Wednesday, May 16, 2012



Can you dislike an artist and still appreciate his or her accomplishments? If people you do not admire draw different -- and, to you, objectionable -- conclusions from the work of an author, does that change your own view of that work and/or the artist who produced it? Can you applaud the poems of Ezra Pound knowing he was a Fascist? Can you appreciate Wagner after discovering he was a favorite of the Nazis? 
     Does the racial attitudes toward Indians in the "Little House" books diminish your admiration for their author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the stories of her pioneer childhood when she was in her sixties? Does the fact that those books now are embraced by "kooky survivalists" and Tea Party members like Sarah Palin change your view them?
      Reading Wendy McClure's hilarious and generous account of her childhood -- and adult -- obsession with Laura Wilder Ingalls and her "Little House" series helped me answer those questions.
      In "The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie" (Riverhead Books). McClure goes in search of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the 13-year-old heroine of the "Little House" series. That's the children's book classic that inevitably is described with the word "beloved" attached. McClure's Laura dresses in calico, lives in a little house on the prairie and celebrates the virtues of independence and female pluckiness. 
       But while trying to track down the sun-bonneted fictional Laura, McClure keeps butting up against another Laura: the flesh-and-blood adult author of the "Little House" series with whom she increasingly feels a creepy cultural divide. 
        Born in 1867 in the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin, that Laura, who more than a half a century later wrote down the stories of her family's pioneer lifedied in 1957, three days after her 90th birthday.
         The other Laura also was born in 1867 in the "Big Woods" of Wisconsin, but like all fictional characters, she is not an exact replica of her adult creator. For one thing, she lives on in the minds of readers like Wendy McClure.
                                              * * *

     I  never read the "Little House" books as a child, despite the fact that I was born in Wisconsin, only a few miles from where the tales begin. I only became interested in its author, Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was in my late fifties and began collecting stories of creative late bloomers. I latched on to the fact that Wilder was 65 when she published the series. Sixty-five! Her late-in-life success will give fifty-somethings and above hope, I thought. There's still time!
     I happily put Wilder on my list of creative late bloomers, but I didn't know much about her or how she came to write that phenomenally popular series in the voice of a 13-year-old. I did read how her daughter Rose, an editor and writer herself, had encouraged her mother to write down those childhood memories. That story made me identify with the Wilders even more. I had done the same with my mother – when she was in her eighties -- and even published – posthumously – a collection of my mom's essays entitled “Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80.”
      I seemed to have a lot in common with these Wilder women, I thought.
Photo by Springfield News and Leader/Betty Love
      But as I delved deeper into the background of Laura Ingalls Wilder for a book I’m writing on creative late bloomers, I started to wonder if I even would have liked Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter if I had had a chance to meet them.
                          * * *

     McClure was never really interested in the late-blooming adult author of the "Little House" books. Her fierce identification was with that other Laura: the 13-year-old girl who described in such minute detail what what life was like when Indians didn't yet all live on reservations and pioneers built log cabins on the prairies.
          For a long time McClure thought she was Laura. Like many children who read the beloved series (didn't I tell you?), McClure had lived right alongside that 13-year-old on the prairie.  The books "gave me the uncanny sense that I'd experienced everything she had, that I had nearly drowned in the same flooded creek, endured the grasshopper plague of 1875, and lived through the Hard Winter," she writes in “The Wilder Life.”

