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The Original of Laura

by Dedra McDonald Birzer

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, by Wendy McClure (Riverhead, 352 pp., $25.95)

The Wilders’ white frame farmhouse sits proudly atop a hill, overlooking the rural highway that bisected Rocky Ridge Farm years after Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder acquired the original 40 acres in Missouri’s Ozark hills. The once-flourishing apple orchard represents the eventually successful adult lives of Almanzo and Laura, who spent the majority of their lives on this farm.

Today, Rocky Ridge Farm beckons fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House children’s novels, which she began writing in 1932 at the age of 65. She had spent decades honing her writing skills as a popular regional farm journalist. Encouraged by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, well known in her own right as a woman of letters, Laura wrote “Pioneer Woman,” which she intended to publish as a serial for adults. Publishers rejected the work, but suggested that she adapt some of the stories in it for the children’s market. Thus began the much-beloved Little House series, which grew to eight novels. Wilder’s tales of her family’s westward odyssey provide a window into the hardscrabble life of late-19th-century American pioneers. Readers grow with Laura, seeing her world through her skillfully descriptive voice that matures as she ages in each successive book of the series.

That world — the houses and towns the family inhabited, along with the chores and handcrafts that made up their lives — has motivated readers to attempt re-creations of their own, encompassing everything from crafting maple candy hardened in snow to twisting armfuls of hay into sticks. Many also make pilgrimages, not just to Rocky Ridge but also to other Ingalls-home sites in or near Pepin, Wisc.; Independence, Kans.; Walnut Grove, Minn.; and DeSmet, S.D. (along with Almanzo’s boyhood home near Malone, N.Y.).

In The Wilder Life, children’s-book editor Wendy McClure takes readers along on her journey to each of these sites, as well as through her attempts to acquire the pioneering skills essential to 19th-century rural life. As a child in the 1970s, McClure created vivid mental images of what she called “Laura World,” and also imagined herself introducing Laura Ingalls to her own modern Chicago. As an adult, McClure stumbled across her old copy of Little House on the Prairie when her parents, prompted by her mother’s bout with cancer, prepared to sell her childhood home. So began McClure’s adult quest to find Laura World and, in so doing, to recapture a piece of her past and her identity that seemed to slip away with her mother’s illness and impending death.

McClure’s search for Laura — her attempt to flesh out both the young Laura of the books and the adult Laura who wrote them — leads readers through some strikingly funny scenes: There are Laura and Mary Ingalls look-alike contests, and would-be survivalists attending weekend courses in canning, spinning, and weaving. The author provides an entertaining but cynical stream-of-consciousness account of her travels and the cast of characters she meets at stops along the way. Her renditions of these encounters are witty, but they border on the rather-too-easy irreverence that afflicts too many urban sophisticates. The most egregious such moment comes in her reaction to a Christian homeschool family she meets in Kansas and then again at Rocky Ridge. McClure bristles at their immense respect for the Ingallses’ Christian piety:

The Ingalls family in the books didn’t appear to be much the praying types, unless the occasional hymn on Pa’s fiddle counts. Mary becomes a little godly by the later books, but as for the rest of the family, their reasons for attending church seemed to have more to do with partaking in civilized town life than with religious devotion. I suppose I’m inclined to see it that way because that’s how my family did things — went to church (Congregational) sporadically and understatedly. Whenever Ma Ingalls brought out the Bible, it seemed to me to be pretty interchangeable with the other books they turned to for comfort, like the novel Millbank and Pa’s Wonders of the Animal World, only slightly more important.

In fact, Wilder’s novels portray a pious family that derives its understanding of day-to-day life, as well as of tragedies, from Christian principles. From young Laura’s difficulties in observing the Sabbath to the family’s joyous worship celebration in the Surveyors’ House on Silver Lake, the family’s piety both propels the story line and pervades Laura’s analyses of her surroundings, her place in the world, and the hardships her family must face. Pioneer life meant that organized worship occurred sporadically at best; but one telling scene from On the Banks of Plum Creek reveals the important role Christianity played in the Ingalls family life.

“They told me in town this afternoon that there will be preaching in the new church tomorrow,” said Pa. “I met the home missionary, Reverend Alden, and he wanted us to be sure to come. I told him we would.”

“Oh, Charles,” Ma exclaimed, “we haven’t been to church for so long!”

Laura and Mary had never seen a church. But they knew from Ma’s voice that going to church must be better than a party.

As Laura matures, her thoughts on people, nature, and events revolve around God. In The Long Winter, Laura and Pa discuss how God hard-wired muskrats to instinctively build a thick-walled home in anticipation of a hard winter. Humans, however, have free will, Pa explains, and preparations for a harsh winter are a matter of choice. Laura later applies her theology to her thoughts on freedom during a Fourth of July celebration described in Little Town on the Prairie. Following a reading of the Declaration of Independence, Pa leads the revelers in singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” The juxtaposition of the song with the Declaration initiates a train of thought for Laura: “God is America’s King.”

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty — ” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

McClure tries to find herself through fleshing out the childhood and adult versions of Laura. She does a great disservice to Wilder and her books, however, by insisting that Laura’s life looked exactly like her own. McClure’s inability to recognize the obvious religious themes of the novels is a case in point. Because she projects her own life into Laura’s, McClure cannot even recognize, much less give proper attention to, any aspect of Laura World that does not mirror her own experience. Thus, her readings of the Little House books are journeys of self-reflection rather than analyses based on Wilder’s actual narratives.

Readers who find postmodern navel-gazing entertaining will enjoy The Wilder Life. Those seeking to broaden their understandings of Laura Ingalls Wilder should turn elsewhere, perhaps to the many accessible literary biographies of her, to her actual writings, or to the Little House historic sites.

At Rocky Ridge Farm, where McClure busied herself recording conversations with tourists and tour guides, observant visitors gain a strong sense of the grown-up Laura. Her material treasures reflect her values: Old family photos and books show her connection to her ancestors; her school slate and Mary’s Braille writing materials and beaded artwork suggest a love for learning; her collections of Blue Willow china and pink and green Depression glassware show her fondness for pretty yet useful items; and her custom-designed home built by her husband displays their ingenuity and Laura’s unique ability to infuse her surroundings with meaning.

One of the last things visitors see on their tour of Rocky Ridge farmhouse is a magazine table and reading chair near the front door. Like most of the house, the living room has been maintained to look the same as it did when Laura died in February 1957. On the rack at the bottom of the magazine table is the Feb. 10, 1957 issue of National Review, next to issues of Faith and Freedom and National Geographic. These, along with Laura’s glasses and small-print Bible, both of which always sat on her dining table where they could be easily located, give dimension to the grown-up Laura: a woman of faith who was deeply interested in ideas and in the events occurring in the world far away from the hard-won comforts of her Ozark farmhouse. Those fans truly searching for Laura and her world will find her there.

– Dedra McDonald Birzer is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. She is currently writing an intellectual biography of Rose Wilder Lane and her cohort of American women of letters. In the past nine months, she and her family have made pilgrimages to DeSmet, Walnut Grove, and Rocky Ridge Farm.

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