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.