Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Walk Down Memory Lane with The Wilder Life

One memory that invokes feelings of nostalgia for me and my older sister is going home after school and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie. We still use the show as a comparison for real life. When I made a squash soup too spicy (it really was!) one Thanksgiving, my sister teased, "It's just like when Nellie made cinnamon chicken for Almanzo and Laura doctored it up to ruin their plans." A bite on a leg? "I hope this isn't like when Ma had to cut off part of her leg when the family was away when she got an infection."

Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie is the perfect summer read for fans of the books and/or show. I vaguely recall having seen some Little House books at the Scholastic book fairs McClure mentions, but she as a child only knew the books. Reacquainted later in adulthood with them, she details her adventures visiting the Little House sites, exploring the history of the West, and even churning butter while watching a Little House episode where Laura breaks Nellie's music box (a classic!)

As a child, the books inspired dreams of frontier life.

"I wanted to live in one room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll of my own. I wanted to wear a calico sunbonnet—or rather, to not wear a calico sunbonnet, the way Laura did, letting it hang down her back by its ties. I wanted to do chores because of those books. Carry water, churn butter, make headcheese. I wanted dead rabbits brought home for supper. I wanted to go out into the backyard and just, I don’t know, grab stuff off trees, or uproot things from the ground, and bring it all inside in a basket and have my parents say, "My land! What a harvest!""

It's easy to see what McClure loves about the books when she notes passages like this in Little House in the Big Woods.

"She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago."

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived from 1867 to 1957. Imagine the great progress and world events she witnessed: the expansion of the West and building of the railroads, the birth of the automobile and aviation industry, the Depression, two World Wars. The last year of her life, I Love Lucy was on the air. Could pioneers have imagined a little square box entertaining them instead of a fiddle? That one day people could have skipped the arduous wagon journey with a flyover country trip?

Consider what you've witnessed in your own lifetime, and what's to come. Born in 1975, the rise of the internet and the tragedy of 9/11 (and the wars that followed) stand out. If I live to Laura's age, it will be 2065. Imagine what the world will be like then!

Doesn't it seem like many of us so often long to go back while time marches forward?

"While we all certainly appreciate the pioneer ordeals, the covered wagons, and the long winters, somehow Sweet and Simple had become our own dream frontier, our Oregon that we'd like to reach someday, always just beyond the horizon."

There's plenty of things not to romanticize. Of a trip Laura took later in her adulthood,

"I could appreciate the glimpses of a shakier and less romantic time in U.S. history, where people crossed the country in search of better times and didn't always find them. More than once Laura mentions passing wagons coming in the opposite direction from Missouri, carrying people who didn't have any luck there."

How much of it was indeed luck. Who could reckon with Mother Nature? I think of the 10,000 Maniacs song, Gold Rush Brides, when Natalie Merchant sang, "The land was free, yet it cost their lives."

Ms. Merchant reminds us, "I see Indians that crawl through this mural that recalls our history." Being dismayed about how the Ingalls family had a less harmonious relationship with the Native Americans, she writes, with Ma Inglass, "She's racist the way some people's grandmas are racist. which makes it pretty awkward, of course, especially when you love your grandmother." When Laura asked Pa hard questions about the Indians, he would tell her to go to bed.

When visiting a cemetery in Burr Oak, McClure observed,

"I noticed how many of the inscriptions measured lifetimes not just in years but in months and days. All these people and all their days." While romantic a notion, think about how short life spans were, how precious it was, and how early death was a more common part of life.

Some things are worth longing for. Reading an article the same day I finished the book about teens and adults increasingly sending intimate photos of themselves through our "progress" of various devices, suddenly Laura and Almanzo's buggy rides by the lake sounds quite appealing. It made me sad that courtship seems to be dead. Would modern day Laura and Almanzo be unable to sit through a meal without whipping out their devices?

I now want to read the whole Little House series, and admittedly, googled, "Sunbonnets, where to buy." Hey, if adult women can walk around with the word "Juicy" scrawled on their behind, I can wear a sunbonnet! I haven't bought one - yet!

Check out McClure's humorous Twitter postings as Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her photo stream of Flickr. Learn more about the Little House books.


  1. I am dying to read this book, but there are 31 people in front of me on the library queue. Hopefully I get to read it soon!

    When I was younger my mom read the entire Little House series to me, and I loved it. It definitely has some issues (re: colonization, etc), but they're a lovely snapshot of a certain period in time. I should re-read them soon.

  2. Hi Cate. I hope you get to soon too! I scored a coveted library copy. McClure wrote about reading well worn copies of the series as a child from the library, and I thought in this age of library funding cuts about how life forming libraries are to children and adults.

  3. I used to watch the show faithfully as a child, but surprisingly never read the books! And since so much of the show was based in MO, I felt like it was part of our collective history.

    On another note, one of my mom's patients made her a sunbonnet. She works in rural areas where people still know how to do such things! When I saw her in it, I immediately thought of Little House. Perfection!

  4. How lucky your mom is! I have sunbonnet-envy.

    I always knew the show was based on real life people, but never thought to explore their history until reading this book. How sad to find out Adam Kendall wasn't real! I loved the Mary and Adam love story.

    I am excited to have all the Little House books to read.