Essayist and editor Wendy McClure has feelings about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series that are almost as familiar as the books themselves. Like countless others, she became enthralled in childhood by what she terms “Laura World,” a place where life was hard but refreshingly clean. In Laura World, there were fascinating methodologies to learn if one wished to churn butter or install a door latch. Magic came from simple possessions like rag dolls and Christmas oranges. And the promise of a better house, a better life, was just westward over the horizon. As McClure learns as an adult, while revisiting the Wilder legacy in its mythological and historical forms, the Laura World that museums, pageants, and gift shops seek to evoke has little to do with the slippery yearning found in the books themselves.
In The Wilder Life: My Adventures In The Lost World Of Little House On The Prairie, a compelling, funny account of a year spent on Laura’s trail, McClure repeatedly finds ways to articulate the intimate experience of the Little House fan. But she also discovers disturbing complexities: Prairie, the most vivid of the books, couldn’t have been based on direct recollection; less-than-flattering failures and backtracks were left out of Wilder’s march to the frontier; and the role of Rose, Wilder’s prickly daughter and collaborator, is a contentious matter among diehard Wilder partisans. In fact, the fans and caretakers of the Wilder legacy prove unsettling to McClure and her patient (but less-obsessed) fiancé. Many turn out to be Christian homeschoolers who believe they see godly values in the books, and some are survivalist end-timers looking for self-sufficiency tips. Most annoyingly, some fans only know Wilder from the TV show, which exchanged heartwarming life lessons for frontier accuracy.
Even for those who don’t know their Almanzos from their Nellies, The Wilder Life is likely to evoke a strong sense of recognition. The appeal of whatever world a favorite book unlocks owes as much to readers' needs as the author’s intent. Drawn as helplessly to Chicago’s American Girl superstore as she is to the Little House pageants staged by the towns of Walnut Grove and De Smet, McClure realizes that even Laura herself never found what her beloved books represent for millions: a home, a destination, a snug little place to belong.