Advice for Literary Pilgrims: An Interview with ‘Little House’ Enthusiast Wendy McClure

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In The Wilder Life , Wendy McClure, author, BUST magazine columnist, and children’s book editor, embarks on a pilgrimage of sorts to try to find the world of her beloved Little House on the Prairie — a place she’s never been to, but like many of us, knows by heart. Any good immersion in a fictional world starts with the food, but McClure graduates quickly from butter-churning to road-tripping through the prairie to sleeping in a covered wagon, visiting places she remembers from her cherished books and searching for the authentic “Laura experience,” her clever commentary and whole-hearted openness entertaining us all the while.

The urge McClure is chasing isn’t exactly an uncommon phenomenon, of course — who hasn’t wanted to throw themselves headlong into the world of their favorite novel, whether it be close to their current reality or as far flung as one could imagine? It’s enough of an essential human feeling that there are tourist spots all through the Little House journey, and consider the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Dickens World — attempts at reconstructing entire worlds that have no real-life artifacts to cling to, in the hopes that visitors might, for one moment, feel like they’re really part of the world they love so much. So if you’ve ever wanted to immerse yourself in the world of your favorite book — whether that would mean learning how to handle a butter-churn or a broadsword — this book is for you. We took a few minutes to talk to McClure about her travels, her insights, and her advice for future pilgrims.

Flavorpill: What do you think it is about the Little House on the Prairie books that inspire the kind of dedication and homage you describe – both in yourself and apparently, in lots of others? Clearly, it’s different for everyone, but is there an obvious (or non-obvious) common thread?

Wendy McClure: The books have the weight of lived experience to them and we all feel it, not just in the knowledge that there was a real-life Ingalls family, but in the way the narrative puts us so completely inside Laura’s head. And we feel this over the course of several books covering a span of something like twelve years, so there’s a sustained intimacy and after a while, it feels like your life has been grafted to Laura’s.

The rock house, where the first three or four Little House books were written. Photo credit: Wendy McClure

FP: Can you talk a little bit about the perils and joys of getting so completely sucked into a fictional (or semi-fictional) world that you want to immerse yourself inside it?

WM: I think “immerse” is the key term here, and it’s behind both the pleasure and the pain. You want so much to visit this other realm, impossible though it is, that you become hooked on finding new things — new pictures, new bits of information, because it keeps you engaged and keeps the world alive. And then the pursuit itself is immersive, so it’s easy to lose hours online looking for stuff. It’s great when it pays off, and when it doesn’t, you can get this awful, hungover feeling. You also become increasingly frustrated when you see other people getting things wrong, and you risk becoming this goofy person who’s constantly like, “ACTUALLY, the REAL reason why the Ingalls family left Kansas in 1871 is because blah blah blah…” But when you find your own people, it’s great.

FP: This might sound weird, but do you think it’s a certain type of person who gets sucked into narratives in this way – not just the kind of person who’s enthralled by tales of prairie living in particular, but are there certain qualities that lend themselves to obsessive reading? Like having an “addictive personality” — but with books?

WM: That’s a good question. On one hand, I can think of a few serious Laura fans I know who also happen to be really into things like the Twilight saga, or Star Trek, and that would support the addictive-personality idea. But I also think this kind of fandom, this all-out total enthusiasm for a series of books or movies or a TV show, is becoming increasingly common. The Harry Potter series created this massive blockbuster model for books and movies, and now it seems like everyone — the publishers, the studios, the readers and viewers — all really want to keep creating that kind of experience, because it’s fun, and because it sells. It doesn’t hurt that we now live in a time where we have the technology to watch our favorite things over and over again, and countless outlets online for pursuing our obsessions. I guess I do think some folks are more naturally inclined to go down the rabbit hole with books, but these days it’s hard to separate nature from nurture.

The replica of the Ingalls family’s cabin. Photo credit: Wendy McClure

FP: In the end, you seem burned out by all the Laura places, but you still say without question that you want to go back. Do you think this is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life? Will you go back and do it all again? Did you find, finally, what you were looking for?

WM: I still want to visit all the homesites again, either to show Chris the places he didn’t get to see with me, or to show them to other friends, or, in a couple cases, to give myself the chance to experience these without the pressure of writing about them. It’s weird, because for three years this passion was also part of my job, so from a work standpoint I feel like I’m done, and professionally I know I should move on to other projects. But I’m a little sad about moving on, too, because I know if I stick with it, my knowledge will keep evolving. It definitely happened when I was working on this eBook special (Don’t Trade the Baby for a Horse) this winter: everything opened up again, and I was poring over my old paperbacks. I’d also love to read more about Rose Wilder Lane, because she’s so interesting. Maybe I’ll have a chance to go back. I guess I did find what I was looking for, but there’s so much more out there, too.

Photo credit: Wendy McClure

FP: Is there anything from your Little House journeys that you’ve ended up incorporating into your “real” life? A recipe, a sunbonnet on hot days, a penchant for butter churning?

WM: I am definitely keeping a few of those sunbonnets for gardening and for days at the beach when it’s windy and I don’t care about looking like I’m in an FLDS sect. And I plan to make apples ‘n’ onions (pictured above) again next time I host a Thanksgiving.

FP: What advice would you give to someone else trying to do similar pilgrimages – whether searching for the essence of Little House or another book?

WM: You have to stop worrying about being disappointed by what you find — in my experience it’s rare to be truly let down by a place. I think it also helps to have someone else along for the ride, as long as they let you have time and space to wander on your own if you need to. And there is no right or wrong way to do these things: if you only feel like staying in Walnut Grove for an hour, stay for an hour. Oh, and splurge for a night in a nice chain motel, for God’s sake. That Holiday Inn in Albert Lea, Minnesota, was exactly what I needed. We sat up late and watched a Roseanne marathon. It ruled.