The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
(Riverhead; US: Apr 2011)
They call us Bonnetheads.
A bonnethead, if you aren’t one or one who loves one, is a Laura Ingalls Wilder freak.
No, I do not mean a girl who read the Little House books as a kid and has fond memories of them. I mean those of us who read the books and became obsessed with them. As in, went out and bought On the Way Home and West from Home and A Little House Sampler and Barbara Walker’s The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories.
Girls who are now women who still, in times of duress, turn to their well-thumbed yellow Scholastic volumes or the blue Harper-Trophy paperbacks to read, again, about Ma grinding the carrot into the cream to make the butter yellow, about how Mr. Edwards walked 40 miles from Independence so Mary and Laura could get their Christmas presents, about the ache of Mary’s blindness and the joy of her attending a college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. About the sickness and crop failures and the winter where there was nothing to eat but brown bread. About Laura’s courtship with Almanzo Wilder. About salt pork and sourdough biscuits and pig butchering and sugaring off time.
I am a bonnethead.
So is Wendy McClure. Author of The Wilder Life, she may be even further gone than I, for not only did she purchase a real butter churn, which she used (albeit without grating a carrot to color her butter), she baked Long Winter Bread—Barbara Walker’s recipe calls for white flour, sourdough starter, several slices of dried bread, one pound of wheat berries, salt, baking soda, drippings, and a coffee grinder—not exactly appetizing fare. McClure is the owner of numerous bonnets. She also visited the many Laura Ingalls Wilder museums dotting the upper Midwestern United States, delving deeply into the history of a woman whose fictionalized childhood captivated millions of children.
McClure is charming in her obsession, and makes an amusing guide to all things Wilder, even when those things diverge alarmingly from the book. Though engaging and enlightening reading, I would not recommend The Wilder Life to anybody who wishes to maintain their private Laura fantasy, or what McClure dubs “Laura World”. McClure herself was a deep inhabitant of Laura World, imagining, as many fellow bonnetheads do, what Laura would make of modern society. Indeed, what would a woman who wrote breathlessly of a train that went 20 miles an hour make of hybrid vehicles? the internet? the locavore movement? (I think she would laugh at this last one.)
But as McClure travels through the towns where the Ingalls family lived, both in books and reality, she slowly outgrows her connection to Laura World. And you might, too.
The first thing that might upset the average bonnethead is the proliferation of all things Laura. A mere tap into the ‘net reveals countless websites, weblogs, pageants, even a guy—this from McClure—who thinks Laura Ingalls Wilder is God. The commercialization of Laura will appall many. Laura look-alike contests? Laura bobble-head dolls? A soft sculpture Ingalls family on display at one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museums? What does any of this have to do with Charlotte’s raveled yarn hair or little booties? With Pa’s fiddle or Ma’s china shepherdess? Not much.
The second thing that might upset the average bonnethead is the wholesale adoption of all things Laura by Fundamentalist Christians. The Little House books are popular with homeschoolers and End of Days folks, alike. McClure has a run-in with Fundamentalist Christians when she innocently books a trip to a farm offering a homesteading weekend: blacksmithing, canning, spinning. She appears with her boyfriend, Chris, only to find they are the sole non-Christians there. She is cheerfully accepting, even after the couple agree an early departure is best.
The third thing—and the largest thing—an average bonnethead may agonize over is the truth behind the books. The truth is Laura had a difficult childhood, characterized not by happy Christmases of tin cups and shiny pennies, but by privation and hard work. The family moved about a great deal, even more than in the books, and their moves, more often than not, were failures. Crops and businesses failed; the family lived briefly in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Ma and Pa made a disastrous attempt at managing a hotel. Mary and Laura, both under ten years of age, worked alongside their parents cleaning hotel rooms. It’s helpful to recall that indoor plumbing in those days meant chamber pots, and meal preparation involved hauling water and cooking on a wood burning stove.
Laura’s brother, Frederick Charles Ingalls, died in infancy. He lies in an unmarked grave. Then Mary lost her sight to what Laura calls Scarlet Fever. The actual illness that befell most of the Ingalls family and cost 13-year-old Mary her eyesight remains hotly contested.