clever; “The Wilder Life” sounds like the book-selling invention of a New York book publisher who doesn’t quite have a grasp on what “wild” means in the Midwest. Just because we might appreciate books about family and perseverance in the 19th century doesn’t mean we don’t eat sushi, enjoy opera and get tattoos out here in the hinterland, too.
That’s the deal with memoir in any case, and I can appreciate that. We sometimes manufacture neat endings and epic journeys to suit the story. Otherwise, we might as well write boring diaries like Wilder’s observations of Nebraska crops from her posthumous “On the Way Home.”
I recommend “The Wilder Life” to anyone who appreciates memoir and who has read Wilder’s books or remembers “The Little House on the Prairie” TV series. It’s funny, enlightening and contemporary in ways Wilder never was.