An Interview with Wendy McClure

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.
Advertisements

Thoughts on Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life

Thoughts on Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life | A Little (or a lot) about Laura) | The 1000th Voice blog

“We remember the strangest things.”

-Wendy McClure

Have you had this experience with any books from childhood? As you could tell from my reflections on Laura’s Little House books, this has definitely been the case for me. And, it’s been the case in general for books from my childhood. I got a little thrill reading that statement in Wendy McClure’s memoir The Wilder Life. It’s a nod to the shared experience of reading the Little House books, a statement about the community.

As an adult McClure rediscovered her copies of the Little House series and ventured back into Laura world to reconnect with her youth. Throughout her journey she reread all the the Little House books, plenty of books about Laura and traveled to all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, including Almanzo’s childhood home in Malone, NY.

This was a fun, enjoyable book. I immediately felt connected to McClure as if, in the words of Anne Shirley, we were kindred spirits. I bet any fan of Laura would feel the same. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed reading the Little House books as a kid. Check it out!

Have you read McClure’s book

Make sure you come back on Friday to read my interview with McClure!

 

 

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Way Home

Reflections on On the Way Home #LauraIngallsWilder | a little (or a lot) about Laura | Laura Ingalls Wilder | The 1000th Voice blog

 

This book is interesting for a few reasons. It’s a categorical account of the Wilder’s trip from De Smet, SD to Mansfield, MO, including the cost for various work tasks and the number of wagons traveling both ways down the trail. Now, I know that sounds kind of boring and a lot of people think it is. But I found it really fascinating. It’s chock full of information that historians and history nerds find fascinating about that time. As a farm wife, the cost of labor and its products were fascinating to Laura. The fact that it fascinated her, fascinated me as well. It’s also interesting reading Rose’s thoughts.

Published after Laura’s death, Rose wrote the introduction and the postscript – an eye-opening read for anyone in love with Laura, especially a young kid, to happen across. Rose is simultaneously generous and vitriolic toward her parents.

The vitriole is, of course, difficult to read. After reading eight books and reconnecting with Laura, I don’t want to read any negative thoughts about her. Also, throughout those eight books, Laura was very clear about her own shortcomings. I definitely didn’t want to read someone else’s negative thoughts about her.

Rose used her position to point out how perfect and precocious she was. There’s the photo of her as a two year old, which she clearly recalls posing for. Then she states that she was far too advanced for De Smet elementary (even as a second grader). Anyone, particularly Laura, insinuating that she wasn’t perfect or simply reminding her of the rules as any attentive parent would, was subject to her indignation.

This fact is evidenced in the events that happened when the family arrived in Mansfield. The down payment money they’d saved for months was missing. Laura and Almanzo were frantic. Laura asked Rose several times if she’d touched the money, showed it to anyone or told anyone about it. Rose was adamant that she hadn’t and so mad at the implication that as an adult she was still traumatized by the incident. It’s understandable that she’d be upset about this as a child, but to be upset enough to remember it into adulthood with such bitterness is just bizarre.

Again, I will state that this book shouldn’t be shelved as children’s lit. It’s far too dry and confusing. But as a look back at the time for an adult, it was definitely fascinating.

Well, this brings me to the last of the solely Laura-written books. I’ll wrap up next week with reviews of William Anderson’s The Little House Reader and Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life; both of these books provided a more detailed look at Laura’s adult writing life (the former) and one woman’s journey to rediscovering her childhood love of Laura world (can you see a parallel here?). 

Have you read On the Way Home? How do you feel about Rose’s bitterness about childhood slights?

Reflections on The First Four Years

Reflections on The First Four Years #LauraIngallsWilder | a little (or a lot) about Laura | Laura Ingalls Wilder | The 1000th Voice blog

 

This is such a sad book. After ending These Happy Golden Years on a happy (dare, I say Golden) note, as readers we’re then thrust into the real world of this sad, unfinished work that is The First Four Years. 

Laura started writing this book in her little orange school notebooks, but she sadly never finished after Almanzo’s death. After Laura’s death, Rose inherited the work, but never edited it or apparently looked to get it published. It was Rose’s heir who found the story in her documents and had it published as is. 

Life was rough for Laura and Almanzo. The one good thing to come from all their suffering was Rose. Born in December, Rose was named after the wild flowers her parents had walked among that summer. (Because a Rose in the winter is far more rare.)

