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The Wilder Life: I read a book about an obsession with a thing I don't know anything about

This is gonna be an interactive (on my part) review, kids, so hang on.


So those're me, at (clockwise from top left) Bishop Hill, Illinois (tiny Swedish cult town from the 1800s); the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory remembrance in NYC; Emma Goldman's grave in Forest Park, Illinois; and John Adams's tomb in Quincy, Massachusetts.


When I found out there was a funny book about a person obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie series, I first thought 'I know nothing about Little House on the Prairie.' And then 'Obsessions! Historical things! Read on!'


I don't know where it came from, but visiting sites Where Things Happened makes me the happiest. And that is what Wendy McClure is doing in this book. She loved the Little House series as a child, and as an adult, it makes a resurgence into her life, and she gets into it. Really...really into it. Like buy-your-own-antique-butter-churn into it. She buys an old-fashioned butter churn to make her own butter like Laura Ingalls Wilder did. YES. That thing. I would do that shit. THIS I relate to. Not the love of the prairie or the Ingalls family's simple life (seriously wtf that sounds REALLY boring), but finding a subject and researching the shit out of every possible aspect. That is what makes life fun.


She goes on a road trip to basically all the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, most of which are in Wisconsin/Minnesota/South Dakota. She stays in a covered wagon. She tries to a convince a woman to let her sleep in her sod house. She talks to everyone and buys like ten sunbonnets. And she talks about why she's doing it. 


"'I own a butter churn,' I thought. 'You want to make something of it?' Butter wasn't even the point."

She spends the book trying to make a connection with the subject matter. Like 'If I actually experience this thing, I'll finally feel the way I want to feel; I'll see it as they saw it; I'll understand them better.' I know she links up the LIW field trips to her mother's death, but it's not just that. When we do these things and travel to sites Where Things Happened, it's an acknowledgement on our part that we are frustrated, finite people, stuck in our own timeline and unable to know everyone the way we want to.

I went to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory site because yes, those girls died a hundred years ago, but we are still sad about it. I felt like we owed it to them, which is a delusional thought on my part and of all the others who marched (and march every year), but it's a way to feel a connection to people despite the impossibility of actually reaching them.

I like Wendy McClure's writing. She falls victim to the dreaded Exclamation Point of Lameness a few times, but it happens. She's funny. She's from Chicago. She talks about the American Girl Store on Michigan Avenue (and calls Felicity's accessories the most pretentious of all of them, but EXCUSE ME, Samantha has a muff and petit fours, so back off from Felicity, ma'am). You get occasional awesomeness like this:

"Mary decides Baby Carrie can have her beads that she found at the Indian camp, even if a certain someone else would rather keep her beads for herself like a selfish little flutterbudget."
She also describes Nellie Oleson (I learned at least enough about Little House while reading this to know vague things about most of the characters) as "some kind of blond Frankenstein assembled from assorted bitch parts." Which is really writing at its finest. 

On occasion, one gets to a historical site, only to feel the experience is anticlimactic. Ex: "After reading the book so many times, I'd felt like I could float above the landscape, but now that I was here all I could feel was the sensation of being in a big wet field in Kansas." But she finds her moments elsewhere, sometimes in surprising places. 

When I went to an exhibit at the Art Institute on medieval French art, I saw a tapestry with a label next to it saying it had been in THIS specific person's house at THIS specific time when THIS specific other person was visiting, and I started crying, NOT because I was deep, but because it was a sudden, unexpected connection with the past. Those people had, at an unreachable-to-me time, been looking at this exact tapestry I was looking at 600 years later. And they had an entirely, unbelievably different worldview and way of living and I'll never be able to relate to them except for the fact we're all human and we had this tapestry we all saw.

What I'm saying is this book stirred up a lot of feelin's. And it's a prime example of one's own history influencing a reading experience. I know plenty of people who Did Not Like This Book. And I totally get why. She's close to downright nasty to Christians, and after a while it becomes apparent that part of her impetus for doing some of these things is that she's writing a book. But she genuinely loves her subject matter, and at the end, I put Little House in the Big Woods on hold at the library. The Wilder Life was an excellent, funny book about someone trying to make a connection.
"Nothing happened while I walked, except that I knew I was seeing things that Laura saw, and that Rose saw, and I liked that."

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