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Sometimes you have to live The Wilder Life

Posted Apr 18 2011 7:54am

The Wilder Life

Disclosure: Wendy is a friend of mine and she gave me an advanced review copy of this book for free. I’ve done work on her web site . She also let me sleep at her apartment one weekend during a Wordcamp conference and left the unfinished manuscript in the room I slept in, which I was very tempted to read, but I restrained myself from doing because I apparently have ethics. One night that weekend we watched the orangutan episode of Little House on the Prairie . All of which I say to be totally transparent, not to be pretentious or drop names. (Whoops! Could you pick that up for me?)

Sometimes we have nostalgia for a life that wasn’t ours or for things that never happened. I felt this way recently when watching the 90′s TV show My So-Called Life on Netflix streaming and found myself back in the world of introspective Angela Chase who looked like she dyed her hair with Kool-Aid, illiterate Jordan Catalano who really knew how to lean, and openly gay Rickie Vasquez who loved guyliner long before Adam Lambert did. I remembered how much I loved that show and the guilt I felt for only watching it on MTV after it was cancelled, even though I wasn’t a Neilson family and my viewing habits probably had no bearing on the ratings. I started to wonder what happened to those characters. Did Rickie get to stay with Mr. Katimski? Did Angela’s dad sleep with Hallie Lowenthal? Did Brian Krakow ever get laid? Why did we call all these people by their first and last names? Who the hell was Tino?

Then I had to remind myself that, oh, by the way, NONE OF THESE PEOPLE WERE REAL. But I really cared about them, and in some ways they were more real to me than people who really existed that I never met. I found myself longing for something I could not really name. I think this is how Wendy McClure felt about the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder which she writes about in her book The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie . Although Laura Ingalls Wilder really did exist and her books are based on her experiences growing up in the Midwest during the late 19th century, some of it is fictionalized and some parts are smoothed over or edited to leave out inconvenient truths. How much and by whom is one subject of Wendy’s book. Even if the stories aren’t 100% true, Wendy’s love for the books and the seemingly simpler life they portrayed is very real.

The book follows Wendy as she visits the different homes mentioned in the books. She also explores the emotions and questions these trips stir in her. Although I know of the Little House books, I honestly can’t recall if I read any of them. I never watched the TV series because it started before I existed and ended before I had the proper language skills to understand it. (That doesn’t really matter since Wendy’s book focuses on the books, not the show.) Despite all that, I was able to follow Wendy’s book without confusion, though I’m sure people who know the books will understand many of the references better than I did.

I had a meta experience reading this book because I know several of the people and places Wendy talks about. I can imagine her boyfriend Chris speaking the dialogue that’s written. I can visualize the kitchen where she churns butter. I know who the friends are that she mentions in Wisconsin. So, just as Wendy had entered the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I too had entered the world of Wendy McClure! I didn’t have any groundbreaking realizations about that though, and I doubt I could sell a book proposal about it. Sorry, Wendy.

I could give you a detailed review of the book, but I thought what was more important was the self-reflection it sparked in me (because really, let’s make this all about me). Even though I enjoyed the book and I recommend it, I also know that I would never take the trip Wendy took for three reasons:

1) The closest I’ve come to caring about prairie life was playing The Oregon Trail on the computer. I believe it sucked to have to churn your own butter, live in fear of Indian raids, and to make your own clothes instead of outsourcing them to China.
Please note that despite all this I liked Wendy’s book because her love of this world comes through, even if she admits it’s somewhat romanticized. Instead, I’ve always preferred fantasy or science fiction that lets you look into the future or imagine magical lands with dragons or hot vampires that are so into you.

2) My grandparents had a farm and visiting it sort of sucked.
My mom’s parents lived in a small town in southern Indiana. My grandfather was a salesman at Sears and my grandmother raised 14 children. A few years after my mother left home, they had saved enough money to buy a farm outside of town. It was their lifelong dream, which goes to show that some people’s dreams are other people’s nightmares. As a kid I assumed that every kid’s grandparents owned a farm, as if this were part of everyday life, like school and church and birthday parties at Chucky Cheese.

My grandparents’ farm was larger and better built than a log cabin, but their life was much closer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life than mine ever was. They sold eggs from the front porch. They grew their own green beans and ate chickens they raised. They bailed hay. Also, their house was kinda gross. My grandmother let dirty dishes collect over every square inch of the counter, giving off a wretched smell. The bathroom was ostensibly better than an outhouse, but the toilet was old and smelled weird and I would do my business as quickly as possible and escape before the toilet was done flushing. Oh, and the home-grown green beans and chicken I mentioned? They tasted funky. I hated them. This was either because kids can be finicky eaters or because I’d been raised on frozen green beans and hormone-injected chickens, so my expectations of how these foods should tasted differed from what was served on my plate. I also hated that the farm fields were full of cow pies. My younger brother evidently hated it more, which was demonstrated when he barfed after seeing a cow take a dump. This made my grandfather keel over laughing so hard that I’m surprised it didn’t trigger the stroke that killed him several years later.