Laura references feeling the familiar sickness a second time, but she never says anything else about it. We know she had another child, but she wasn’t able to write about her experience. She does write about the fire, the crop failure, the tree claim failure.

Despite all of the struggles, Laura writes “We’ll always be farmers, for what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh” (page  133), which was a musing on her Ma’s saying. We know that Laura and Almanzo were always farmers; finally finding success in midlife though it was coupled with Laura’s writing income. 

Througout this book, Laura writes frequently of her deep love for baby Rose. I’ll admit that while I found it true, it seemed odd knowing the difficult relationship Laura and Rose would have throughout their lives. In one of her columns (reprinted in The Little House Reader), Laura writes about her bachelor girl in Kansas City with pride. 

The First Four Years and On The Way Home are shelved as children’s literature along with the Little House series, which is completely wrong. These books have adult themes that aren’t appropriate for young readers or that would definitely be a shock for them after the Little House books. 

What I Remember

Despite thinking it’s misshelved (and for the fact that it is), I definitely read this as a child. I recalled Laura and Almanzo’s snowy trip with newborn Rose to visit the Ingalls family. Ma was surprised to see them in such weather. Laura states that she wrapped Rose well and kept checking her little face, but it’s obvious that Laura’s a little ashamed of their daring trip.

How do you feel about books like this being shelved for children? I think it’s great if a precocious reader picks it up, but it’s definitely a shock. 

 

Reflections on These Happy Golden Years

Reflections on These Happy Golden Years #LauraIngallsWilder | a little (or a lot) about Laura | Laura Ingalls Wilder | The 1000th Voice blog

The love story of Laura and Almanzo starts in These Happy Golden Years, so the title of the book, pulled from a song Pa played, is so appropriate. I really love their love story right down to the end when Laura puts down and never finishes The First Four Years after Almanzo’s death.

There was one thing that I’ve been waiting months to comment on: bombing main in the cutters! After Laura returns from her teaching job, all her peers (and Almanzo) starting cruising up and down main street in their cutters. Almanzo, Laura, Cap and Mary lead the way, but it becomes a very popular past time. As a teenager in small-town South Dakota, I spent hours driving up and down main street, chatting with my friends. I laughed when I realized that Laura and friends were the first (or very close to the first) teens to bomb main in South Dakota. I owe her for more than I previously thought!

Laura spends her school breaks teaching in the country, studying at night to keep up with her regular classmates and riding back to De Smet on the weekends with Almanzo. I really liked how wonderful Almanzo is in this book (or always). Without being asked or told, he guesses that Laura will be homesick, so he drives 12 miles one way to pick her up Friday afternoon and another 12 miles one way to take her  back on Sunday. He spent a lot of his time driving back and forth. I really respect him continuing to drive Laura back and forth when she tells him there’s nothing in it for him.

Mary returns home toward the end of the book, sad to have missed so much and to see Laura marry Almanzo and leave them. Everyone, including Laura, is sad that their happy little life is changing, but, as Laura tells Mary, she and Almanzo just fit together. As sad as she was to leave her family of origin, she was excited and happy to be starting her life with Almanzo.

And then comes the small, rushed wedding. Laura in her black dress. Ida witnessing with her beau. It’s all so sweet.

What I Remember

From the first time I read this as a child, I’ve always remembered Laura’s black wedding dress. Ma said it would bring bad luck. It definitely seemed true for the first few years of their marriage, but we know it all turned out well for Laura and Almanzo.

What is your favorite literary couple? Do you love Laura and Almanzo’s love story as much as I do?

Reflections on Little Town on the Prairie

Reflections on Little Town on the Prairie #LauraIngallsWilder | a little (or a lot) about Laura | Laura Ingalls Wilder | The 1000th Voice blog

 

Yay! We’ve finally reached the point in our journey when Mary admits to acting vainly like a good girl. Didn’t know you were on this journey with me? Well, if you’re reading this then I think you are. So let’s journey on!

On page 12, as Laura is guiding Mary across the prairie during their daily walk, Laura admits that she’d always wanted to slap Mary when they were children. Mary replied with, “I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said. “It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”

I believe this moment is the reason Laura made Mary such a goody-two-shoes or that at this point she decided to get a little jab at Mary. Or maybe I just don’t really know. My theories are probably half baked, but it’s fun having them.

