I have a confession to make: As a child, I loved Little House on the Prairie. I loved every bit of it - the books, the sappy, moralizing tv show. I had a Hollie Hobbie doll named Charlotte. I owned a sunbonnet and actually wore it. When Jimmy Carter was elected President and my class at school all write him letters telling him what we, America's children, wanted him to do for our country, I made this request: Mr. President-elect Carter, please bring back pioneer fashion.
My daughter wanted nothing to do with the books that I treasured and saved for her - she preferred Rainbow Magic fairy books and, later, Warrior cats.
I was a bit disappointed, I confess.
The Wilder Life, author Wendy McClure takes a year to travel the country, visiting all the places the real Laura lived. Along the way, she explores not only who Laura and all the Little House people really were, she takes a look at every aspect of the Little House phenomenon: Laura look-a-like contests; Little House museums; anime. Yes, you read that right.
A lot of the book is less a memoir and more an exploration of the facts of the Ingalls' family's lives versus what turns out to be the highly fictionalized account that Laura wrote. I was startled to learn this. Before reading the book, I knew, for example, that Nellie Olsen was a composite of three different people that Laura knew. I was astonished to learn, though, that the events Laura describes in the books could not have taken place as she described; the books are very much a blend of fact and fiction.
How can this be? Laura's original manuscript was an adult book called Pioneer Girl, and if you want to read it, you can order an archival copy from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa - it was never published. Apparently it's quite a popular purchase at that library, surprising given that it costs about $100. When no publisher expressed interest in it, Laura's daughter Rose suggested she try her hand at children's books; Rose - and her politics - heavily influenced their creation.
My favorite example of this was Pa, who was apparently quite the character. Pioneer Girl includes an account of the posse Pa joined when the owners of a nearby Inn are discovered to be a family of mass murderers - The "Bloody Benders." Officially, the case was never solved; in her narrative, Pa told the family when he returned that "justice was served."
Great story, right? Except that it can't possibly be true: The "Bloody Benders" were real enough, but they disappeared in 1873, after the Ingalls family had moved back to Wisconsin. Pa could not have been there.
There are dozens of tidbits like this, because mountains of research have been done on the Ingalls family and their travels. It is easy enough to look up census records* and discover for yourself that at the time Laura's family actually lived in Kansas, she was much, much younger than the Laura of the books. It is startling to learn, though, that the Ingalls homestead of Little House on the Prairie was probably an illegal one - and Pa undoubtedly knew it.
But separating out the sometimes startling fact from the fiction doesn't deter McClure: she faithfully visits all the homes in the Little House books, describing how it feels to be inside a dugout, and what it felt like to see Pa's actual fiddle. In one entertaining section, she and her husband spend a weekend at a living museum taking homesteading lessons.
I wasn't deterred, either: I enjoyed getting a clearer picture of this Pioneer Family and especially the "real" Laura. I was equally pleased to know that, even though it didn't happen in my own house, appreciation for the Little House series continues to be strong.
*yes, I did.