Everybody’s starving, and those shifty Wilder boys are feasting on pancakes?!

After reading a wonderful book called The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure, I feel the need to make a literary confession: I’ve never finished reading the Little House on the Prairie books. For me, fourth grade was the Laura Ingalls Wilder year. After that, it was pretty much over, aside from reruns of the Little House on the Prairie teevee show.

My teacher that year, Mrs. Pies, decided that the Little House books would comprise our “reading aloud” activity for the entire year, where each day she would read a bit of one of the books to us, for maybe twenty minutes to half an hour. We did the books in order, starting with Little House in the Big Woods and getting as far as By the Shores of Silver Lake. Over the next summer I read The Long Winter, and then…well, I started Little Town on the Prairie, but by then, I think I’d petered out.

There’d been a kind of communal experiencing of the books, my classmates and I, as Mrs. Pies read them aloud, and yeah, I liked The Long Winter. But my enthusiasm was flagging by then, we’d moved across the country so I’d never be able to discuss any of that stuff with those kids again, I was discovering fantasy by way of Lloyd Alexander. I have never gone back and finished the series; nor have I re-read them, even. I don’t really remember a whole lot about the books. I remember the teevee show somewhat better, since that aired in reruns every day after school, and I knew enough to note the differences between the show and the books (where the heck did adopted son Albert come from?!).

My memories of the books, then, are a bit on the vague side. For instance, I remember being rather baffled by Farmer Boy — after two books with Laura and Mary and Pa and Ma and company, what the heck were we doing talking about some kid named Almanzo? What was with that highly odd bit about the bullies in the one-room schoolhouse who had literally beaten the last teacher to death, and their defeat by a guy who’d borrowed father’s bullwhip? And the long lecture Almanzo received when he asked his father for a penny or something so he could buy a lemonade, a request that resulted in a lecture on the Sanctity of Work and Almanzo’s gift of a silver dollar and his decision to go buy himself a “good suckling pig”? That whole book just seemed strange.

(Here’s something odd that’s stuck in my mind for thirty-plus years: the “Almanzo gets a lecture on work” chapter wasn’t read by Mrs. Pies, but by a substitute who was an older lady with a gravely, two-packs-a-day voice who tended to speak really loudly. I remember when she got to the end of that chapter, when Almanzo says, “I’m going to buy a good suckling pig!”, this teacher read that last sentence in a Very. Loud. Staccato. Delivery! Before she slapped the book down on the desk. Really weird.)

And then there was the transition from On the Banks of Plum Creek to By the Shores of Silver Lake. The previous book had ended on a typically plucky and upbeat note, but Silver Lake starts off, basically, with “Mary had gone blind and the family had to move. And on the day they moved, Laura went out to get the dog but found him dead.” Yeesh! But Mary was really a goody-two-shoes, wasn’t she? I remember one incident (don’t recall which book) in which Ma suggests that the girls put away something they’ve been looking forward to having – not sure what it was – and Mary says something along the lines of, “Yes, we should put it away, Laura. It will help us to learn self-denial.” Yeesh, again. Self-denial? Sign me up!

The book I remember best is The Long Winter, which is probably because it’s the one I read myself. The fact that I remember it as well as I do probably indicates something positive about Wilder’s writing, since, as I noted above, I’ve never re-read it. But I recall the book opening on a very hot day, with Laura taking sugar water out to Pa in the fields; I remember the Indian who gives the town the warning about the coming winter (and Ma’s reaction, “Indian? What Indian?!” to which Wilder notes, “Ma despised Indians”). I remember Almanzo and his brother hiding their seed wheat from the starving town, and his reasons for doing so (for which he gets atonement anyway when he ventures out with a friend into danger to try and find a farmer who had a good wheat crop). And so on and so forth. But after that book, I’m sorry to say that I honestly lost interest in the ongoing adventures and fates of the Ingallses and the Wilders. Not even the fact that by this time we were living in Allegany, NY – just fifteen miles or so down the road from Cuba, NY, birthplace of Charles Ingalls – could rekindle my interest. I guess I’d moved on. I had new friends, new places to explore, and that same summer I’d discovered Lloyd Alexander, and with him, epic fantasy. (Not that I was done with Kid-Lit Westerns: a year later I’d be introduced to John D. Fitzgerald and The Great Brain. Now those, I read in their entirety.)

So anyway, I didn’t have much of a “Wilder Life”. Not so Wendy McClure, who has been a big fan of the books for all her life, and who decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the actual, physical sites in which the books took place: her “Laura experience”, as it were. McClure travels all over the mid-United States, seeking out what evidence is left in various locales from the books that the iconic literary events happened there. Thus she travels to Pepin, WI, to seek out the Big Woods (which, after I look at the map, I realize were located not far from La Crosse, which is where we lived when I was in kindergarten). She travels to Plum Creek, where she takes off her shoes and goes wading. She goes to De Smet, South Dakota – the Little Town on the Prairie – and to nearly every other location of significance in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Each time she goes to one of these places, McClure seems a bit disappointed…or maybe that’s not the right word. But the tangible connection to the books and to Laura Ingalls Wilder herself eludes McClure, for the most part, and instead she finds herself interacting with people who love the books or the “Little House” phenomenon but not in the same way. There are fundamentalist Christians who believe that we are living in the End Times and who think the “Little House” books serve as a good functional blueprint for the way Christians are supposed to live; there are other families who are far more well-versed in the teevee show than in the books themselves. (Reading about folks like this, one wonders if they are surprised to learn that the citizens of Walnut Grove actually didn’t dynamite their town.)

