Chicago author, essayist, humorist, and blogger Wendy McClure has contributed to BUST Magazine, Television Without Pity, The New York Times Magazine, The Chicago Sun-Times, a series of anthologies, and many more publications over the years, but it’s been a long time since her last book. Her 2005 memoir I’m Not The New Me was a smart, thoughtful exploration of weight loss, which emerged out of her blog, Pound. The 2006 humor book The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan followed shortly after.
Now she’s back in the book business with The Wilder Life: My Adventures In The Lost World Of Little House On The Prairie. The subject matter is all there in the title: A Little House addict in childhood (though she’d never seen an episode of the Michael Landon TV show), McClure recently rediscovered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and eventually embarked on a cross-country journey of Little House tourism, visiting the sites described in the books and examining other people’s fandom as well as her own.
Even for people who’ve never read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, The Wilder Life is an insightful, entertaining look at our relationship with pop culture, how it changes from youth to adulthood, how it intersects with the real world, and how other people relate to the personal things we love. Before an appearance at the West Towne Barnes & Noble on May 10 in support of the book, McClure spoke to The A.V. Club about where first-timers should start with the series and why she wanted to introduce little Laura Ingalls to ATMs and Coke machines.
The A.V. Club: The Wilder Life is accessible even to people who’ve never read a Little House On The Prairie book, or seen an episode of the TV show. If they read your book and get interested, where would you recommend they start with the series? At the beginning? Or with Little House On The Prairie itself?
Wendy McClure: I do recommend starting with the beginning of the series. I think Little House In The Big Woods is one of the strongest installments. And all of them together tell a story; I say this all the time, but it’s a very American story. It’s really interesting to see how their lives change across the years. A lot of people idealize the books, and think the books represent a simpler time: the good ol’ days. But I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, and a lot more nuanced. In the first book, they’re starting off—it’s like a little vision of paradise. They’re self-sufficient in the Big Woods. Pa can make his own bullets; they hunt for their own food. They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves, and they have this little cabin, and everything seems stocked to the gills with food they’ve made themselves. That was a deliberate choice, because I think Laura knew this life was vanishing.
At the same time, the perfect picture is really unstable, because in the very next book, Pa says the Big Woods are getting too crowded and they have to move. If you’re hunting your own food, you can’t keep that up forever. And by the end of the series, they’ve got this homestead claim, and it’s the 19th-century version of the American Dream, which is to own land and finally be prosperous. And it’s a little sad, actually. When I was a kid, I thought it was great, but now reading it as an adult—they actually have money. In Little House In The Big Woods, money doesn’t exist at all, except for when they all go to town and Pa trades furs. But then they’re able to buy a parlor organ and they’re consumers, and they’re dependent on the railroads for things. It’s much different. And it’s never overt, but it’s interesting to see in the course of this girl’s lifetime just how much things have changed. And throughout the books, there is so much stuff about the railroads being built, and all around them, little hints that the world is changing and technology is cropping up all around them. So that’s why I think, in a way, they’re modern books too.
AVC: Your book explores in detail what the books say about that fantasy of simplicity, and why it appeals so much. Do you think that’s spoiled as the books become more about conventional, well-off consumers?
WM: I don’t think it gets spoiled. I do think it’s interesting. I don’t think people notice it as much sometimes. What’s really worth noting is that even when she was writing these books in the 1930s, there’s always a sense that it’s never quite attainable, that perfection of self-sufficiency, even though they’re always pursuing it. And people want to see that so much.
AVC: You meet a bunch of Little House fans over the course of the book. Does that interfere with the fantasy of simplicity, when you’re sharing the series with so many people in such a complicated way?
WM: Not for me, because the books were so solitary for me as a kid that being able to share them with other people—even though I know everyone’s Laura is a little different, and every time I see that quote about the “sweet, simple things in life,” that sets my teeth on edge. But because I hadn’t really had a chance to experience the books with anyone else, just the idea of everyone going to these pageants and wearing sunbonnets—I think it’s fun.
AVC: Did exploring Little House tourism change your own fandom at all, as you saw how other people relate to the books? Particularly the Christians with the post-apocalyptic plans—
WM: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t exactly call them Little House fans. They felt like Little House represented them, but I wouldn’t say they were explicitly fans of the books. There was a woman there who ran the farm, and she was a big fan of the books. Other people just knew about them. I just wanted to clarify that.
