I still remember when my elementary school librarian pointed out that the Little House series was shelved in the fiction section. It blew my 10-year-old mind. Did that mean that Laura Ingalls Wilder—whose braids and spunk I spent the better part of my childhood emulating—hadn’t really almost starved during the long winter, or fought with nasty Nellie Oleson, or fallen in love with Almanzo?
The answer is complicated, as Wendy McClure discovers in The Wilder Life, her sweetly obsessive quest to find what she calls Laura World. After the death of her mother, McClure finds herself picking up the series that so captivated her as a child, and that captures the essence of what it means to be a family. “The books were comforting,” McClure writes, “but they started to unravel something in me.”
She and her husband Chris (who earns the title of Most Understanding and Supportive Spouse in History) embark on a journey to visit the places where Laura lived. They hit Pepin, Wisconsin, site of Little House in the Big Woods; Walnut Grove, Minnesota, made famous in the 1970s television series; and De Smet, South Dakota, where the family nearly died one brutal winter. They also make a memorable stop in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo lived in their later years in a custom-built farmhouse. Their only child, Rose Wilder Lane, built her parents a small rock cottage on the same property, then took over the farmhouse for herself. McClure calls the cottage Little House in the Complicated Family Dynamic.
It’s tidbits like that one that make The Wilder Life intensely enjoyable. McClure takes Laura World seriously, and gets just about as close as one can to Laura—yet somehow she can never quite get inside Laura’s head. Although the places are real, the people are long gone. And so it goes with childhood touchstones—fond memories you can never recapture, no matter whether you’re driving past your old elementary school or Laura’s log cabin. In The Wilder Life, McClure perfectly captures that haunting brew of wistfulness and nostalgia.