There were good things about the farm too. Seeing the box of baby chickens with newborn fuzz made it worth visiting the creepy basement with stairs as steep as a Mayan ruin. I enjoyed picking blackberries by the fence and licking the juice off my sticky fingers. A photo of me sitting on a tractor totally impressed my fourth-grade crush who was evidently into farm implements. My grandmother’s angel-food cake rocked my world of childhood obesity. I thought my grandfather was the most awesome badass before I even knew the word “badass” when he tossed a chicken across the coop to inspect the eggs in her nest. I didn’t know you were allowed to toss chickens! (My grandpa was a total trendsetter because he was doing this long before Angry Birds came out.) There are also many hilarious stories of trauma induced by farm life, like the time my aunt was chased by a chicken with its head cut off, squirting blood everywhere.

All of which is to say, I’ve seen farm life. I haven’t lived it, but I have a general impression of it. That impression has left me with no desire to go on a homesteading tour of the country.

3) I have lived in many houses, gone back to visit them, and similarly felt bittersweet about it, just as Wendy did and that Laura Ingalls Wilder evidently felt herself on a return trip. No need to relive that.
Wendy states in the book that she lived in the same house her whole childhood. There is part of me that wishes I could say the same, but instead I lived in at least six houses during my childhood in four different states. I also resided in an indeterminate number of apartments and one lake house between escrow transactions, one of which had a carpeted stairway that my older brother and I would body surf down despite the rug burns. No, I wasn’t an army brat. If examined, the reason for the multiple moves would resemble cracks in the fuselage of a plane representing our life that signal the impending destruction of the craft which came with the abrupt end of my parents’ marriage, as if we all got sucked out a gaping hole in midair and were left spinning and tumbling toward the earth unexpectedly.

But enough about that! I’ve lived a lot of places and I’ve gone back to visit those houses in Maryland and Indiana and Kentucky, though never the one in Virgina. I too felt that something was missing, like Wendy felt at many of Laura’s old homes. It’s as if I came looking for my eight-year-old self playing in the backyard but instead could only find my twenty-something self idling in the car outside like a stalker. Yeah, the shutters had been painted and they’d put up a fence and some stranger was sleeping in my old bedroom, but that’s not what was really different. What was different was me.

The things that remind me of my childhood are not the buildings I used to live in. It’s seeing spiky gumballs from a Sweetgum tree on my daily walk and remembering how they’d hurt my bare feet when I played in the backyard in Virginia. It’s seeing She-Ra in my DVD queue and remembering the year my parents spent searching for the Flutterina doll (who wasn’t even a major character) that I wanted desperately because her wings REALLY fluttered and that I wanted even more because I’d gifted one at a birthday party for a girl who’s name I can’t remember. It’s making brownies from scratch and remembering how my mom would let me stir in the sugar and flour as I stood on a chair to reach the counter although the flour made the batter so thick my little six-year-old arms could never finish stirring it all the way in.

I think that’s what Wendy was looking for when she set off on this journey and wrote this book. She was looking for a connection to the past that she hadn’t actually lived, but that she had often visited, as if it really did lay across a misty river. She was trying to travel back in time, but you can’t really do that. You can only get messages from the past left behind in books and letters that weren’t addressed to you, though really they were.

But that’s the best part about books, when someone reaches out from the page, grabs your hand, and takes you on a trip to someplace you didn’t know you wanted to go or to someplace you know far too well. It’s when you see yourself in them and become their friend, even if they never had a chance to become yours because of time or distance.

I think it’s ok to have nostalgia for a past that wasn’t yours. I think it’s ok to wonder what Angela Chase is up to or where the little house in the big woods really was. Books and TV and movies are the closest thing we have to a collective memory. You might remember Jordan Catalano too, and we could talk about how pretty his eyes were just as if we’d all really gone to high school together. It’s not that different from reminiscing with people I did go to high school with about that time someone set a fire in the girls’ bathroom on the last day of senior year. We remember it all like it was real, just as I remember Miss Agnes who lived next door and bought me sticker books, and my friend Stacey from two houses down who was allowed to stay up after her parents went to bed and scared the ever living God out of me by screening Gremlins at a sleepover. How do I know that any of it was real except that I remember it?

It’s ok to live in the now but also to know that one day this will be your past and someone else’s period drama. It’s ok to reminisce about something that didn’t really happen to you, but felt like it did. But if you do go digging through the past, be prepared to find out things you don’t really want to know, like learning that the adult you got bored with She-Ra five minutes into an episode. Be prepared to learn things you do want to know, like discovering Gremlins is actually pretty damn funny. Be prepared to wonder if it’s better to selectively remember just the good bits.

Know that those places you visit might seem smaller because you’ve become bigger. Sometimes you have to go there, though. Sometimes you need to know where you came from so you can better see where you are and who you love.

Sometimes you have to live The Wilder Life .

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