Laura Ingalls Wilder's Long Afterlife: An Interview With Wendy McClure

Talking to the author about her new book, 'The Wilder Life,' which explores her fascination with the Little House novels

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Wendy McClure loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's fictionalized memoirs of frontier life when she was growing up. And after her mother's death in 2007, she sought comfort in her childhood copy of Little House in the Big Woods. Her re-immersion in Laura's life led McClure to learn how to churn butter; to camp out with Laura fans learning homesteading skills in preparation for the Apocalypse; to start tweeting as @HalfPintIngalls, an irreverent combination of Little House sensibility and modern pop culture; to explore the role Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's adventurous daughter and one of the founding mothers of libertarianism in America, played in editing her mother's immortal books (there are questions about whether Rose ghost-wrote them); and to confront the complicated, sometimes tragic, life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived off the page. McClure, who has edited the Boxcar Children series since 1998 as an editor at Albert Whitman & Company and published the memoir I'm Not the New Me in 2005, chronicled her adventures with Laura in The Wilder Life, which came out earlier this month.

What do you think explains the enduring power of Laura Ingalls Wilder?

You feel such a strong identification with Laura. There's something about the narrative. You feel like you're right there with her, or even that you're seeing it through her eyes. I really do have a sense that her memories are like my memories...I love the idea that the history of the American West is kind of paralleled with the lifespan of an American girl.

I don't think I realized she lived until 1957. I love the idea that Laura was around for Elvis.

We know that they've got a radio. She went to see movies. And she flew in a plane. She and Almanzo [Wilder, Laura's husband, whom she marries at the end of These Happy Golden Years] drove all the way, the trip they made from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, they essentially made it in reverse. I love that....I know she would have made it all the way to the talkies. I have a feeling, when you look at her depiction of Native Americans outside of Little House on the Prairie ... by then, they're stock characters, and they must have been informed by the Western movies she was seeing. She was a big Louis L'Amour fan.

Re-reading the novels in preparation for this interview, I was struck by how scary they are: Whether it's Indians freaking out Ma by taking all of Pa's tobacco, grasshoppers marching across the entire country, or frontier domestic violence, not to mention the Long Winter, these are really adventure books. Do you think that element of terror resonates with girls in particular?

That's so funny too, because now, the Little House on the Prairie has become a catchphrase for things that are sugary sweet, and it's really not the case. Little House on the Prairie is incredibly dark, and there are majorly grim moments in all the books. I remember the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake and they're all sick, and poor Mary's got all her hair cut off ...

They backtracked east for a while, and they helped run a hotel, and it was a pretty seedy existence that they lived, because they were right next door to a saloon, and they had to work among strangers, and Pa had money troubles, and he packed up the family and skipped town in the middle of the night to avoid paying a landlord. I wonder if when you get to that beginning, if all that misery is sort of a shorthand.

At the end of the book, you talk about your relationships with your mother and your father. I've always been struck by how much more Laura is like her father than her mother. Do you think that's part of the appeal, too: that the novels are about reconciling being a woman and identifying with men?

How much different would their life had been if Charles Jr, the son, had lived? The family would have been able to manage better in some ways. Laura would have had a much different life...I think her relationship with Pa, in some ways, it's very, very simple. Maybe there's an acknowledgment that she's the son he never had. I don't know if that's ever explicit. But he sees her as a person, and not just a daughter. I think we're a very fortunate generation that doesn't seem extraordinary to us.

When she gets married to Almanzo, Laura says she won't promise to obey him in their wedding vows. Do you think she consciously wanted a different marriage than the one her mother and father had?

It's never really expressed outright how miserable Ma is. If anything, you sort of see Ma buying into it...Ma is definitely pro-corset. And Laura's kind of like, "What the heck, Ma?" I could see that's part of it. Certainly, as the books were being written, there's an emphasis that relationships were changing. To a certain extent, I think Laura saying that to Almanzo is not that much different than pointing out that the railroads are being built, or there are telegraph wires across the country. It's her way of saying things are changing.

One thing you encounter repeatedly in your book is homeschoolers and religious fundamentalists who are reading the Little House books as a guide to values. Do you think they're mistaken? Laura's reaction to religion has always been sort of intriguingly skeptical to me.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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