(Interview) Wendy McClure on Living 'The Wilder Life'
When I first discovered blogs in the olden days of 2004, one of my standby reads was Wendy McClure's late, lamented Poundy (That link that will now take you to her eponymous website, but do you remember those old recipe cards?)
Wendy's words were so smart and funny that it made me jealous, and when I feel that way, whomever I'm reading has a fan for life. She also delved into issues like body image, pop culture and the general minutiae of life that populated my own brain, so in addition to being impressed, I could relate to her in the most personal of ways. I read her memoir I'm Not the New Me (you should too, if body image and weight are on your radar at all, seriously), and followed her around (in a hopefully minimally-creepy way) at the 2007 BlogHer conference in Chicago.
You should know that I do not allow myself fan-girl moments, most especially in blogging. I made an exception here.
A year or so later, I noticed an @halfpintingalls account on Twitter. A Little House books geek of the highest order since early childhood, I immediately followed this virtual Laura Ingalls on her digital trip to 2011. I chatted her up on Twitter (like I said: geek) and eventually learned that Wendy was the voice behind Laura's Twitter handle. And really, who else would be behind tweets like, "Today in honor of Almanzo's 154th birthday, I'm making him a stack of 154 pancakes! (Which he'll finish off in about 10 minutes.)"? Prairie humor, folks. It's all here.
Some months later, I learned that in addition to her work as a children's book publisher and columnist for Bust magazine, Wendy was working on a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman who traveled the U.S. prairies with her family and then her husband, and left a legacy of yellow softcover books -- from The Little House in the Big Woods all the way to These Happy Golden Years -- behind.
A return to her own childhood interest in Laura -- courtesy of her own explorations and a sweet gift of those softcovers from her fiance -- took Wendy back to Laura World too. This didn't mean visiting a single homestead and calling it quits, no way. She took this process to the prairie wall, trying out recipes from the books and churning butter at home, developing a taste for bonnets, and engaging with the wider world of Wilder historians and fans online and in person. She took it on the road, too, tracing the Ingalls-Wilder clan's origins and their pioneer paths across the United States, from New York and Wisconsin to the Dakotas, Missouri and Manhattan.
Wendy's record of this experience, the book The Wilder Life -- part memoir, part biography, part American travelogue -- debuted this spring. She was kind enough to send me a review copy this winter that I devoured, and last week, she graciously responded to some questions about her writing process, her relationship to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her views on Laura's world.
Much like you, I truly felt that I inhabited these books and Laura's world when I read them as a young girl. And reading your book, it's so easy to go right back -- Pa's fiddle, Almanzo's donut jar, the china shepherdess. Any ideas about why these stories imprinted on so many of us so deeply?
I think it's in the vividness of the details and the immediacy of Laura's point of view. So much of the narrative is simply about looking, so that after awhile you begin to feel like you're in her head, inhabiting her life.
I think I loved your descriptions of the Ingalls Homestead the best. I could really feel you there and see the details in my mind so clearly (especially The Big Slough. Yikes.) Did you have a favorite place of the many that you visited?
I loved Ingalls Homestead, too, but really, I have different favorites for different things. I loved the pageant and festival atmosphere of Walnut Grove, MN, for example. Other places, like Pepin, Wisconsin and the site in Kansas, felt wonderfully forlorn in March and April. And the day we went to Burr Oak, Iowa, it was the height of summer and there was this wonderful road-trip carefree feeling to my experience there. They were all great.
You've written about issues of race and class in the books (Dr. Tan, the black doctor, and the obvious negative representations of Native Americans) Do you think these representations present problems for young people reading them now?
I think Little House on the Prairie could stand to be read with a bit of guidance. There's a lot to discuss in that novel—in fact, the book itself is really a conversation about Native Americans and white settlement. And while the conversation was a fairly thoughtful one in the 1930s when the book was first published, it's not as sensitive as it could be by today's standards—it's well-meaning but dated. I think reading LHOtP alongside something like The Birchbark House by Louise Erdich, which shows the Native perspective, is an ideal context for kids today.
I discovered @halfpintingalls on Twitter before I knew you were her "voice." What inspired that? And did you already have the book in mind when you created the Twitter persona?
No... I was starting to become obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Twitter account was an outlet. I love how Twitter is about the minute details of our everyday lives, just like the Little House books are, and it seemed hilarious to me to combine the two things. Once I started working on The Wilder Life, writing the HalfPintIngalls "Twittergraphs" really helped me with the overall tone of the book in that it taught me how to balance the irreverence with the loving tribute.
If a Little House fan could visit only one of the places on your grand tour, where would you recommend she go?
It would depend on what you really want. If you're interested in visiting the world of the books, Ingalls Homestead in South Dakota is the place to go, because it shows you what it was like to live on the prairie. But if you want to get as close as you can to Laura the person, then her adulthood home in Mansfield, Missouri, is the ideal destination, where you can see where she wrote the books and all her personal and family artifacts.
You became so immersed in these stories, and in Laura World, as you call it. How do you make the transition out? Do you think you have more work to do where she is concerned or can you move on to something else?
I'd still like to find out more about [Laura's daughter and only child] Rose. She was so prolific a writer and so complicated a personality that I really don't feel like I'm "done" with her—which is to say, I would love to read another biography or two about her. I think I'll finally transition out when I find a subject that's just as absorbing, and I haven't quite done that yet (unless you count wedding planning).
Finally, I know this process involved integrating your ideas about Laura from the stories, from commentary on others in her life (family, biographers, other fans) and then what you saw on the road. What is your lasting impression of her?
A woman I don't agree with about everything, but who has a strong spirit, surprising depth, and remarkable sense of self.
Many thanks to Wendy McClure for her time and insight, and most of all, for waking up the part of this girl's mind that can still see the dirt floor of the dugout and Pa's fiddle in the moonlight. It's been well worth revisiting.
How do you feel about Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder?
(Credit Image: Jo Nahler on Flickr.)