Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Interview: Wendy McClure Goes Back to the Little House on the Prairie

When Wendy McClure's parents were moving out of her childhood home, she rescued a box of old books from their garage — Little House in the Big Woods among them. This Laura Ingalls Wilder rediscovery set her on a "pioneer pilgrimage" into the world behind these stories, and her book, The Wilder Life (out now), chronicles this adventure, from churning butter in her Chicago apartment to sleeping in a covered wagon on the open prairie.

The first things that came back to me about the Little House books were the sensory impressions — the fresh churned butter, the vanity cakes, the, and I don’t even know which book this is in, but when they feed molasses candy to a pig?

Yeah, that’s in Farmer Boy, and the pig’s teeth stick together. They find it the next day, the pig’s looking really sad. Or even things like, also in Farmer Boy, Almanzo breaks apart a carrot, and observes that inside it looks like ice. Little things like that stick with you.

Before you started visiting the historical Little House sites, you started following recipes from the Laura Ingalls Wilder cookbook. Was it as satisfying to taste these foods as you thought it'd be?

Well, it was mixed. There was definitely satisfaction and the "Wow, I did this!" factor. I’m still putting up all the pictures on my Facebook page — ew, that’s a disgusting clump of butter! — but there's also that sense of "This is kinda like time travel!" Little things, like these recipes, are really portals into the world of the books. Rather than something like going out to a cabin and living off the grid.

(Salt pork and gravy, apples and onions, buttermilk biscuits, and home-churned butter.)

Not that you didn't try that, too! You transition from churning your own butter and doing these projects in your apartment — and, by the way, kudos to you for making your own sourdough starter, I’m terrified of fermentation — to actually visiting historic Little House sites. And your boyfriend went with you? To all of these?

Most of them.

How did you swing that? Was he just into it?

He's a wonderful soul. He's really into pursuing things even when they’re crazy. He’d be like, "Hey, stop wondering what it would be like to do all these things, and just go ahead and do them." I think if it had been me on my own I probably would’ve decided to do this, but it really helped getting encouragement from him — go for it, let your freak flag fly.

I'd imagine that as an adult on this pilgrimage there's part of you thinking, "This is a thing that crazy people do." But you ended up embracing it.

And actually you find that most of the people you meet are perfectly normal people who also think it's the sort of thing that only crazy people do. Everyone thinks that, and then everyone meets up, and you’re like, "Hey, it’s OK!"

Although you did encounter some people whose belief systems were a little different than yours, which also informed the way they interacted with the original series. Like the homeschoolers who found all the conservative libertarian values in the book.

There really are some libertarian values in the book. Rose [Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter (and a libertarian), collaborated with her mother on a significant amount of the text and] kinda stuck them in there. And for all I know, Laura may have as well. At the same time, it’s not all ideology — there are lots of people who really are disillusioned with the modern world, and the books become idealistic for them. Then others say the books have Christian values. I think they have great values, but I wouldn't call them Christian.

When you were growing up, did you have a strong sense of your family's cultural heritage?

No, I didn't really have a strong sense of it. Both of my grandmothers were born in Chicago, first generation – one was Hungarian, one was Lithuanian. There may have been a couple of blintzes here and there, but I don't think we had any kind of frontier existence.

I wonder if, for more recent descendants of immigrants (and I'm one as well), there's a connection missing to the American story. And maybe these books — imagining being there with Laura — are a way to be like, "Yup, this prairie history is a little bit mine, too."

I would love to find out that someone in my family lived in a sod house somewhere. Probably not, though. I also think, in the 1970s and '80s, there were so many confusing mixed messages about what it means to be a girl, and I remember really turning to the Little House books because she had an obvious femininity, but it wasn’t the oppressive kind.

People sometimes call Laura a tomboy, but she wasn't a girl who wanted to be a boy — she was just a girl who did things, a girl who was adventurous and still a girl. It's this idea of what it is to be a girl, that it doesn't have to be either or.

Jaime Green went to Colonial Williamsburg for a spring break in college. She hopes to return soon.