Wendy McClure, author of "The Wilder Life"
   Those feelings of being inhabited by Laura persisted even into adulthood for McClure:. "No doubt it helped that countless family restaurants and steak emporiums of my 1970s suburban childhood went for rustic, antique-strewn decorating themes, with knickknack shelves full of tin cups and assorted old-timey crap. It didn't take much more than, say, the sight of a dusty glass oil lamp on the wall above a booth at a suburban Bonanza to make me feel like I was communing with Laura while I ate my cottage fries. Which I preferred to think of as 'pan-fired potatoes.'"
     In order to sort all this out, McClure decides to go in search of Laura and try to pin down why the "Little House" series had so enchanted her as a child.
    First, she re-reads the entire series. While the magic  – “the bears, the fiddle, the roasted pig’s tail! – returns, some disturbing elements crop up along with the enchantment. McClure, for example, is appalled by Laura and her family's questionable attitudes toward Indians on display in the books (Laura at one point refers to an Indian baby as “it”). Although she had always told herself that the family's uneasiness with the Indians was the point of the books, she now finds that baggage harder to take. 
     Pressing on, McClure reads biographies and scholarly books about Wilder -- over two dozens have been published in the past 40 years, from pictures books to a Marxist feminist critique -- and begins to separate fact from fiction. She reads that Laura couldn't possibly have recalled the details of the family's time on the Kansas prairie -- she wasn't even three years old -- and that the Ingalls family were not as innocent as the books portray them. They knew, for example, that they were building an illegal homestead on Osage land. She also learns why one of the places where the family moved is left out of the series altogether: The family had hightailed it out of Burr Oak, Iowa  to avoid paying rent. 
     The "Little House" books, she has to keep reminding herself,  are not an exact recording of real events, but historic fiction. Why let facts -- especially unpleasant ones -- get in the way of a good story?
    And then there is that infamous tension between Laura and her daughter Rose. Rose is credited with encouraging her mother to begin writing down the Ingalls family story. But just how much credit should Rose get for actually shaping the books?  Is she the real genius behind the classic? The biographies are divided into decidedly pro-Laura and pro-Rose camps.
     Who cares? McClure decides. The powerful sentiments that the books evoke in her are real enough whoever was responsible, she tells herself. She bakes bread from a Little House cookbook. She buys a butter churn. She visits the various locales (now museums) where Laura and her family lived in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota. Missouri and, yes, even Burr Oak, Iowa. At the sites, she often finds herself surrounded by evangelicals who, she reflects grimly, share her love of Laura, "but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage." 
     At a "Homesteading Weekend" at the Clover Meadow Farm the lessons of self-reliance that she loves in the "Little House" series take on an even creepier political and religious tone. At the farm she meets up with members of a "kooky survivalist sect." The word "homesteading" means different things to different people, she concludes. All she wants to do is learn traditional skills like canning, blacksmithing and candle-making to recapture the adolescent simplicity of Laura’s world. They are preparing for the End Times.
     McClure begins to suspect that “if the adult Laura were alive today, there’d be something of a cultural divide between us.”
Rocky Ridge Farm where Laura Ingalls Wilder began to write.
    In my own research, I had been feeling that same gulf. Politically, both Laura and her daughter Rose seemed to have a lot in common with the modern Tea Party, a movement I find hard to admire because it so vehemently opposes helping those who can't help themselves. Both Laura and Rose were opposed to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal concern for the less fortunate. Rose called Roosevelt “a dictator” and wished him dead, Judith Thurman reports in a New Yorker article entitled "Wilder Women."  In “Credo,” a 1936 article in the Saturday Evening Post, Rose outlined her beliefs in "a quasi-anarchic democracy, with minimal taxes, limited government, and no entitlements, regulated only by the principle of personal responsibility." In 1943 Laura, a former Democrat who now blamed rural poverty on that party, told a Republican congressman that her family had made it "without help of any kind, from anyone."
     She was conveniently forgetting, of course, the help her pioneer family had received from the "federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners," Thurman points out. But, as McClure had discovered, Indians were not high on the list of Ingalls or Wilder concerns. In the "Little Hosue" series, Indians weren’t even accorded the status of people: "There were no people (on the prairie). Only Indians lived there" read one passage until, according to Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill, an outraged reader objected and Wilder agreed to amend the sentence. It now reads: "There were no settlers."
     Despite all her setbacks in her search for the innocent Laura, however, McClure pushes on. In the end, her book is a reminder of just how difficult it is to make sense of our childhood heroes and heroines, particularly the ones that only existed in our heads.  

                                                           * * *

       One of the McClure's stops in "The Wilder Life" is the comfortable farmhouse in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura Ingalls Wilder actually wrote down her stories of the harsh life on the prairie more than 50 years after the fact. McClure admits that the Rocky Ridge Farm doesn't have the same allure for her as the other Laura Ingalls Wilder spots that she remembers described in the books. Still, at the farm, she is amazed to see so many artifacts on display that she recognizes directly from the books -- Pa's fiddle and the orange-covered notebooks that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote down her stories in. All the biographies McClure had read had confirmed that, yes, she did buy those notebooks in the drugstore in town.
     "As a kid, I loved this detail; I myself had steno notebooks from Walgreen’s and wrote stories in them while lying across my bed on my stomach. Naturally I imagined her doing the same thing. Of course I didn’t quite get that she would have been in her sixties.”
     For me, it was just the opposite. I imagined a 60-something writer, a creative late bloomer finally re-living her past.
        I was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s late-in-life success.
        I still am.
        I don’t have to like a writer to admire her accomplishments.
       McClure taught me that. Creating a fictional character that generates such loyalty is no mean task at any age. But to recapture the magic of childhood – nearly 50 years later – is something of a miracle.
       Look, there she is, lying awake in bed listening to the world around her, trying to make some sense out of her life, just like every other teenager who ever existed:
      She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.



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