|Party like an Ingalls! The real Ingalls family: Standing in the back from the left are Carrie, Laura and Grace. Seated from the left are Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa) and Mary.|
I was never a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie, be it in book or television franchise form. Growing up in a large, single parent family, the struggles of the Ingalls family may have hit a bit closer to home to me as a child. We never had to churn our own butter, but there was a season or two where we dealt with powdered milk, powdered eggs and government cheese. And as a child of the first divorced family in our Catholic parish, I could absolutely identify with the Ingalls girls with their experiences entering the one-room schoolhouse for the first time. Though my parents' divorce happened several years after Vatican II, I took my share of cruel taunts from the Nellie Olesons at St. Mary's Elementary. Some of the Nellie's were even nuns.
The books and television show have taken root in our shared sense of pop culture. I've previously interviewed actress Alison Arngrim (who played antagonist Nellie Oleson on the popular TV series). You can read that interview here.
Today, I chat with local author Wendy McClure who wrote The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. This ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 17, 2011.
Chicago author Wendy McClure went on a quest to find the real Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in the midst of her search for the truth behind the popular fictionalized “Little House on the Prairie” books, she actually found something extraordinary: herself.
McClure, who documented her odyssey in The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie , never intended for her exploration to become a form of therapy.
“As a fan of the books, I had never really let myself go down the Laura Ingalls rabbit hole, so to speak,” said McClure, a resident of Chicago’s Ravenswood Manor neighborhood. “People think there was something wrong in my life and this was the prescription, but in actuality it just seemed like a good idea for a book. It was only after I had embarked on it that I realized that it was bringing me to the point where I was ready to look back at my own childhood.”
A senior children’s book editor, McClure, 40, rediscovered a copy of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, while going through a box of childhood memories during a garage sale at her parents’ home in the summer of 2006.
|A book from childhood saved from a garage sale began McClure's Little House journey|
“Finding the book in a box of my things was a bit of a surprise,” she said. “I remember checking the books out of the library and don’t remember ever owning a copy of any of the books. Another girl’s name is even written on the inside cover, so I’m not sure how it came to be in my possession.”
McClure is a Little House purist. Her exposure to the Ingalls’ frontier world came from the books themselves and not the more popular 1970s TV show that ventured greatly from them.
“I actually didn’t watch the show until I started working on this book,” she said. “The vision of the late 19th century in the TV show is hilarious. It’s really a show about the ’70s and ’80s with the prairie as a backdrop. Look at the show’s little house itself. It’s a split level with the fireplace in the family room.”
In 2008, a year after her mother died of ovarian cancer, McClure took the well-worn and yellowed copy of Little House in the Big Woods down from the shelf in her apartment and re-read it. Her fiance, Chris Sienko, then surprised her with a complete box set of the books in near-mint condition that he picked up in a resale shop.
“I remember being happy and remember thinking that I would get to them sometime,” she said. “I always have so much stuff to read. I didn’t expect to keep reading the series. I pulled the second book, Little House on the Prairie, and immediately got sucked in.”
She didn’t stop at the official eight books in the series, though. From there, she devoured everything from Prairie websites in Japanese to biographies. She even tried her hand at prairie cuisine thanks to The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook and The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories.
“I spent an entire afternoon cooking a complete dinner of salt pork with gravy, apples and onions and buttermilk biscuits,” she said. “I do a fair amount of cooking. Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t bother me, but this killed me. And if cooking it was hard, eating it was even harder. A little salt pork goes along way. It’s so dense and chewy. It was such a heavy meal that is completely unsuitable for a modern lifestyle.”
|The Prairie staple Apples and Onions.|
From there, it was only a matter of time before she embarked on a road trip to visit the physical locations where the Ingalls family lived.
“As a kid, I didn’t know the Ingalls family had actually existed and you could go to these places where they lived,” she said. You can go to the Plum Creek of On the Banks of Plum Creek and put your feet in it? It was like being told you could go to Narnia.”
|The Plum Creek of Little House book fame looks pretty much as you would expect it, says McClure.|
Over a series of months, she traveled with her fiance or friends to the sites of many of the books, including Walnut Grove and the upstate New York boyhood home of Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder.
|The Little House in the Big Woods, recreated for tourists.|
The trip gave McClure new insight into the books.
“The one thing constant in all of them is that the world around Laura is constantly changing. Her life at the end of the books is very different than her life at the beginning.”
For McClure, a big change is just around the corner. In September, she and Sienko will tie the knot.
“A part of me is a little sad we aren’t doing a Little House-themed wedding,” she says with a laugh. “After the books and all the road trips, it was the least I could do for him.”
You can purchase The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie at Amazon. A link is here.
Misha Davenport is a local free-lance writer and blogger at triggercritic.com.