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Reviews Mon Jul 25 2011

Book Review: The Wilder Life

Revisiting beloved childhood books is an act of bravery: will it pass the test of time, retaining echoes of the magic and meaning it held for you at 7, 10, or 12? Or is it more like a time capsule, bringing back not so much the sense of connection you felt turning its pages, but a picture of who you were during that time, the context of your life as a small child or "young adult" (that nebulous literary category) or teenager? Sometimes there's none of the staying power and a little of the history (the Goosebumps plots blur fairly easily in my own recollections), but in the case of Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, the Little House on the Prairie series is both and then some: a classic story, a study in McClure's past and present, and more.

The more starts both in 1867 Wisconsin, as well as the 1970s Oak Park, Illinois of McClure's youth. "I swear to God it's true: we were a girl named Laura, who lived and grew up and grew old and passed on," she writes, "and then she became a part of us somehow. She existed fully formed in our heads, her memories swimming around in our brains with our own." Following these memories -- of Laura, which were actually transcribed by her daughter Rose (as I learned later, among many other things -- Rose was deeply involved in the libertarian movement, Laura briefly had a brother, Pa co-managed a hotel?) -- propels the editor by trade and long-time Laura fan across the Midwest. Her fiancée gamely along for the ride, she searches for the real-life truth and meaning amongst the butter churns, locusts, sod houses, and Nellie Olsen encounters that made up the simple, appealing, and relatable universe McClure deems "Laura World". "And Laura World, for all its enticing remnants washed in on the tides of time and antique shops," she says, "was another world, and to visit it but all was unthinkable."

And yet she does visit, exploring the landmarks and events that make up the series, heading from Chicago to Pepin, Wisconsin; to Walnut Grove, Minnesota; and back again to make candy using maple syrup and snow. Highlights include pageants, complete with "pyrotechnics, live animals, and other special effects"; a weekend with a homesteading group where she learns their self-sufficiency is inspired by decidedly non-Little House reasons ("After a night of End Times revelations, the soap-making demonstration was a little anticlimactic."); and a tour of the lesser-known Ingalls house in De Smet, where Ma and Pa spent their final days. These experiences help McClure realize how she relates to Laura's life, how in some ways she doesn't relate at all, and how those can coexist. As she moves among museums and the bonneted re-enactors and fans who empathize with the Ingalls family in their own ways, the unthinkable life of Laura Ingalls Wilder becomes somewhat more conceivable, yet it still retains something of the wide-open, tangible appeal that originally sparked McClure's imagination.

The story flows easily, dotted with personal tangents and appearances from friends, who benevolently foster her obsession. These detours don't detract from the main story, but add wry humor and self-awareness to a narrative that could easily get stuck in a single context. It is McClure's smart, funny, and thoroughly modern voice that brings The Wilder Life out of niche territory. To be sure, inhabitants of "Laura World" will flock for the descriptions of rolling grasslands, the television program trivia, and the real-life details that never made it into the books' pages or the TV show's frames. But anyone who's revisited a fictional world once loved, is curious about the true story behind a legend, or appreciates an emotionally layered road trip will not feel alone in a world that is as much Wendy McClure's as Laura Ingalls Wilder's.

Love The Wilder Life? Want to find out more? We're having a discussion with the author this Wednesday at Sheffield's.

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