Wendy McClure Gives a Power Salute to the Bonnetheads in 'The Wilder Years'

by Diane Leach

5 May 2011

The Prairie Is My Garden by
Harvey Dunn 

Laura's World Is a Place of Unremembering

Laura’s adulthood was little better. The First Four Years, unedited when Laura died, details more crop failures, the death of Laura and Almanzo’s infant son (a source of such pain we never learn the child’s name),  and a bout of diphtheria that left Almanzo permanently disabled.  Penniless, in precarious health,  Almanzo and Laura packed up their daughter, Rose, spent an awful year in Florida, returned to their family in DeSmet, South Dakota, then moved to their final home in Mansfield, Missouri, where they built Rocky Ridge farm and Laura penned her famous books. 

McClure doesn’t shy away from the difficult areas of Laura’s life or writing.  There is the infamous “Papoose” scene near the end of Little House on the Prairie,, where the Ingalls family watches a trail of Native Americans moving off their lands.  Laura spots an infant on his mother’s back and demands Pa fetch her the child. Laura is only a little girl herself, but the anecdote has larger implications for the role Native Americans play in the books—that of despised invaders.  More than once Laura mentions that “Ma hated Indians,” and she herself will slap one as a young wife. The fact that the Ingalls family settled on Native lands with a sense of entitlement is inescapable, painful, and ultimately can only be looked at in the light of ignorance.  Which doesn’t excuse it. 

Then there is Rose Wilder Lane.  Rose is what literary critics call problematic, and she was.  A writer, early Libertarian and general hellraiser (she died just shy of an investigative trip to Viet Nam), it was she who encouraged her mother to write about her childhood, shaping and editing the Little House books.  A dissenting chorus very much wishes to think the books are solely Laura’s undertaking, but the surviving correspondence belies this.  Rose further complicated matters by refusing to whitewash her own miserable childhood.  The Wilder family was impoverished, and events had turned Laura into a bitter woman who could turn a sharp tongue on her husband and daughter. 

Even as McClure weaves these unhappier elements into her story, she gamely leads us through Laura pageants, musicals, a rainy night in a “covered wagon” (really a modified camper), and her own growing realization that Laura World is a place of “unremembering”: “I know technically it means forget (italics author’s) but somehow, in my mind, the definition changed.  To me unremembering is knowing that something once happened or existed by remembering the things around it or by putting something else in its place.”

Thus Laura, writing of Almanzo’s life in Farmer Boy, details Mother Wilder’s lavish meals, meat and milk, jellies and pickles and pies, as only an adult who was a hungry child would write of them.  Thus Rose unremembers her awful childhood by helping her mother polish hers to a glossy shine.  Poignantly, McClure connects her adult sojourn into Laura World as a way of unremembering her own mother’s early death from ovarian cancer. 

Often, while reading books for review, I bookmark pages with certain quotes or ideas I want to mention.  The Wilder Life soon became so stuffed with bookmarks that each time I picked up the book, a few fell out.  This didn’t stop me from adding more.  Suffice it to say that McClure’s book leaves out almost nothing of Laura World: the three girls whose lives were condensed into the infamous Nellie Oleson, the “Mary” issue—i.e., those girls who identify with Mary’s goodness more than Laura’s human naughtiness, and the entire mess known as the televised version of “Little House.” 

There are people out there who know of Laura Ingalls Wilder only as a television pioneer girl played by Melissa Gilbert.  The television show departs radically from the books, but this doesn’t stop the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museums McClure visits from devoting much space to the show; one visitor center displays the Ingalls fireplace from the show’s set.  McClure notes that visitors are often more entranced with the show’s relics than the authentic items. 

The reader, like McClure, is likely to come away with sadly revised view of Laura World, but that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing.  One can opt to stay away from the minutiae of the web or leave the biographies of Laura and Rose, conveniently listed at the back of The Wilder Life, unread.  You may be accused of keeping your head in the sand, but in this era of endless information, of every picayune detail, every thinking individual must decide for herself how much information is enough, and act accordingly. In a case like Laura’s, perhaps it is enough to know she was a remarkably tough, intelligent woman who penned a wonderful series of books. 

You can, and should, make an exception for a book like McClure’s, which offers a rare balanced view.  McClure is hardly out to increase the commercialization of Laura World, and her encounters with too much information are met with sadness, disbelief, and even tears at one point.  McClure knows when enough is enough, and her love of the books shines through every bowdlerized Laura encounter.  So does her love for her family, her partner, the sweetly tolerant Chris, and her mother, whose loss haunts the pages of this touching, amusing book.

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