Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Searching for Laura

Currently Reading: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Isle of the Saints by Lisa Bitel (or Vilette by Charlotte Bronte- depends on the mood I'm in this afternoon).

Today, I'm in that ambiguous position where I desperately want to write but the words won't form themselves properly in my mind. This happens more often than I would like to admit. Part of the reason I could never have a writing career is because I enjoy the romance of writing far too much. Punching out a sentence here, erasing half a paragraph there, plodding and sashaying my way across the keyboard, just for the pure pleasure of hearing the keys click and watching the string of words grow. It may take me half an hour to write a paragraph, purely because I am enjoying crafting each sentence way too much. Add a mug of tea by my side, and throw in a lot of long sighs and head-on-chin, gazing-in-distance postures, and this is a typical picture of me fulfilling my romantic writing ideal. If I had to write for a living, I would most likely starve, since I never like writing when I have to and most of the time, I write slowly, savoring the act of writing just as much as I savor the end product.

But enough about that. I finished my second re-read of People of the Book today but will save my gut reactions to it for a post tomorrow. Instead, I feel like discussing briefly my new thoughts on The Wilder Life, since I am now about halfway through. If you remember my last post about this book, I was not terribly impressed. As I look back, I realize this was an instinctual reaction, rather than a logical one, but now that I have had more time to think it through, I have come to the conclusion that while I still don't really like the book, I can now better express why that is.

Namely, I think it comes down to perspective. As I see it, The Wilder Life is not really about one woman's interest in Little House- it's McClure's attempts and struggles to reconcile her childhood perspective of the book with the actual history behind it. At least, that's how I interpret it. (Another resonating theme is about people's search for a world that is no longer there, only coming up with tacky souvenirs and look-alike contests... but more on that another time). It is an interesting journey, believe me, but one that I am unfamiliar with. I find myself irritated with McClure when she looks at Laura's world with a 21st century eye and judges it accordingly. Don't get me wrong: I am in no way a "simple life" enthusiast. I am not one of those people who wistfully yearn for the "good ole' days" or imagine the past with big old rose-tinted glasses on. While the romantic, Anne Shirley side of me imagines what life was like for those who came before us- whether I'm looking at my 4th great-grandfather's land deeds or standing in a monastery in Ireland- the historical side of me not only colors the picture but keeps it from becoming too air-brushed. As a kid, I too loved reading the Little House books, and I made molasses candy and dragged my little red wagon all over my backyard. But I also loved finding out about the real Laura, the truth behind the stories. Unlike McClure, I never felt that Laura the author betrayed or deceived me, for the Little House books are, at their core, fictional children's books based on one family's experience, not an autobiography. Perhaps the main difference between McClure and I are in what we are searching for: she finds comfort in the details (she even states this in the first chapter) and follows those to find the real Laura in the book Laura. On the other hand, I find comfort in the atmosphere and spirit of the books, which isn't something you can recreate at a festival or with a replica. There's nothing wrong with either perspective.... it just means I don't always see eye to eye with McClure.

The narrator's sarcastic tone still doesn't sit well with me; in addition, McClure's tendency to mock the way in which other people interpret the Little House books continues to bother me as the book progresses (be prepared for her mini diatribe on the readers who like the books for their Christian values). Perhaps this is because one of the things I have always loved about literature is that every book is different to each of its readers. A quote by Edmund Wilson that Shelf Actualization posted recently says it all: "No two people ever read the same book." Think about that for a second. That means that each time you read a new book, it is born anew, as if it was published for the first time, for only you will ever read and interpret that book in the way you do. There is something magical in that thought.Yet I think McClure forgot that, somewhere down the line, and it makes her sound bitter and slightly caustic.

That being said, there are parts I enjoyed: all of the new biographical information about Laura and her family, and the historical details McClure shares (including a fantastic bit from a biography detailing how a historian found the plot of land the Ingalls cabin stood on in Kansas.... the researcher/history major/library geek that I am ate that one up!), her descriptions of the home sites she visited (especially when she comes across something appalling- like soft dolls of the Ingalls family at the Iowa homesite), and the humor that sneaks in when she is attempting to churn butter or analyzing the Little House TV series.

It's a good book, but not what I expected. I still have some more to go on it, so there will most likely be another post on this topic! It has definitely given me a lot to ponder: about our reactions to what we read; how the books we read as a child affect our "growing-up"; how those books change for us when we have already grown. Much to muse over, as always. Have a great Wednesday!


  1. Yes, "the atmosphere and spirit of the books." Me too. :) Also, I write exactly like you do -- loving the process more than the product. Which is why I have about 800 different versions of chapter one. And no other chapters. Har!

    Thanks for the reminder that no two people ever read the same book. That's particularly meaningful to me today. :)

    1. Haha! That's probably why I've never even started writing a book! At least you've taken the first plunge! You're welcome for the reminder... isn't that a great quote?


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