I was interested to read about McClure’s uneasy relationship with Farmer Boy, the book in which the Ingallses disappear so we can learn about Almanzo Wilder’s youth. Even in fourth grade, Farmer Boy seemed like a ‘weird cousin’ of a book, and thinking back, I do realize that McClure’s main complaint – that everything in the book turns out well for the Wilder family and they pretty much fail at nothing – is not without merit. McClure posits that Farmer Boy was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own idealization of the world of her youth, just as for many today, the “Little House” books themselves are the same thing. They certainly are for McClure, who goes to great lengths to experience what Laura experienced. All the way to churning her own butter, which she describes thusly:

I would come to learn several things about buying a butter churn on eBay:

1. Most of the churns are not actually for churning. I’d thought I was in luck when I saw dozens of listings for charming wooden churns come up on the Search Results page. That was before I realized they were all four inches high and used to hold toothpicks. It turns out that on eBay, churns are far more common as an empty signifier than as signified object, with an alarming number of churn-shaped things used to hold plants, cookies, paper towels, and toilet paper. The idea that you might actually want an old-fashioned churn to do the task for which it was named starts to seem kind of strange.

2. Newer dash churns seem to exist, but nobody wants to admit it. Apparently every dash churn is an antique, even when it’s listed as ‘never used’. How is this possible? Was churn hoarding a popular hobby back in the day? Maybe people received multiple churns as wedding presents and just stuck the extra in closets, the way we do today with stick blenders? It’s a mystery!

3. When talking to friends about buying a dash churn, one must be careful when making hand gestures. Do not simulate holding the dash in your hands and pumping it up and down, lest it appear you are talking about hand jobs. (Let’s not talk about how I learned this lesson.)

4. The cost of shipping and handling for a dash churn with two-gallon stoneware crock will surprise you. I think it was enough to pay for one of Mary’s semesters at Iowa College for the Blind.

You have to admire that level of dedication to finding out what things were like in the Big Woods and on the Prairie. I can honestly say that I have never felt the slightest inclination to churn my own butter.

Reading McClure’s book fills in some of the blanks for me, as far as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life goes. It’s interesting to read about the things she left out of the books, and the ways she ‘corrected’ the chronologies so as to make for better novels. I was actually surprised to learn that there actually was a baby Charles, in between Carrie and Grace, who died in infancy; I always figured that the teevee show made that up in order to give Laura a chance to blame herself and run away from home so she could find the highest mountain in the area in order to get closer to God so she could bargain for her baby brother’s return but to find guidance from a guy who looks suspiciously like Ernest Borgnine but who may actually be an angel. (Whew. I’m not making that up – and seriously, if you want to watch something that will jerk your tears and jerk them hard, get a hold of that two-part episode. Boy Howdy. It’s one of those things that can make me tear up if I just think about it enough.)

I know that as a kid, we stopped by one or more of the various Little House sites on our trips across the country, but my memories of these are very vague. No, I never had much of a “Wilder Life”, and the Little House books are, for me, books I read and not a whole lot more. They’re in the backdrop of my literary life, but not a major part of it. I’m glad to have read McClure’s book, though; reading about someone’s enthusiastic passion is always a joy, no matter whether the passion is shared, as long as the book is well-written. And this one is. Long Live Laura!

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3 Responses to Everybody’s starving, and those shifty Wilder boys are feasting on pancakes?!

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    Man, I had managed to miss LIW in all forms – books, TV show. I've never, not once, seen a whole episode. I think it was perceived to be uncool at the time (yet I watched The Waltons for a season.)

    But my wife had some that she's been reading to the Daughter, so I pick up some of it 2nd hand.

  2. Mimi says:

    I read and re-read the books as a kid, and even now. It's interesting to read this review and realize how much of it I agree with – I never liked "Farmer Boy" as a kid either, it never made sense to me.

    I never watched the show as much as I read the books.

  3. Julia says:

    Thanks for linking to this again (in 2014)! I missed it the first time around.

    I was a fan of the Little House books but hated the TV show mainly because I felt it wasn't a true adaptation of the books. It was the TV show that initially kept me from reading the books until my 3rd grade teacher plopped "On The Banks Of Plum Creek" into my hands. The absence of "Little House.." in the book title seemed to be the obstacle I needed to get past.

    I actually liked "Farmer Boy" and read that one several times in addition to "These Happy Golden Years." "The Long Winter" really bothered me because of them being so cold and without food. The kid-version of myself decided that's what hell must be like.

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