Monday, January 30, 2012

Westward Ho!: On Little House and childhood obsessions


The kick-off novel in my Westward Ho! reading project isn’t exactly the gritty historical fiction or gripping non-fiction narrative that you may expect… Instead, it’s the memoir of one modern-day woman searching for something authentic in a fictional historical world that was based on real-life experiences. Got all that?

Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie is, at its most basic, a tribute to the life and stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. On a deeper level, though, it is McClure’s quest to experience the world that she loved as a child—a world she knew as fiction but discovered was very much based on fact—by obsessively reading everything she can find on the topic, retracing the Ingalls’ pilgrimage West, and stocking her apartment with pioneer technologies to prove that she, a 21st-century woman, can churn butter with the best of ’em.

McClure’s quest sounds like something I would absolutely do. (My own adolescent obsession was a TV show about vampire slayers, so a little more difficult to find, but trust me, I have my own stories…) I would even enthusiastically follow McClure’s own traveling trail for the “historical scavenger hunt” (as I am terming it), but here’s the thing…I’ve never read most of the Little House books. Therefore, I think this book possessed a level of enjoyment I was capable of reaching, but I couldn’t go any further because I haven’t read all the books and couldn’t fully invest in what she was looking for. I think it was a fun read, but it would be astoundingly better for real Little House fans.

The concept of this book continues to swirl around in my head, though. My childhood and adolescence were littered with little “obsessions” that still conjure up a very special feeling in me as an adult—the feeling of which an entire moment in your life (the thoughts, emotions, experiences) are intricately linked with something so…material, sort of tangible. These feelings are harder to create as an adult (or maybe it’s just that we lack the distance we now have to childhood), and we want to keep experiencing them, experiencing that magic we felt that we link to a movie, a tv show, a book, a song.

So, McClure’s quest makes perfect sense to me, but it does come with the risk that we won’t find what we’re looking for. I marked this passage, because it perfectly identifies those fears and makes you consider if it’s worth it to search at all.

But then on page after page in the book, the girl kept discovering that all the old things weren’t quite what she expected. She was shown sadly regarding the log cabin that was smaller and emptier than she’d thought, and she warily eyed gift shop merchandise at one of the hometown museums. She stood on the asphalt in downton De Smet, South Dakota, waiting for a Fourth of July parade that never happened. She squinted in the sunlight of an open field where the Big Woods had once stood. I remembered enough about the books—just barely—to know what she’d been searching for.

It figures, I’d thought, and put the book back on the shelf.

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