Monday, April 25, 2011

'Unremembering' Laura Ingalls Wilder

Originally printed April 16, 2011.

It's hard to pinpoint a genre in which to place Wendy McClure's long-titled "The Wilder Life: My Adventure in the Lost World of 'Little House on the Prairie.'"

The book is somewhat like "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism," in which New Yorker staff writer Joan Acocella's stakes out a new scholarly position on the great American novelist. But McClure, although a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, isn't really looking to make any academic statement.

It's a little more like "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia," in which Laura Miller chronicles her disappointment with revisiting C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories as an adult. But McClure, although an editor who knows the business of children literature inside and out, isn't disillusioned at the end of her quest.

It's probably most like "Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," but only if Julie Powell were endowed with the same wit, wry sense of humor and historical insight that "This American Life" contributor Sara Vowell brings to her books, "Assassination Vacation," "The Wordy Shipmates" and "Unfamiliar Fishes."

In "The Wilder Life" McClure creates a sort of literary GPS through which she triangulates her personal experiences of Laura Ingalls Wilder from three main sources:

» The travels and life of the historic Ingalls family.

» How those life experiences were unremembered in the "Little House" books.

» And how those books and stories have been unremembered through various television adaptations and other public cultural incarnations over the past half-century.

The word "unremembered" becomes the key concept behind the project.

McClure first came upon the word when looking through Donald Zockert's "Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder" -- one of the countless biographies, amateur histories, academic treatises, memoirs and "Little House"-themed cookbooks that she read over the course of her research.

"The wagons started by the early light of morning," Zockert wrote. "One went north from this little unremembered house on the Missouri prairie, north toward home. The other went south."

Near the end of "The Wilder Life," McClure explains that she knew that the word simply meant "forgotten," but after ruminating on the concept, she came up with a new, more personal, definition.

"To me," she wrote, "unremembering is knowing that something once happened or existed by remembering the things around it or by putting something else in its place."

So McClure started documenting the ways that the life of the historic Ingalls and Wilder families have been unremembered (first by Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, when writing and editing the books, and then by the broader culture). At the same time, McClure started documenting how she was unremembering her own childhood fascination with the "Little House" books (what she affectionately calls Laura World) and replacing it with a more sophisticated, adult-appropriate appreciation for where Laura World does and doesn't connect with the real world.

It takes McClure a chapter or two to find the right anthropological balance between describing herself as an observer and describing what she actually observes. But as soon as she takes off into the Big Woods (both literally and literarily), McClure provides a book that is as fun, insightful and exciting to read as it must have been to write.

» Through her exploration of what exactly the Ingalls family was doing illegally squatting deep into Indian Territory, McClure raises a number of grown-up questions about Charles Ingalls' business decisions -- complicated questions whose answers get glossed over in the books' rather vague use of dates and imprecise locations.

» In her chapter on the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Laura and Rose -- as well as the academic debate over the degree to which Rose helped shape her mother's vision of the books -- McClure cuts to the heart of how these stories have been transmitted from one generation to the next.

» Through her discussion of current religious home-schooling curriculum based on the "Little House" books, the agnostic McClure finds a way to explain why she always preferred the Ingalls family of the books to the family's overt sappiness and sentimental religiosity in the TV series.

» And through her contrast of the Walnut Grove of reality and the Walnut Grove of the small screen, McClure provides a case study for the complicated forces unleashed by unremembering. She takes special relish in explaining how, over the past three decades, the large number of Hmong refugees who decided to settle in Walnut Grove -- largely because of the town's television reputation -- has helped stabilize the town's property base and saved its school.

In the final chapters of "The Wilder Life," McClure does admit to tiring of her trek into Laura World. But even her disillusionment makes for interesting reading. After more than 300 pages of historical and pop-cultural context for unremembering Laura Ingalls, readers will need some time to reconcile their own Half Pint perspectives with a fuller portion that is appropriate for their adult lives.

As McClure explains, "I'd always been a little at odds with this woman, the Bessie or Mrs. Wilder or whatever she was really called, who was not quite Laura and not quite not her, but I felt like I finally knew the story that continued, that I'd been where it had gone."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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