My final interview with a Laura Ingalls Wilder expert features Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life. She’s definitely an expert. I hope you enjoy it.
Tell me about your first experience with the Little House books. How did you discover or learn about them? Did you immediately fall in love?
I don’t really remember how I first read them as a kid, but my paperback copy of Big Woods appears to have been borrowed (or swiped) from a classroom library at my grade school, so maybe I came to them that way. Typically I’d read anything I could get my hands on. Then once I fell in love with the Little House books I’d get them from the public library.
Oh, I love that you permanently “borrowed” the book! Did you have a favorite Little House book? If so, which one and why? Also, do you have a favorite book about Laura?
My favorite as a kid was “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” because it was the first really long book in the series, so it felt truly epic, and Laura in that book was close to my age. And she has such an incredibly rich play life in that book—roaming all around the creek and the prairie. She has such an intimate knowledge of her surroundings and so much freedom to explore it, and for kids that’s really powerful.
Plus the book has three Christmases in it. Three!
My favorite book about Laura would have to be Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a great biography with a special emphasis on her writing career. Since I work in children’s books (and Hill does do), it’s especially fascinating to me. I love reading about publishing history.
The TV show has definitely had an influence on Laura’s legacy, but why do you think her legacy has endured as long as it has?
The books hold up as really great novels. There have been plenty of children’s books written about the pioneer experience in the past century, but so many of them are hopelessly dated; few have endured as well as the Wilder books. I think it’s because in some ways the Little House books are more modern than we realize. Laura (with the help of her daughter, Rose) began writing them during the Great Depression and understood that readers would relate to the accounts of the Ingalls family braving hard times, and there have been many more times in recent history when those stories have felt relevant. The books also document a changing world—a landscape where railroad tracks and telegraph wires were beginning to appear, a way of life that was becoming less self-sufficient and more dependent on consumer goods shipped by train. Again, it’s a narrative that we all know well. Our current generation has been especially inspired by all the hands-on practices that are described in the book—making butter and cheese, butchering a pig—which are of interest these days as we start to rethink the industrialization of our food. Perhaps that’s a passing trend, but I think the books are always going to make us think about our relationships to tradition and modernity.
You make a great point about rethinking the industrialization of our food with urban farming, farmers’ markets and sustainable practices being so big. In your book you wrote about churning butter and making bread. Are you still doing any of that? Did you learn anything valuable from that process?
Not really with the butter… there’d be no sense in churning my own unless I had my own cow! But I make my own jam and pickles and can them, and I try to shop at farmer’s markets and the smaller, mom-and-pop produce supermarkets in Chicago instead of the chain stores. The canning stuff is really just a hobby, and I’ve learned to appreciate that I don’t have to do it, and that I have other choices. And choosing local food is important to me, and I feel lucky that I can do it.
There’s an urban farm right not far from my house and they set up a farm stand sometimes. I’m hoping this fall I can get a green pumpkin there and make Ma’s mock apple pie from The Long Winter. I made one a couple years ago, and getting a farmer’s market vendor to bring you a green pumpkin can be tricky!
It makes sense that you wouldn’t continue making your own butter. Didn’t you conclude in your book that it was no better than store bought?
In your book, you wrote about Rose Wilder Lane and her controversial role with her mother’s books and her parents in general. Since the book was published, has your opinion of Rose changed? Can you share a few of your thoughts on Lane and her role in the books?
Re: the butter—since the cream was from the supermarket, the butter
tasted the same as any other butter from a large commercial dairy.
I continue to be fascinated with Rose, and that feeling has only grown. She lived a remarkable life, and it’s sort of a shame that her writing is read today only for two reasons—her politics (which don’t interest me) and for clues about her possible authorship of the Little House books. Rose helped her mother a lot with the novels—there’s really no mystery there, since there’s plenty of evidence in the letters they wrote to each other. It’s clear Laura couldn’t have written the books—as we know and love them—on her own… but I don’t think Rose could have written them on her own either. When it comes to the question of “who is the author,” I don’t feel like I have much invested in either side of the debate, but from a writer’s standpoint the discussion will always intrigue me. For the most part I still think of Laura as the author, since the experiences are hers, and she was the first one to see the story in them.
But… if we’re going to consider the Little House books as partly Rose’s work—and perhaps we should—then we need to recognize that they’re some of her very best and most enduring work. In all this debate I don’t feel like there’s been enough discussion about why it turned out that way. I think about how throughout her career, Rose wrote either to pay the bills or to express very big, very ambitious ideas—except when she worked on her mothers’ books. And I can’t help but wonder if that allowed her a certain kind of freedom—if it distilled her craft, allowed her to be grounded and personal in a way she’d never allow herself to be when she was working as Rose Wilder Lane. We know some of her politics made it into the books; what else of her is in there as well?
I suppose we’ll never know. I just finished reading a preview copy of A Wilder Rose, Susan Wittig Albert’s novel about Rose and her work on the Little House books. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about “Rose’s side” of the issue, with Pamela Smith Hill’s book representing “Laura’s side.” The thing is, we know much more about the former’s side than the latter, because Rose left reams of diaries and letters from the 1930s, when the books were written. Albert’s novel relies heavily on those diary entries and letters, so there’s a lot of factual material there. But reading it made me realize why so many of us still have trouble with the idea that Rose was involved with the Little House books—because all those diary entries and letters, extensive though they are, give us only the moments when Rose was frustrated with working on them, complaining that they took her away from her own writing. Here are these books that so many of us love and experience so deeply, and then we read that this person who was involved with them considered them a miserable chore. It doesn’t add up! I’d like to believe that Rose was really engaged with these stories on some level—that she worked through feelings about her childhood and the poverty that both she and her mother experienced growing up—but she left us no record of that. So the mystery continues…
I find the debate about Rose just as interesting as I find her, which is to say I’m greatly interested by it. The discussions and writings about Rose have been one of my favorite parts about rediscovering Laura. I think that most people setting out to rediscover Laura either find Rose interesting or infuriating, but they have feelings about her one way or another.
Since The Wilder Life was published in 2011, you’ve published Don’t Trade the Baby for a Horse: And Other Ways to Make Your Life a Little More Laura Ingalls Wilder, which describes your rekindled and deepened love of Laura. What other experiences have you had with Laura? (I also want to add here that the trading the baby for a horse always makes me sad for the Boasts.)
A couple things: First, in late 2011 I visited the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, where Laura’s and Rose’s papers are archived, and I got to see some of their editorial correspondence and the orange notebook that Laura used to write the first draft of The First Four Years. That was as amazing as you can imagine.
Then last fall I went back to De Smet for a day. I was in Sioux Falls for the South Dakota book festival and rented a car, because it’s not often that I’m just a couple hours drive from the Little Town on the Prairie, you know? It was early fall, so the colors in the fields were different from the way they were in the summer, and I loved being there when it wasn’t tourist season. It was a Sunday, and the Memorial Society was closed, but Ingalls Homestead was open for one of their last weekends of the season. I was one of only a handful of visitors that day. I got to sit in the replica shanty all by myself, and wander around, and just take in everything again. (I also had a good breakfast at the Oxbow Restaurant, so I’m glad I gave them another try.) I had no expectations this time, I just went with my impulses and drove and walked around the town and the homestead land at random. Highly recommended!
I still have to go back to Mansfield, Independence, and the Farmer Boy house in New York with my husband, because he hasn’t seen those places yet. And then I can’t wait for Pioneer Girl to be finally published, which it will be later this year, I think.
I’ve moved on to other writing projects now (a middle-grade novel series about orphan train kids called Wanderville) but I don’t think I’ll ever be done doing and reading Little House stuff.