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Book: The Wilder Life

May 3, 2011

I am trying not to read many of these sort of project-memoirs as they inevitably annoy me (“What crazy thing can I do that will enable me to write a successful blog and then publish a badly-written rehash of the blog?”) BUT when I read about this: a woman sort of falls into following the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and tries out various pioneering activities (churning butter! twisting straw!), and indulges fully her love of all things Little House… well. I couldn’t resist. I requested it from the library immediately. Also in her favor: she didn’t write a blog (although she does tweet as @halfpintingalls, but I haven’t checked it out so I’m reserving judgement on that)

More about the book in a minute, but can I first take a paragraph or two to write about my own Little House love? I must have read these books at least four or five times when I was in elementary school. I distinctly remember reading On The Banks of Plum Creek and deciding it was my favorite of them all (actually I think Little House In the Big Woods and The Long Winter are my favorites now). My best friend Nicki and I would watch the show together, and since the little town we grew up in was on the Applegate Trail (which is on the Oregon Trail), our town had a parade (adjacent to the rodeo each year) in which the kids would dress up as pioneers, so we each had our own bonnets and prairie dresses. This was the “Kids Parade” and it was fabulous.

I hadn’t really thought too much about the books (except to note, every few years, that I really ought to reread them as it’s been at least 20, possibly TWENTY-FIVE years since I’ve read them, good lord I’m old) but as soon as I saw that she had gone and visited the homestead sites, and actually saw Pa’s fiddle, I was all, “Ohmygod I want to do that.” Since we don’t live anywhere near the Midwest, probably I won’t be doing that anytime soon (but if I come anywhere close to De Smet, South Dakota, I am SO visiting the homestead and spending the night in a covered wagon).

Anyway. So I rediscovered my own inner Little House-crazed girl. Reading from that point of view was definitely fun. However, as a book, although it’s getting good reviews, I was disappointed. I don’t know what I wanted, but I didn’t want a twenty-first century modern girl dropping modern-day metaphors and citing events which happened just last year (nothing dates a book faster than including pop current events references out of context: I mean, you’re talking about Little House… I don’t want to be jarred by a reference to Lady Gaga), while writing tongue-in-cheek about her earnest search to discover… something… about her kinship with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was kind of a strange, unfocused book. Instead of having a clear path, she meanders along, deciding to first test out her own homesteading techniques (because everyone needs to know how to churn butter when you live in a modern apartment), and then eventually getting out to visit the Little House sites along Lake Pepin, De Smet, and so on. Which is all fine and good (we used to make our own butter, but we just used the blender…) but she was on a search for something, and it wasn’t clear what. It wasn’t clear to us as a reader, or to her as the explorer.

She keeps referencing what she calls “Laura World,” which completely annoyed me. I think she meant that feeling she got when reading the books — of being transported back to that time when things were very here-and-now: milk the cows, make the butter, walk to school, play with an inflated pig’s bladder… To that feeling of being chums with Laura. I guess I never thought of it as this other realm — for me, there was no “Laura World;” perhaps because I grew up in an environment where we learned about the pioneers all the time (see: being right on the Oregon Trail), we learned how to make hard tack and our own soap, and how to pack a covered wagon, and all that stuff, without having to search it out. It was part of our school curriculum. So to me, it just felt like reading about history from the point of view of this nice, spunky little girl.

Anyway, so I really enjoyed hearing about all the sites, and what she saw there, and other people’s reactions to the sites. I enjoyed all of that very much. I really hate to say it, but the part where she was talking about her own life, was where she lost me. It wasn’t that she was dissatisfied with her modern life, or that she wanted to start a dairy farm, or wear prairie dresses everyday… I’m going to sound really callous, but here it is: her mom had died (very sad) and so she got her childhood set of books back, which started this whole thing up, then she met a man who became her boyfriend, and he read the books, so yay for him, and then she does all this stuff and feels vaguely unsatisfied… because Laura reminded her of her mother? Wha? That thread remained very loose for me. The whole periphery of the story — all the ins and outs of her chats with her friends, or what her boyfriend thought of the books, any of that  — was very jarring. I’m not sure why. It was way too flip, for one thing. Very casual writing, and I’m getting annoyed by this “anyone can write a memoir” thing that’s happening. Although she did not write a blog about her experiences, this book read very similarly to other books-about-blogs that I’ve read: extremely casual writing, full of asides and pop-culture references, and way too chatty. Like this here, er, blog. Yeah.

Anyway. It wasn’t bad at all, but I think actually I would have been happier reading someone’s accounts of what it was like to follow the Ingalls’ path and see all the sites, and more reflection on the Ingalls’ themselves. This was not that book, and it didn’t have to be. But I think that’s what I was expecting, and what I wanted.