The Wilder Life is currently available on Amazon.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

Toby Jug

Oh my goodness, I haven't thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder in a decade (when I was in fourth grade and read the books). It's weird what you forget (fail to remember?). But then a blog post surfaces and you recall EXACTLY who Almanzo is.

I dreamed of being a combination of Laura, Kirsten the American Girl and Pocahontas growing up. That wasn't possible in New England suburbia, but damnit if I didn't try.

constant reader

when I was a kid I used to think about laura transporting from her prairie life to modern times and being my friend, and I would imagine showing her stuff like nintendo and air conditioning and totally amazing her. I also remember when my friend jill and I learned how babies were made and we were perplexed because in our minds there was no way ma and pa ingalls had sex. we agreed there must have been some other way back then.


@constant reader I used to think about the same thing! Like, I'd find her wandering cold and lost in the streets and amaze her with all kinds of technology, and then we'd figure out how to send her back to her time. I thought I was the only one who ever thought of that.


@constant reader I still think that there's no way that Ma and Pa Ingalls had sex -- where did all of those babies COME FROM when they were already living in a tiny room with their other kids? And their other kids were underfoot all day long?


@thebestjasmine Hey, for most of history people all slept in one little room, kids, old people and all.

Feminist Killjoy

@constant reader ME TOOOOOOOOOOOOO



@constant reader I don't know how I missed this thread, but I had THE SAME DAMN FANTASY!

constant reader

@nancydrew and @other ladies who commented I don't think I've ever told anyone about my secret imaginary friendship with laura and lookie here at all you gals who share it. I love this place. hairpinners (and make believe friends of laura ingalls wilder) for life!


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I loved those books! I always wanted to try the thing where they put hot maple syrup on snow and it gets hard and chewy. I tried it once, but it didn't work. Probably because I was a kid and didn't know that Log Cabin Maple Syrup wasn't "real" maple syrup.


Grew up in New England with a lot of snow and a lot of maple syrup. Tried it, still didn't work. Mostly I just got watery syrup and mapley slush.


@wallsdonotfall Truly I do not know why this particular comment should make me create an account, but I just want you to know that it is TOTALLY possible to do the snow and maple syrup thing. We used to do it all the time when I was a kid in Massachusetts. The trick is to boil the maple syrup for ten minutes or so. If you have a candy thermometer it should hit the soft-ball stage, but if you don't OH WELL. After ten minutes-ish, pour it onto the snow in little dribs, and it will harden into sticky, gooey, weird-looking candy that will probably pull out all of your fillings.


Ah, boiling! I guess I just warmed it up. I didn't know how to use the stove back then.

Catherine M

I love Wendy McClure and LIW. I can't wait to read this.


One of my earliest book memories is my mom and I reading alternating pages of the Little House books together. This sounds SO GOOD and I think it might be a good Mother's Day present? (I usually forget about that holiday so I'm excited to be ON THE BALL.)


I read this book last week, and it was seriously so much fun. I then immediately started rereading the Little House books. The only thing that the book didn't get into that I always think about when rereading the books is how mean Ma is -- always saying "For shame!" when someone cries, giving away Laura's beloved doll, getting upset when people laugh, because it's too loud. Ma drives me a little crazy.


Can we Hairspinsters please have a brief chat about how amazing the Little House books are? And also how this family kind of lives on nothing but is so cheerful and plucky. I re-read them this year and I guess that as a kid I didn't notice that they were in debt and losing crops left and right (especially The First Four Years). I guess I was too busy fixating on the pig bladder and bobsled. In conclusion, I'm going to read the shit out of McClure's book.


@dinos "Hairspinsters." Perfect.


@dinos When you reread them as an adult, they're pretty fucking depressing: Pa is constantly saying "after this, we'll be rich!" and then the grasshoppers eat all of the wheat or they have to move or Mary goes blind or they almost starve to death.


