Friday, May 27, 2011

The Wilder Life

I just finished reading The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure and I really enjoyed it. I picked it up without knowing all that much about it (the author re-read the Little House on the Prairie series as an adult and it set her off onto a kind of Little House pilgrimage) and it was quite a rewarding read. She weaves Laura Ingalls Wilder's history (and Laura's daughter Rose's) into her own story, first of a child reading the books, and then as an adult re-visiting them. Along the way, she comes across some deep insights about Laura, and about the specific culture of Little House fans (and the sometimes surprising divisions between partisans of the book and TV series.).

I was a Little House book fan growing up. I had all of the books, and they were well loved. I read voraciously as a child, all the time, up late at night, at the dinner table, at any break in class. The Little House books were my comfort food, the stories I turned to time and time again when I was between new books, or just needing to visit with an old friend. Of course, I haven't read any of the books in at least 20 years, and somehow I don't even have any of them tucked away in my little stash of childhood books. Even so, as I read The Wilder Life I found myself recalling everything about the series; anytime Wendy mentioned an illustration I could see it perfectly, and all of the little details seemed completely familiar. The feelings she described as a child, I had. I wanted to be Laura, to live that pioneer life out on the prairie, to live in that 'simpler' time. On childhood camping trips I would pretend we were setting up camp after a long, dusty day on the trail - I even have vague memories of pretending our old Volkswagen station wagon (and later, the upgrade to a Volvo sedan) were covered wagons. I'm sure I patted the hood a time or two, for a job well done pulling the wagon that day.

Even as I read and reminisced, however, I felt like something was missing. Near the end of the book, I realized what it was. A big part of my fondness for the series was for the book Farmer Boy, about the childhood of Laura's future husband Almanzo. When Wendy begins to talk about it, and decides to visit the family farm in New York, its as an afterthought; she wants to follow her journey all the way to its end. She comes to the conclusion that the book didn't leave much of an impression on her as a child because the life it depicted was too perfect; everything goes right for the Wilder family, its all good times and plenty. Reading that, I realized that that was exactly why I had liked it (and re-read it) so much. My childhood was not filled with good times and plenty; things went wrong a lot, and we didn't always have a lot of food, and we weren't as poor as we could have been, but we sure weren't well off. I identified with Laura, but sometimes it seemed a little too close to home, while reading about Almanzo's life was comforting. Here was a family where a child could feel safe and secure. That's getting a little heavy, but I appreciate that The Wilder Life took me to a place I didn't expect to go.


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