The XX Factor

Book of the Week: Wendy McClure’s “The Wilder Life”

Wendy McClure’s memoir of being a Laura Ingalls Wilder super fan, titled The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie , promises to be a fun romp through what McClure calls “Laura World”: the bygone era when people had to churn their own butter and sew their own clothes, and the Wild West beckoned with promises of adventure and prosperity. While the book definitely provides that, it also is a deeply moving account of an experience that every avid reader deals with, but which I’ve never seen examined in depth: the feeling of grief when you reach the last page of a beloved book and realize that there’s nothing more. McClure documents the way she and other fans of the Little House series try to recapture the pleasure they felt reading the books for the first time, by visiting the places Ingalls Wilder lived, looking at the things she owned, rereading the books, and soaking in the plethora of biographical material, some written by Ingalls Wilder and some by others, about the actual life that inspired the fictional works that made her famous. But the book is ultimately an exercise in melancholy, because there simply is no way to recapture the feeling of reading a great novel for the first time. For all that a book is a static object, the experience of reading it is surprisingly ephemeral.

Why Laura Ingalls Wilder? McClure is never completely able to say why the Little House books cling to her in a way that others don’t. Much of it is due to the fact that these are children’s books. You don’t forget your first love and you don’t forget the first book that pulled you in so strongly that you felt lost when there were no more words to read. But the hold the Ingalls Wilder books has over readers has much to do with the author’s attention to detail and the way that she captured the child’s-eye view of log cabins and salt pork. You feel so immersed in her world that leaving it creates a sense of longing.

McClure travels the country trying to silence this longing for Laura World. She goes to the site of the actual little house on the prairie, as well as other locations the Ingalls family lived during their years of being dragged around by a wanderlust-infected patriarch. She has plenty of fun along the way, especially as her husband patiently indulges her every whim, but she never really feels like she’s crossed the barrier back into Laura World. And the reader is left to conclude that this is because you really can’t. The price you pay for many great experiences, from falling in love to reading a novel, is that you will never really recapture that enchanted feeling. This grief is well known to most bookworms, but this is the first time that I’ve seen it treated to the book-length examination it deserves.