AVC: Well also the big Christian family you met at Laura’s house—
WM: Oh yeah. Yeah. But I like looking at things critically, and I feel like I can do that and really enjoy it at the same time. While I’m seeing those who believe the modern world is wicked and think the Little House family was the perfect little paradise, it’s not personally my belief. But I still like analyzing that. And what is it about me that’s attracted to that stuff? I guess it has led to me being honest with myself and what I want out of life, and knowing when I’m idealizing something. It makes me think harder about that.
AVC: The Wilder Life doesn’t address the process of writing the book itself, which is unusual for a personal-experiences book these days. At what point in the process of rediscovering your Little House fandom did you decide you wanted to do a book about it?
WM: It was actually pretty early on, around the time I was reading the books—I would tell anyone who would listen how much I loved the books. And I just kept on saying “God, I’d really love to write a book someday where I go around to all these home sites, and blah blah blah.” And Michael [old college friend] was the one who was like, “I think you should write that now.” He was like, “You’re talking about it so much that that I think you should do it.” I think I would have pursued my obsession even if there hadn’t been a book, but I also think, because of the book, I was able to pursue it more deeply. I’d always had the itch to churn butter and make that Long Winter bread, where you grind the grain with the coffee grinder. But I never thought about writing about those things, even when I was proposing the book. Then one day, I found myself saying “Okay, I think I’m gonna try this stuff,” and I had to write about that. Still, one thing I didn’t do was think of this like a big experiment. It wasn’t any endurance event.
AVC: Like “I decided to live a Little House On The Prairie life for a year”?
WM: Right. I knew I wasn’t going to do that. And also, I really deliberately made the choice to not do certain things, because I felt like after a while, the book would become about something else.
WM: Like do some of the more off-the-grid things, like live in a cabin where I would have to heat wood in a stove, no electricity, stuff like that. I considered it, but I realized I never had any desire to live back then. It was more about the world of the books. And at some point, I figured out that the world of the books and the past are not the same thing. What I really wanted to do is indulge all these little moments, and be able to visit these places. It’s not like you get to go to Narnia, but you can go see Plum Creek.
AVC: Which of the Little House sites would you recommend for people living in Chicago, in terms of how close they are and what they offer?
WM: I think Lake Pepin is the closest, and if you go in the summer, it’s a good time, because it’s a very pretty town on a lake, and they have cute little galleries. It’s not that big on Little House stuff, because all that’s there, really, is a cabin and a little museum. But I think if you really want to get into the Laura-ness, or the legend, then Mansfield, Missouri would be the place to go. That’s where you see all the artifacts and the hospital, and you see the house that she built. Walnut Grove, near enough to Minneapolis, I think that’s a good site, especially because it has all the TV-show stuff. Walnut Grove and De Smet are only two hours from each other, so they really have it set up so that if you go to one, you might as well go to the other.
AVC: What was your favorite Little House site or personal experience along the way?
WM: There were a bunch of them. The moment when we were at Lake Pepin and the whole lake was still frozen over, I loved that. I realized that for the characters, it was exactly like that when they rode their wagon across the lake. There was a great moment when we first got to the Ingalls homestead in South Dakota, the thing that’s called the Laura theme park, where Chris [fiancé] and I were sitting at this picnic table looking out at the landscape. Chris had By The Shores Of Silver Lake in his hands, which is about when the family first comes to Dakota territory. There’s an illustration in one of the chapters where Laura goes out and looks over a railroad camp, and you can see the hills and things in the distance. So he looks at the illustration in the book, and he puts the book down, and it’s the same landscape. We could see this old covered wagon in the distance going to the schoolhouse.
We also liked Burr Oak, Iowa, where there was a ghost town. That was interesting, being out, well, nowhere. It’s not really on a map anymore. Some of them were Little House moments, and some of them were just fun road-trip travel moments. I think there’s a little bit of everything. The trip that had the worst weather was when I was driving through torrential rain in Kansas—that was some white-knuckle stuff. Even just driving between Minnesota and South Dakota, everything feels different. You could sense the sky got a little bigger and was different somehow.
AVC: One thing you don’t address in the book, except in one case, talking about a lawsuit over rights to the Little House name, is that you’re going from place to place seeing people making money off Laura Ingalls’ life. What are your thoughts on that?
WM: [Laughs.] For one thing, I don’t think they’re making a lot of money off of her. All these museums are struggling. Well, I guess there’s also the TV show. That was a mixed blessing. I think they served it with the popular misunderstanding of what the books are all about. People think of Little House On The Prairie and they think of something very saccharine, when really, the book is dark. But at the same time, for all the misconceptions about people like Melanie—who didn’t actually have an adopted son who got addicted to morphine, stuff like that—the show introduced a whole generation to the books. I never really thought that much about the books being exploited. I guess it didn’t bother me.
