A writer explores myths and stories behind the "Little House" books.
It usually takes only a couple of words like "horehound candy" to conjure up images of Laura holding up her skirt and running through the prairie, or of Pa playing the fiddle, and whether your memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series are fueled by Garth Williams' iconic illustrations or by the late Michael Landon's long-running TV series, it's a good bet that at some point in your life you've had a "Little House" moment.
In her memoir, "The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of 'Little House on the Prairie,'" author and children's book editor Wendy McClure turns her Little House moment into a mission. Stumbling upon her childhood copy of "Little House in the Big Woods," McClure rescues it from its yard-sale fate and tucks it away in her bookshelf. After a difficult year in which she lost her mother to cancer and struggled with her novel-in-progress, McClure turned to this childhood classic for comfort.
Before long, McClure had reread the entire series and her obsession with "Laura World" had progressed from Internet searches to butter churning in her Chicago apartment, road trips to any and all sites having to do with the Wilder family and the series, and a homesteading weekend at a farm that turns out to be less "Little House" and more "Survivor."
McClure exhibits an admirable modern-day pioneer spirit, humorously throwing herself into the history of the "Little House" series with equal amounts of enthusiasm and skepticism. She discovers a large and dedicated community of fans, complete with "varsity-league Little House nerd talk," but isn't afraid to burst a Wilder-worship ing bubble or two.
Readers may have to move a few sunbonnets in order to discover McClure's own personal revelations, but she skillfully creates an underlying feeling of searching for something that is just out of reach. "I wasn't the girl anymore, and I wasn't the ma," she reveals in one poignant scene, hinting at her own feelings of uncertainty by revisiting her childhood dreams and facing her adult life after her mother's death.
Fans of the "Little House" series will eat up this book like a hot Johnny cake, and well they should, because McClure highlights that intangible something about the series that strikes a deep chord in even the most casual reader. In one of her many house tours, McClure feels a kinship with her fellow visitors. "Everything about the house tour ... felt like an homage to the bittersweetness of old age or the vanished past. In between ... we had all begun to talk to one another ... about anything that we might have remembered and that connected us to a place like this."
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.