The Wilder Life

I knew that it had been a while since I posted anything, but I didn’t realize until today that it had been over a month. Many apologies to anyone who’s been waiting. During the last several weeks, I was able to read The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, a memoir by Wendy McClure published in 2011.

McClure grew up in Oak Park, one of the western suburbs of Chicago, during in the late twentieth century. When she read the Little House books as a child, she loved the world that the books created in her mind. When she read them again as an adult, she decided to try to enter that world. She began by reading everything she could about Wilder and the books. She then tried out the recipes in several Wilder cookbooks. She succeeded in buying an authentic, working butter churn and making her own butter. Then she visited all of the major Ingalls and Wilder historic sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (both the historic homes and the Ingalls Homestead), Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and New York. The book describes these experiences, her feelings, and her observations about the books, about Wilder, and about life in general.

Christianity and Laura’s faith are mentioned mainly in two chapters of the book. In chapter 6, “The Way Home,” McClure tells the story of her trip to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives and where Rose grew up. In the museum next to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home, she met a Christian homeschooling family from Houston. They appreciated the Little House books because of “’the faith that was running throughout.’” (163) Their conversation prompts the following comments from McClure:

I know there are a lot of folks who can easily see Christian messages in the books, lessons about trusting and accepting the will of God in times of hardship and relying on the bedrock of one’s faith to get through. There’s plenty of stuff in the books that can help illustrate these things, I guess. But the Ingalls family in the books didn’t appear to be much the praying types, unless the occasional hymn on Pa’s fiddle counts. Mary becomes a little godly by the later books, but as for the rest of the family, their reasons for attending church seemed to have more to do with partaking in civilized town life than with religious devotion. I suppose I’m inclined to see it that way because that’s how my family did things—went to church (Congregational) sporadically and understatedly. Whenever Ma Ingalls brought out the Bible, it seemed to me to be pretty interchangeable with the other books they turned to for comfort, like the novel Millbank and Pa’s Wonders of the Animal World, only slightly more important.

But in the case of families like Keith and Karen’s, their Laura World includes certain aspects that mine does not; in their Little House scenes the Bible is likely always close by and the Lord near at hand watching over the family through the droughts and blizzards.

I don’t mind that it’s this way for other people, especially if it makes the books more meaningful to them. (163-164)

It’s fascinating to me that the Little House books have appeal for both conservative Christians and agnostic writers. Both groups view the religion of the Ingalls family through the lens of their own commitments. I think that McClure may undersell the importance of Christianity to the books. When I read the books this year specifically looking for mentions of Christianity and the church, I was both surprised about how much they appear in certain books and how little they appear in other books. As I’ve suggested in other blog posts, I also believe that the form Christianity takes in the books is as shaped by Rose’s vision of the church as Laura’s experiences and faith.

Christianity—and a particular type of Christianity—looms larger in the following chapter. Here, McClure and her and her live-in boyfriend Chris attend a “Homesteading Weekend” at a working farm in downstate Illinois. The owners use horse-drawn plows, raise turkeys, and try to live as much as possible like people from 100 years ago. They are joined by several families from a church in Wisconsin who think that the end times are coming and they need to get ready. That’s why they were trying to learn how to live off the grid. These families completely “freak them out,” so they leave early the next morning. This experience prompts her to wonder about how much the Little House books might be contributing to religious fanaticism, and what Wilder would think. McClure concludes that Wilder wouldn’t have liked it, based on comments she makes in Pioneer Girl about not appreciating the anti-Catholic sentiment of the family she sewed for in DeSmet. (205-6) I’m inclined to think that she’s right in this assessment.

Memoir is not something that I’ve ever wanted to write. I tell myself that I’m too humble to write a book completely about me. I tell myself that that I don’t think that I have that much to say that others would be interested in. But I think that it may be less humility and more a desire for privacy. I am amazed by many of the ways that people expose themselves on social media today. I have a Facebook account to catch up on what’s going on with family and friends, but I share almost nothing except when I’ve put up another blog post. I am most comfortable writing when I’m writing about other people, preferably dead people. I’m glad that I am planning to write a biography of Wilder, not a memoir of my experience with the world of the books.

But I’m also glad that I read The Wilder Life. McClure is an engaging writer. Her descriptions – of people, of landscape, of her own feelings – are honest, exquisite, and at times intense. The book also provides insights about Laura, her family, and the Little House books themselves. And at times, it’s just laugh-out-loud funny. It was a good book to read while the semester wound down toward finals.

I hope to post a year in review next week. As always, love to hear your comments.

(References are from Wendy McClure, The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie [New York: Riverhead Books, 2011].)


Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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