AVC: One of the most personal aspects of the book is where you talk about your childhood desire to hang out with young Laura and show her around your world. Why was that an important fantasy for you?
WM: I think it’s because Laura the author did such a good job of showing things. Just the subjectivity in those books is so well done, and you feel like you’re looking at the world—I say at the beginning of the book, “her memories are your memories.” So I loved how she described her first train trip and all the details. Those books really taught me a lot about just how to look. So the idea of looking at my own world in that intensely detailed way, and just taking inventory of the things around me, was really appealing. That’s why I liked the idea of saying “Hey, Laura, we’re in the car and the windows roll up!” I think reading the books also made me marvel at my own world. Thinking of a scene in By The Shores Of Silver Lake, the one when she takes her first train ride, and on the train, there is a drinking fountain where there is a little silver cup. She sees this for the first time, and it sounded like the most amazing thing ever. Like, whoa! So I thought “Wow, if that’s impressive, imagine how much an ATM would be interesting?” Or I try to think of a ’70s equivalent of the amazing little drinking fountain, like a Coke machine or a McDonald’s drive-through, or a video arcade.
AVC: Did any other books occupy this place in your life, in terms of wanting to hang out with the protagonist, or prompting such specific daydreams about an older way of life?
WM: Not to the same extent. I must have read Little Women afterward. But that one, you really seemed like you’re looking in on their world, looking through a window. I think I read Jane Eyre when I was in fourth grade, and I remember reading about her as a child and wanting to sweep the poor kid away. It was like, “Come on back to my house, and we’ll have pizza; you don’t have to put up with this.” There were definitely times when I wanted to rescue the protagonists, but this is the only one where I really felt like I was in an equal relationship somehow, and I think that’s because the books never made me feel like I was on the outside looking in. The books just give you such access. You felt like you were side-by-side.
AVC: There’s a great moment in the book when you meet a sunbonneted little girl who’s about to be in a Laura look-alike contest, and she says she wants to be a pop star like Taylor Swift when she grows up. You suggest that having fantasies that conflict so much might indicate that she realizes on some level that she’s never going to be either Taylor Swift or Laura Ingalls. Did you have similarly conflicting fantasies?
WM: Oh, I wanted to be a ballerina and an archeologist. I used to think you could be both. Let’s see, I’m trying to remember my Little House fantasy. There were definitely—especially at my age, you certainly had “what I want to be when I grow up” fantasies, but then I also had these horrible girl fantasies where I just wished I could be a rock star’s girlfriend. There was just no role for me except in relation to someone else. So I would say certainly that's conflicted. But at the same time, both held in my mind. I’m sure if I thought about it, I’d have something feminist to say about that.
AVC: When writing the book, how conscious were you about what any given reader might or might not know about the series, and how much you should explain the books and show?
WM: A lot of it was stuff I was learning on my own. I had already encountered a lot of Laura fans and researchers who know every single last thing. I remember being conscious of making sure everything was accurate, because I’ve also seen a lot of misinformation about the Little House books. Some of it’s popular, and some people don’t really know the lines between fact and fiction. I think because there are so many different things going on—there’s the history, and then there’s the fiction, and then there’s the Ingalls family history. I felt like I wanted to explain as much as possible, so I guess I was conscious in that sense.
AVC: The Wilder Life discusses Laura’s daughter Rose in some detail, and the debates over how much authorship she had over the books, and what her effect was on them. What’s your personal perspective? Does it matter to you?
WM: Not really, because Rose never wanted to be credited, really, as playing whatever role she played in the Little House books. I think it was collaborator/editor. And I think she went out of her way, especially toward the end of her life, to insist that the stories were completely true and her mother had written them. So yeah, I don’t have a problem. But I still find myself saying “Laura wrote this,” and “Laura wrote that,” and leaving Rose out of it even though I know that Rose is there. And some of the decisions in the books, to do certain things, Rose was part of those decisions. It’s always a contradiction that I’m carrying around.
Wendy McClure has several Chicago-area signings for The Wilder Life:
• Thursday April 14 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble (1441 West Webster)
• Thursday, April 21 at 7 p.m. at Book Cellar (4736 N. Lincoln Ave.)
• Thursday, April 29 at 6:30 p.m. at The Bookstall (811 Elm St., Winnetka)
• Tuesday, May 3 at 7 p.m. at Anderson’s Bookshop (123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville)
For details and a full calendar, visit wendymcclure.net.