I agree that they have a lot of serious moments when read as an adult (as a kid too, but of course you relate much more to the parents trying to provide for their kids when you read it as an adult). The Long Winter (probably my favorite) is really vivid and scary and so is the part when Laura goes to be a schoolteacher and lives with the family she hates and is so homesick.

Katie Ritter

I feel bad for not really liking Little House on the Prairie. But I blame history teachers for making the Frontier sound like the most hellish place in the world.


I remember the little house books in bizarre detail. I was on the bus the other day, and I saw a girl reading Little House in the Big Woods, and was close enough to see that she was on "The wonderful machine" chapter. Other than thinking "I'm so fucking glad that kids still read these books" I immediately remembered "Oh, that's when Pa hired the threshing machine that threshed their wheat and seperated it from the straw".

so what?

god, i love everything about this post, all comments included. i was obsessed with little house books. as an adult i'm totally into the woodsy-living, homesteading thing and i wonder if liw shaped me as a child or if those interests are in my genes and that's why i loved liw so much? CHICK'N OR EGG?

aaand i also tried to make the maple syrup candy as a kid, but for some reason i didn't want my parents to know? cause i thought they'd be mad or something? so instead i waited until they weren't paying attention, heated up some mrs. butterworth's in the microwave and dumped it on some snow. clearly, it did not work, which was an epic disappointed to my nine-year-old self. also, why are kids such weirdos?


Not only was I in love with those books as a kid, I grew up near/went to day camp at this place: http://www.lhf.org/visit.html
It was awesome.


Awww, these were the first chapter books I read all by myself. They are fantastic. And in agreement with the other commenters - yes, the descriptions are so detailed that I immediately thought of buttons with castles on them, the pig bladder, and how Ma never showed her ears.


@punkahontas Lord. I just cut and pasted your comment and sent it to my sisters because we have been plotting to try this for years. You have been nominated for "God" by a 52 year old PERA in central Minnesota, btw.


My son is reading Little House in the Big Woods right now, and so I read it along with him, then decided to read the whole series over again. I love, love, love this series. For the people bitching about our unseasonably cold winter and spring (me included)- just remember that the trains did not arrive to DeSmet with supplies until MAY and the turkey in the barrel was still FROZEN. Perspective, people!!


I adored these books when I was in grade school, and they were the first thing I purchased when I found out I was having a daugther seven years ago. I loved how resilient they were, and the unit seemed so stable even with all of the difficult times the family had to go through. Remeber when they had to twist hay for firewood, and Laura's coat and hands were all cut up? Makes you check yourself when you feel the whining arise in your head when you can't make room for all of your Costco stuff! This book is in my Kindle cue ready to be devoured.


@crescent And grinding wheat in the coffee grinder!


@cherrispryte or the button lamp?


Also, does anyone remember on PBS a few years ago where three families lived for a spell as homesteaders just like the Ingalls? That is the best reality television ever.


My Pa read me these books. Special place in my heart, and deeply ingrained on my memory. However, that family was messed up! Pa was always dragging them off anytime they got comfy, and Ma was the grim reaper of fun. Remember how Ma thought it was slutty to have your ears showing? YOUR EARS. SLUTTY.

My dad and I always reference the scene where Pa and Laura are in the lean-to knotting straw to make psuedo logs for the fire. It's our special little in joke.

@ Constant Reader, one of my favorite games to play is "Victorian Lady". When I'm walking down the street I think, "If I were a victorian lady, what would shock me the most? That girl's shorts? The cars? Non-white police officers?" Its really a good game. Now I'm going to play WWLT (What Would Laura Think).


Aw man, love these books, BUT ...

... you know what got me in trouble, as a kid? Being in a nice hotel swimming pool (shallow end, yay 2nd grade!) and thinking that it would be nice to play a Laura Ingalls game with my brothers.

You know. The game from "Plum Creek" - when they're stuck inside during a snowstorm? The kind of "monkey-in-the-middle" game, except it is called:

Poor Pussy Wants a Corner


Yeah. Just that, bellowed inside an echoing pool room, until my mom hustled me out & away. Bah.

Another bah: Ma's cah-RAZY racism! Wheeee!


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