ST.LOUIS — Wendy McClure is a “Little House on the Prairie” fanatic.
She’s not the kind of fan who loves Michael Landon’s dimples or Laura and Nellie’s mud fight in the TV series.
She’s also not the kind who dredges up quotes to promote libertarianism. Nor does she home-school or read New Pioneer magazine for survivalist tips.
McClure is the old-fashioned “Little House” devotee: She read all of the books as a girl and loved them.
“I think it’s because the descriptions were so vivid and also something about the point of view — there’s immediate identification,” McClure says from her home in Chicago.
Her love of the “Little House” books led to a road trip, a sunbonnet collection and a new book, “The Wilder Life.”
“I can’t believe I get to spend all day talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder,” she said recently, beginning her fifth interview of that day.
McClure’s book signing may be the rare author event to feature hay (for braiding fire fuel) and heavy cream (for butter churning).
In addition, attendees can safely debate Laura-devoted websites and the Minnesota guy who says Wilder “is God.” If they want, they can fondly recall the beloved TV series (even though it veered away from the books) — while wearing a calico chapeau.
McClure collected at least six bonnets herself while traveling to “Little House” sites in Missouri, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas and New York. During her trips, she waded in Plum Creek, watched pageants and Laura look-alike contests and beheld Pa Ingalls’ real fiddle in Mansfield, Mo.
McClure read the nine-book series in the 1970s and early ‘80s and thought the “Little House” stories were “almost as self-contained and mystical as Narnia or Oz,” she writes in “The Wilder Life.”
Except that the hardscrabble pioneer life was better, McClure continues, “because unlike those wholly fictional realms, the ‘Laura World,’ as I’d come to think of it, was a little more permeable. It shared space with the actual past, so things from it could make their way into my world, where I could look for them everywhere.”
Now 40 and a senior editor at the children’s book publisher Albert Whitman & Co., McClure knows Laura World wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: Cooking with salt pork and making candy using syrup and snow just isn’t as yummy as it seems in the novels.
Although her devotion is directed toward the Depression-era books, McClure is also up on modern academic debates over how Laura’s daughter Rose edited (even rewrote) her mother’s work and knows why the women are now evoked as heroines by some conservative politicians.
Rose Wilder Lane was the only surviving child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder. Born in the Dakota Territory in 1886, she was young when the family gave up on their farm after years of bad luck and illness. In 1894, they moved to Missouri, which was promoted as the Land of the Big Red Apple.
In fact, Almanzo Wilder found land in Mansfield that had apple trees and the family bought it using a hundred-dollar bill as down payment. There, the couple worked hard and gradually built a fairly modern home at Rocky Ridge Farm. He and Laura lived in Mansfield for the rest of their lives. (Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957 at age 90; Almanzo died in ‘49 at age 92; Rose died in 1968 at 81.)
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote farm columns for the the Missouri Ruralist starting in 1911 and, after losses in the stock market crash, published her first novel in 1932. The success of the children’s book, “Little House in the Big Woods,” and its sequels finally earned Laura and Almanzo a more comfortable living. According to publisher HarperCollins, its books connected to the series have sold more than 60 million copies in 20 languages.
Although most of the novels were based on Laura’s childhood and her restless father’s frequent moves through other states, she wrote all of them in Missouri. She started writing them after age 60, and in 1954 a story in the Post-Dispatch quoted the 87-year-old author as saying, “I live by myself and do my own work. These years are very pleasant with good health, good friends and kind neighbors all around me.”
The 1954 article ends by saying Wilder “is intensely interested in current events, politics and the economics of the nation.”
Her best-known book, “Little House on the Prairie,” features excitement in every chapter, with Indians, panthers, wolves, wildfire and malaria all portrayed as threats the settlers survive. At the end of the exciting story, the U.S. government is blamed for kicking the Ingalls off Indian territory (the Indians were shipped off, too).
“Little House on the Prairie,” read throughout the world, is the book Sarah Palin’s sister cited in 2008 when asked what the vice presidential candidate liked as a child. In 2009, Judith Thurman recounted that citation as part of a story about how Laura and Rose both became successful writers, crabby collaborators and critics of the New Deal.
As Thurman wrote for The New Yorker, Rose Wilder Lane is considered with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson “a founding mother” of libertarianism. She left her estate and the rights to the “Little House” books to her close friend, Roger Lea MacBride, a Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1976.
In addition to her own pioneer novels, Lane wrote a biography of Herbert Hoover (her papers are at his presidential library) and nonfiction such as “The Discovery of Freedom” and “Give Me Liberty.”
MacBride added to the “Little House” oeuvre by writing fiction featuring Rose and publishing some Wilder material after Laura died.
His daughter inherited the rights to the books (a situation futilely contested by Mansfield’s Wilder Home Association).
The Mansfield home has about 35,000 annual visitors. “Little House” fans (of both the books and TV series) make the pilgrimage from at least 20 countries every year, according the Greg Goss, assistant to the Wilder association’s director.
“People just still identify with Laura’s story,” he said by phone. “They are here to pay homage.”
“They want to see the fiddle,” bookstore manager Judy Cantrell says. They also get to see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s clock, desk and dishes — “the ladies love that,” she says.
During her own trip, McClure admired the Ozark scenery and a nice display of Rose’s artifacts from her travels around the world: Lane even reported on the Vietnam War while in her 70s.
In “The Wilder Life,” McClure scoffs at overly sentimental “Little House” plaques about the simple things in life.
She writes that she can see that Rose’s troubled relationship with her mother made the farm’s Rock House a “Little House in the Complicated Family Dynamic.”
Throughout her record of her Wilder travels, McClure recounts her feelings trying to merge her love of the books with the real-life places and history. While trying to learn more primitive skills, she runs into survivalists, and usually stays mum about her disinterest in faith-based passion for the stories.
McClure’s “Little House” quest comes off as both universal and personal. Like millions of other readers (generally women), McClure fantasizes about homesteads that look just as charming as Garth Williams’ pictures for the books.
But unlike most fans, she also has read hundreds of pages on the Wilders and knows their history. “The Wilder Life” is a bit of a mash-up of Wilder biography, travel journal and author observations (“If you think it’s a little unwholesome to have a watering hole next to a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum, you don’t know Burr Oak”). McClure also touches on how her own family memories may play a role in her fascination with Wilder.
Travels to Laura World, McClure says, didn’t diminish how she felt about the books. And she learned something as a writer:
“You always imagine these other writers living these beautiful lives. In reality, great books are born in all kinds of places.”
‘The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of “Little House on the Prairie”
A memoir by Wendy McClure
Published by Riverhead, 327 pages, $25.95