[5 May 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.
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.