Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in Time: 'The Wilder Life'

There's an old picture of me, my cousin and my little sister with Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I think I was seven or eight at the time. I'd share it but a) my parents moved when I was in my mid-twenties, so most childhood stuff has been relegated to basement purgatory, and b) I had a perm until I was twelve. Enough said.

Though I'd like to forget my 80's hair, I can't shake the feeling I got from reading the Little House books - nor would I want to. I mean, come on: calico dresses! Sunbonnets! Fiddle music! Making button strings and snow candy and cornhusk dolls! I was never much for the TV show - sorry Michael Landon, Pa did not have feathered hair - but my uncle gave me the set of Laura books when I was six years old and I was, to quote Ben Folds, not the same after that.

I totally made a button string. I distinctly remember opening On the Banks of Plum Creek and asking my mom what a dugout was. I tried to recreate the feeling of being in a covered wagon one winter night when my extended family was crammed in our car. My dad did not enjoy being called "Pa"and was not receptive to playing the fiddle for my amusement.

In 2009, I met author Wendy McClure at an event. I'd read her account of Weight Watchers woes, I'm Not the New Me, and loved her snarky yet wistful tone. I always like meeting an artist who's not an asshole (not that many of them are, I'm just a pessimist at heart), and Wendy proved to be sweet and funny in person, just like in her writing. She mentioned she was writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. "Oh my God, I loved those books!" I enthused to her later. "But why did Pa move everyone around so much? He was like a Manic Pixie Dream Dad!" Maybe Wendy was being polite, but she seemed to know just what I meant.

Turns out, there's a legion of us Laura fans. I didn't know at the time because most of my classmates thought reading was for weirdos, but I was far from alone in my Little House fandom. I wasn't the only perm-headed little girl who enjoyed the comforts of electricity and, you know, NOT having to deal with a grasshopper plague, but yearned for a calico sunbonnet and a general store where sugar was in a barrel, not in a bag. Technically, as the older sister with blonde hair, I was more of a Mary, but I identified with Laura's occasional naughtiness and propensity to say the wrong thing. Also, I really wanted a rag doll named Charlotte.

In The Wilder Life, McClure explores Laura fandom and takes it one step further, visiting old Wilder homesteads and new tourist attractions, taking in Little House pageants and the musical stage version starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma, churning her own butter and finding out what was in those airy-fairy cakes served at the home of (that bitch) Nellie Oleson. There's a mournful quality behind much of the book - at the time she was writing it, McClure had recently lost her mother and revisited the Little House series for comfort. It makes sense she'd reach back to a simpler time, both in her life and in Laura's.

However, as McClure reveals in the book, Laura's life wasn't always so simple. Both Laura and her daughter Rose weathered a lot of hardships as adults. Even as a child, Laura's existence wasn't all sugaring-off dances and Christmas-stocking oranges. There are chunks of time missing from the books that involve bad luck and child labor. Also, grasshopper plagues. Rightfully pissed-off Native Americans. Years when Christmas was really the only happy day.

Still, through her research and travels, McClure conveys Laura's real and imagined lives with fondness and hope, and explores a book series that had a real impact on little girls in 70's and 80's, and is still widely read today. Throughout most of my childhood, I felt like I didn't fit in. Instead of playing sports, I was more at home with my Little House books (okay, and my Sweet Valley Twins books, but that's another story). And even though I'm now a relatively well-adjusted thirtysomething, the fact that I was part of a larger group of misanthropic perm-heads and didn't even know it at the time? It means something to me.

1 comment:

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