"It disturbed her to read biographies of writers she loved; she preferred not to know anything unlovable about them."
~~John Irving, A Widow For One Year
As previously mentioned, since childhood I've nursed a low-grade obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books. I once thought I might qualify as a semi-rabid fan since I had read the travel diaries and collections of letters and other non-fiction writings Laura had left behind, but then I heard about Wendy McClure. McClure, the author The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, is on a whole other scale of rabid.
McClure so loved the Little House books as a child that, as an adult, she sets off on a quest to not only learn more about the world of the Little House books, but to actually live it (albeit in a very modern and limited context--for example, buying a butter churn on eBay and using it to churn butter in front of a TV playing episodes of the Little House on the Prairie series). She travels around the country to sites significant in the books as well as to sites not included in the books that were significant in the lives of the actual Ingalls family. She is in pursuit of something she cannot exactly name--some essential essence of the Ingalls experience or of Laura herself, though it's never clear (even to McClure) whether it is the fictional or real-life Laura she is most in search of.
She finds out things that she definitely was not expecting--especially about what was added to and left out of the books and about Laura's sometimes thorny relationship with her only child, Rose Wilder Lane. She gets both literally and figuratively lost along the way--taking wrong turns on some of her road trips and finding herself perusing both academic texts about the family and Japanese anime versions of the stories from the books.
She almost lost me along the way, too. There is a part about a third of the way into The Wilder Life, where McClure expresses her all-caps opinion that "LAURA IS NOT A TOMBOY." It is not that I'm terribly attached to the notion of Laura as a tomboy--in fact, I'd never really given much thought to topic at all. Laura definitely was more rough-and-tumble and feisty and generally just out-there-in-the-world than her older sister, the prim and proper Mary, but I don't recall ever thinking of her specifically as a tomboy.
What annoys me is that McClure's vehemence is so over-the-top that it's hard not to think she sees something wrong with anyone ever having been a tomboy. As an unrepentant tomboy, I found it a little difficult not to take that a bit personally. McClure's strident (and, at over two pages, somewhat long-winded) defense of her position made me wonder what issues in her own life were influencing her concern with Laura's perceived femininity or lack thereof.
She almost lost me again with her rant about the columns Laura wrote for the Missouri Ruralist (which were collected in Little House In The Ozarks). While McClure sees the Laura behind those writings as "a know-it-all aunt droning on and on," I've always experienced those pieces as the mental meanderings of a woman who, like most of us, is just trying to figure things out. I had to put down the book for a bit when McClure used one of my favorite quotes from those pieces to illustrate her point, ending her commentary with "I suppose she's got a point there, but zzzz."
The thing about shared obsessions is that even though the object of our obsession is the same, our perception of that object almost never is. Obsessions by their very nature tend to engender in us an almost possessive interest in whatever it is we love and woe be unto anyone who challenges my perception of my beloved.
I am glad I went back to finish the book. In the end, as with most quests, McClure's journey taught her as much about herself and her own life as it did about Laura and the Ingalls family. In reading The Wilder Life, I may have accidentally learned a few things about myself as well.
Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Informative.