I’m Embarrassed to Admit I’m In Love With This Book

And it’s not even a new one.

Let me start by admitting I feel guilty when I re-read a book. I mean, there are so many zillions of books out there I want to read. I’m intimidated that I’m so greedy about what I want to read. I quickly opt out of books that don’t hold my interest after a while. And that “while” patience-span keeps narrowing. I even gave up reading Joyce Carol Oates because her output passed my tolerance. After all, if you can write faster than I can even read, I don’t have a chance.

Out with it: the book is The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

The 1st time I read it was because, well, it was the first time and the book was greedily consumed like a bowl of popcorn.

The second time was after reading Pioneer Girl by Pamela Smith Hill. That somber tome virtually ripped the petticoats off Laura Ingalls Wilder with its icon-melting secrets. I had to revisit McClure’s softer realizations to wash away the grime of Pioneer Girl. It’s one thing to learn Laura Ingalls Wilder left out a whole chunk of two sad years of her childhood, as McClure found. It’s quite another to hear that Pa might have been a drinker and some man set himself on fire practically in front of Laura, along with the fact that Laura’s iconic Little House “books” were derived from a single amateurish first draft, with the lion’s share of her iconic books written by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

My current round of reading The Wilder Life is to once again languish in the college-weekend feeling of the narrative, laughing at McClure’s efforts to “do Prairie” by churning butter and visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder shrines. It also has a road-trip flair, as you journey with Wendy and her man Chris. They feel like your fun, intelligent friends who sip hard cider with you, making Twitter-worthy remarks about culture’s quirks. McClure throws dignity out of her Chicago apartment window and admits such deep research as watching “Little House” TV reruns and liking cheesy YouTube videos honoring Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s a little bit like admitting you sneak a flask in your pocket for the AA meeting. McClure has reverence for the impact of Laura-induced sentimentality, but can stand back a bit further and see how cockeyed some fans have gotten.

This time reading McClure’s book, her juicyfruit salad of language comes into clearer focus. In earlier readings, how did I not notice her Jenga’d adjectives? Her (perfect) definition of who Laura Ingalls Wilder has become: a historical literary figure character person idea grandma-girl-thing.

McClure isn’t your history teacher, here to instruct you about life on the prairie. This is your sassy friend who’s gossiping–albeit with superior language skills and stand-up-comic quality delivery–about “Laura World.” This world, expected to be a rose garden, kinda smells like a trailer park.

Nuggets of Laura World: There is a guy in Minneapolis who thinks Laura Ingalls Wilder is God. The town of Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, Wisconsin, has its own Loch Ness type monster named “Pepie.” Adult women in prairie dresses and sunbonnets pretend they’re Laura. People cry when they first visit the historical sites. There is even Laurapalooza, a benign town festival with no rock music and somber historians quibbling quietly over who-cares details of life in 1880 while picnicking on ham salad sandwiches. DeSmet, South Dakota, as it turns out, is a bit like the Roswell of the north. Full of tourist crap and devoted weirdos.

It’s rare, a book that can make you want to go there and stay away at the same time.

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About chuckmall

Fiction and food writer in Chicago. Author of "The Owl Motel: And Other Places Where You Are Not Welcome."
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