The Wilder Life: A Fresh Look at a Beloved Childhood Classic

Reading beloved books from my childhood to my children is one of my favorite perks of motherhood. I love introducing my children to my favorite characters, not unlike introducing real friends, hoping in my heart they love each other. However, I’ve also made some discoveries in rereading my favorite books with adult eyes, like Curious George being glaringly imperialistic (light-hearted imperialism, but still). That’s why I loved reading Wendy McClure’s memoir The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.

Like many young girls who love to read, Wendy McClure grew up obsessing over the classic Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an adult, McClure rediscovers her love for Laura’s adventures and sets out to “Live La Vida Laura.” She pulls her readers along with her as she tries her hand at butter churning, grinding seed wheat into flour with a coffee grinder, and, eventually, traveling to the Little House homesites. McClure speaks to and for a generation of women who grew up fascinated with Laura Ingalls and her Pioneer American life, amplified by the long running television show Little House on the Prairie. She wonders about the same things all girls from the seventies and eighties wondered, “How do you actually build a ‘whatnot’? Can I see a slough? Can I learn to get a calf to drink from a pail?”

McClure explores the blurred lines of the Ingalls family in fiction and in reality and how to process those lines as an adult. With loving irreverence and playful humor, she addresses all facets of Little House lore and invites us to join in the fun. She evaluates modern feminism and girlhood. She laughs at herself and her obsessions.

As I read this book at night after putting the kids to bed, my husband would “shhh” me for laughing too loud, tears streaming down my face. Throughout the book, McClure revealed new insights and analysis, but most often, I would catch myself saying, “EXACTLY!” and “I KNOW, RIGHT?”

After reading reviews on Amazon, here are some things to keep in mind:

1) This book is not for children (I’m sorry I even have to say this, but you know, some people forget to READ). The book is not a reference guide for the Little House series. It certainly addresses the wealth of research available on the series and the Ingalls’ family, but it should not be considered a purely historical book. It is a memoir of one author’s experience.

2) The author does not hold the same values as the Ingalls family in the books (nor should she be expected to). She loves the Ingalls family and Laura, but she sees their flaws as well. If you see the Little House series as something sacred with no flaws or imperfections, you will only get mad at this book.

3) There is a great deal of the author’s personal life in the book, which is why it is a memoir and not a Laura Ingalls biography.

4) If you never read the original books and only watched the television series, McClure laughs at you. Repeatedly. It’s hilarious. You might feel left out. So, you might want to go read the original books first, so you know what’s going on.

I encourage my readers not to read with your eyes, and I want to remind you of that. Wendy McClure’s Little House experience may not reflect yours, but it certainly holds resonance with most Little House on the Prairie fans. In addition, with the release of the The Wilder Life in paperback this summer, McClure has also published an e-book Don’t Trade the Baby for a Horse: And Other Ways to Make Your Life a Little More Laura Ingalls Wilder. Check it out.

  1. #1 by Elizabeth on April 30, 2012 - 9:44 pm

    Oh, I loved this book!! I, too, laughed out loud while reading it. Have you ever been to any of the Wilder sites? I remember going in high school while on a long trip with my family. If I remember correctly, my brothers were singularly unimpressed…

  2. #2 by kellywiggains on May 1, 2012 - 2:37 am

    No, I’ve never been to any of the home sites. Sadly, the Ingalls family lived way up north. The closest one would be her home place in Missouri, I think. Maybe when Hannah Beth is about 8. Wouldn’t that be fun?

  3. #3 by Elizabeth on May 2, 2012 - 1:01 am

    That would be hugely fun! I think we were on a trip from our home in Illinois all the way to California by way of all of the possible historic places, including the Corn Palace.

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