When Wendy McClure was a kid, she really loved those Little House on the Prairie books. Like, really really loved them, possibly as obsessively as I loved the Anne of Green Gables books. But because the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were based on the author’s life story, there was at least the illusion of being able to experience the “real” story — finding out about the real lives of Laura and the Wilder family, which continued to fascinate McClure after she grew up. The Wilder Life is her often funny memoir of visiting, as an adult, the sites of her childhood obsession, in an attempt to capture the “real” Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Of course, there’s more to it than just visiting places where the Wilder family lived, although there are plenty of those and a booming tourist industry around many of them. McClure also rereads the books with a critical adult eye, checks out the TV series that was so loosely based upon them, which she did not watch as a child, learns how to do Wilder-like things such as churning her own butter, runs into some moderately scary back-to-the-land survivalist types, and looks into the real Laura’s biography. There she discovers, as is to be expected, some discrepancies between the real world and the book world. McClure emerges with her love for the Wilder stories intact, but with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world and the woman that created them. Even if you weren’t a big Little House fan, you’ll enjoy this memoir — especially if you’ve ever been entranced with a book and tried to find out the real “story behind the story.” Most of us bibliophiles can relate to McClure’s quest here, I think, and it’s enjoyable to ride along with her as she crisscrosses the US in search of Laura.