That said, there was a very funny bit in the middle about going to a homesteading camp, where she and her boyfriend went to learn about homesteading techniques in a misguided effort to find authentic experiences. Although they went just for the fun of it, a whole troupe of people from an end-of-days church showed up looking for survival techniques. Because, you know, after the apocalypse, we won’t be able to just walk to the grocery store. So this was a funny clash of cultures and I thought she handled it well.

Anyway. I didn’t love the book (I did like it, however), but I loved the Little House books, so a little corner of my heart smiles upon The Wilder Life because I really did enjoy reading about all the Little House sites and biographies. And now I sense my own Little House obsession cranking up. I need to find that Little House travel book, and maybe a Laura biography. And I think along with The Hunger Games, I’ll be reading the Little House books this summer. Perfect.

If you were a little girl (or boy) who loved the Little House books, you pretty much have to read this: it was fun and interesting and I learned a bunch, but fine literature it is not.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011 1:46 pm

    I agree 100% about what you said about the “memoir” part of this book. I just didn’t get it and didn’t connect with it at all. It felt very tacked on and the connections that she tried to make didn’t make sense to me. I liked this book, but sometimes I just didn’t like the way she wrote things.

    • May 3, 2011 2:36 pm

      Exactly! I liked the “meat” of the book but the rest of it felt very tacked on — yes, that’s it exactly. It’s as if she felt it needed more of a surrounding story… but really, it didn’t. Just her experiments and travels were enough. I didn’t love her writing, but I liked the subject. It was a conflicting read.

  2. D'Arcy permalink
    May 3, 2011 3:15 pm

    I can’t decide whether to read this or not. I loved the Little House books and read all of them more than once when I was little. Someone gave us a copy of These Happy GoldenYears and Hailey was all set to start reading it,but I think I convinced her to read them in order.

    I like the sound of your summer reading plans – I also want to read The Hunger Games trilogy. I reread the Harry Potter series last summer, so maybe the Little House books should be my reread this summer. Although there’s still all those Agent Pendergast books to read…

    • May 3, 2011 4:22 pm

      You should read it! It’s a fast read and I think you’d like the parts about the sites.
      I’m totally reading The Hunger Games, and Little House, and I’m thinking of doing an HP reread over the winter.

      Agent Pendergast though… he is worth reading (at least up until the last couple books, which i didn’t love, but you have to read at least through the Diogenes trilogy!)

  3. May 3, 2011 4:46 pm

    I loved those Little House books so much when I was a girl. I re-read them this past winter and it brought it all back, but this time around my heart really went out to the parents and all they went through. I don’t think I ever had the stamina to live the pioneering life.

    • May 4, 2011 8:34 am

      OK, now I totally have to reread them. I can imagine there would be a different perspective as an adult.

  4. May 4, 2011 11:41 am


    as i was reading your reivew, your feelings about this book sound so much like my feelings about a book i just read (or *tried* to read-i ended up not finishing it.) it was called the winter of our disconnect and it was a book about a woman who tries to ‘unplug’ her addicted to technology family. she starts out talking about her familys tech addiction but when she runs out of interesting things to say about that, she starts presenting all these facts-like the history of certain technological items or the way the word ‘boredom’ wasnt in the english language until the 18th century or something like that. the history part and the part about her family were both interesting enough on their own, but the way she tried to pull the two together made it an odd and choppy read and even after reading 100 pages, i still wasnt pulled in. like, she’d be telling a story about her son and his ipod but then break the story in half to give the reader a long history of the Ipod. it was totally bizarre.

    plus, because her kids all texted a lot she was constantly writing in text speak, like using LOL or ROFL. which i HATE!

    • May 4, 2011 1:27 pm

      That is SO annoying. This book had that odd choppy quality too, and I really didn’t love the meshing of the uber-current references mixed with the Little House search. I guess I just wanted a different book, although everything she was talking about was really interesting and fun to read about. I think I read a Salon article about that book you’re talking about. I am really starting to be anti-memoir (at least, the current form of popular memoir). They are so often just obvious money-makers. An interesting idea and a year-long experiment doesn’t automatically make you a good writer.

  5. May 4, 2011 6:11 pm

    memoirs: i completely agree! i used to love nothing more than a good memoir, or even a kinda good one but lately every one i read just disappoints. so many times i read them feeling as if im reading a blog. not that blogs are bad, but if i wanted to read one id get on the computer and do so.

    • May 4, 2011 8:50 pm

      exactly. it’s pretty bad. it’s like reality TV only in book form. I like good reality TV but so much of the time it just sucks.

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