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.

What I found so lovable about finding all these books again, is I like these same books as people who believe in wearing modest dresses and demure headcovering, and homeschooling their kid. And what does that mean? I think definitely some things are universal. I think it's funny that the traditional Christian values people are really responding to the books, but at the same time, I have a friend who gives me clippings about anything Little House anywhere, and gives me clippings about artisan butchers in Brooklyn. In terms of things like food production, there's a really interesting Venn diagram right now between people who are into learning these traditional skills and people who think you have to learn them because the world is going to end. I think the Little House books are somewhere in the middle there.

Was it hard to admit Rose Wilder Lane's place in your idealized Little House story?

She's a very fascinating character. People have a problem with her, too, because no one is ever going to deny that she had a part in the books. But I think people look at her life and look at her personality, and that doesn't fit into the Little House-ness that was all built up. We really want to believe the story of Laura just writing everything down in those orange notebooks and the rest is history. As soon as Rose gets in the mix, you have to admit that the Little House books are constructed, and there were definite artistic decision and efforts to portray things a certain way, and leave out other things ... Maybe one of them could have written the Little House books on her own, and that's completely clear. You can look at The First Four Years, and that's Laura on her own, and it's very different from the Little House books in tone and style. And you can read Rose's Pioneer books, and they're very good too, but they don't have the sense of place that the Little House books have.

Does being an editor make it easier for you to like Rose?

That might be part of it. Knowing that that she saw her mother's stories were really interesting and worth telling and helped shape them. And at the same time, I'm also sort of willing to feel like she pretty much did what a lot of editors do. You really are building on the spirit of the author, and that author is Laura.

I've never watched the TV show, but given those scarier elements in the books, isn't there something kind of weird about the need to create more drama? I understand that for purposes of keeping the show going, but it almost sounds like a police procedural, with a Blacksmith Slugging of the Week.

There's a contradiction, these are supposed to be Nice Little Girl books but they're also dark and scary. They had some really gruesome episodes. I do know that when the TV show first launched, Michael Landon and Ed Friendly were the producers, and I think Ed Friendly had this vision of staying faithful to the books, and Michael Landon really objected to the idea of the things that made the Little House books what they are, that you've got ten pages of how to bake a cake, he said, we can't film that. I think that's why the TV show kind of took the turn that it did. I think what is fascinating and hilarious about the TV show is it's really a '70s TV show that just happens to have people in old-timey clothes ... I think the other thing Michael Landon was trying to do, he was coming off Bonanza, and he was trying to make the classic Western family-friendly, or to combined the classic Western with other popular TV conventions. When you watch the show, and if you know the history of TV conventions, it's kind of a catchall, it was kind of a mixed bag of everything, you've got the heartwarming family stuff, and you've got the thriller suspense, stuff, and you've got the comedy.

Even though her world was very different from ours, Laura feels very contemporary in some ways. I think that's why the @HalfPintIngalls Twitter feed works so well: We live in this time when we work like crazy, though not for sustenance, when novelties and wonders are introducing themselves, even if they're Lady Gaga and not the railroad.

I was just doing it to amuse myself. It was sort of a way to express my amazement at her life. Where everyone else is sort of writing about what they saw on TV or had for lunch, I had her say things like today was a pretty good today until the grasshoppers at the wheat field. The way this stuff just keeps happening. She's so stoic about it....Learning to be irreverent in the voice really helped me eventually with the book. I knew she definitely wouldn't ever swear except for "blasted." I think it helped me figure out the tone of the book.

Read an excerpt from The Wilder Life.