Mary admitting to acting good was the death knell to Mary as the good girl. Laura and Mary were able to spend time together (mostly on their walks because Laura had to work long hours). Their time together was a good last hurrah before Mary went off to college. While I’ve said and thought a lot about what a waste it was to send Mary to college, I don’t really believe it was entirely. Or at least now I don’t. Mary learned how to live a rich life despite her blindness. She learned to read Braille, write letters and play the organ, things that served to enrich the rest of her life. Her life was by all accounts I’ve read, a happy, quiet life. 

(That was hard for me to admit.)

The town of De Smet is really gaining a vibrancy in this book. The literaries sound like such fun events, right down to a town spelling bee. The final literary can be excluded, after all it was a racist pantomime complete with black face. There’s nothing to defend this behavior, unless you consider it was normal at the time a good excuse for racism. Excluding that incident, it’s fascinating to me how the town easily came together for a fun time. There was little need for planning, no need to elect leaders. (Thanks, Pa!) All they needed was a group of people and years of schooling in which repetition was forced over an actual understanding of the material.

What I Remember

Like I said before, I usually just remember random, small moments from books that seem trivial. Like the Encyclopedia Brown case that he solved by telling his dad that the man couldn’t have just returned home after driving hours because he’d just stood his young son on the hood of the car that should have been crazy hot. See? Important.

What I do remember from this book involves Laura and Mary’s walks, but not Mary admitting to being a fake good girl. I remember Laura talking about the openness of the prairies with its gentle (but deceiving) rolling hills. But mostly, I remember Laura saying she could see to the Wessington hills. That was my hometown! I remember reading that as an elementary studentmarking the page and excitedly showing it to my best friend the next morning on the school bus.

What were your thoughts on Little Town on the Prairie? 

 

 

Reflections on The Long Winter

Reflections on The Long Winter #LauraIngallsWilder | a little (or a lot) about Laura | Laura Ingalls Wilder | The 1000th Voice blog

It seems like The Long Winter is one of Laura’s most popular books. I think it’s because it’s just a very memorable book. They almost starve, people. Not hard to forget that! But even more than that, it’s very different from the prior books in its more straightforward approach to Pa and his failures. After all, every book up to this point has been all about how wonderful Pa is and how he’s able to get them out of so many scrapes. Sure, Pa anticipated a bad winter when he saw the muskrats’ burrows, but he didn’t think too much of it. (That and Ma talked him out of his worry.)

This is where I start to get really uncharitable. I don’t like Mary. At this point, I’ve spent six books with her (2 with a blind Mary), and she just keeps getting worse. Starting with things like, “‘It must be one of Laura’s queer notions,’ Mary said, busily knitting in her chair by the stove. ‘How could cattle’s heads freeze to the ground, Laura? It’s really worrying the way you talk sometimes.'” (page 50). Well, first of all, they were frozen to the ground, Mary, and second of all, stop being so judgey. And, I also realized that whenever I thought of Mary, I would picture Claire Danes’ cry face in Little Women. 

OK. Now I really want to talk about the Ingalls’ family busting their asses to send Mary to college. Why? I know it was a good experience for her in a life that wouldn’t be full of much excitement, but it almost broke the family. Like the time during The Long Winter when the family was running out of money. Ma quietly grabbed her pocketbook (the one that held “Mary’s money”). Pa stated loudly, “Mary, it may be the town’s running short of supplies. If the lumber yard and stores are pushing up prices too high…” Pa then paused so Mary could be a good girl to volunteer her money. The family was at risk of freezing, why did Mary get a choice? It’s at this point that I have to remind myself of the book’s fictional nature. (Deep, cleansing breaths.)

One other odd point that I really noticed reading this book was the sometimes odd sentence structure, such as “Teacher came to the door and boys and girls must go in to their lessons.” Appropriately in the past tense, that sentence would read “When Teacher came to the door, boys and girls had to go in to their lessons.” I feel like the sentence structure is supposed to emphasize the point as a lesson to the younger generation. Let’s face it, you know in her old age Laura was probably appalled at the behavior of young people!

What I Remember

What I remember most is Almanzo and Cap driving to find everyone food. Funny how stories of bravery really stick in your mind!

Have you read The Long Winter? What did you think? Am I mean for not liking Mary?