According to a list that arrives early in her new book, here are a few of the things writer Wendy McClure wanted to do when she was a young girl:
"Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow. Make bullets by pouring lead. Sew a seam with tiny and perfect stitches. Have a man's hands span my corseted waist — which at the time didn't feel creepy at all. Eat salt pork. Eat fat pork. Keep a suckling pig as a pet."
Those who grew up devouring the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder will recognize that list, and maybe find themselves in it as well. The series of novels was based on Wilder's memories of her childhood as her pioneer family moved across the Midwest in their covered wagon — with "good old Jack, the brindle bulldog" alongside.
"I have one memory of being in my parents' room on their bed and reading On the Banks of Plum Creek," McClure tells All Things Considered's Melissa Block. "It was over 200 pages, and that seemed just unimaginable to me."
As an adult, McClure was drawn back to Wilder's books, enough so that she immersed herself in what she calls "Laura World." She churned her own butter with a crock-and-dash churn she bought on eBay. She actually gnawed on salt pork. And she traveled from one Ingalls family home to another, stopping in Wisconsin, Kansas and South Dakota. In her new book, The Wilder Life, McClure writes about her adventure.
"It took me to all the home sites all over the Midwest and also in upstate New York," she says. "I watched every TV or movie portrayal of the Little House books that I could find, whether it was a clip of Japanese anime on YouTube or Little House on the Prairie, the popular NBC show. And then I also cooked recipes from the Little House Cookbook.
"I even tried braiding my own rag rug," she says, before admitting. "I don't have the patience for that sort of thing."
McClure's immersion into the life of Wilder and her family wasn't all rose-colored nostalgia. Her visit to the replica of the sod dugout in Walnut Grove, Minn., the place where the family lived in On the Banks of Plum Creek, was the place that she says gave her the biggest shock.
"You go inside and this place is the size of a freight elevator. And you can't believe a family of five lived there," McClure says. "When you're a kid, it's wonderful. There's even this sort of little sense that it's like Alice in Wonderland. That chapter where they move in is called 'The Door in the Ground.' And it sounds wonderful. Even when the ox runs over the dugout site and his foot goes through the ceiling. Which now I would think is sort of horrifying but as a kid is wonderful and hilarious."
In reading some of the many books about the Little House novels, McClure learned to further spin out the books' fantasies from the hard reality of the family's life, as in the fact that the little house on the prairie itself was an illegal homestead.
"That's something that was never really mentioned in the books, that Pa really was probably very knowingly occupying illegal land, hoping that it would eventually open up for homesteading. There's kind of no excusing Pa on those grounds," McClure says. "At the same time, I think I appreciated the book for at least asking some of the hard questions. It's Laura herself who dares to ask the question, 'Why are we here anyway if this is the Indians' land?' "
At the end of her journey, McClure says she began to think about how her relationship to Wilder's books connected back to her life. It's a process she describes by using the word "unremembering." She says it involves building feelings around memory that you hold on to when the reality is "a little too painful to remember it directly."
"I realized my feelings about my mother passing away were tied up in this. That I was, in a way, trying to revisit my own childhood in kind of an oblique way. And after a while, certain things came back: remembering my mom telling me about her own life as an Army brat and moving all over the place. Which seemed really unimaginable to me, but then when I read the Little House books it really sort of gave me the opportunity to sort of understand what that was like," McClure says. "There were times when my mother took us to look at a house where she'd once lived for a year or a few months. And I completely forgot about that until I started these trips on my own to see where this other little girl had lived — Laura."