The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure


The more nonfiction I read, the more I notice the amount of books, many of them published in the last ten years or so, that combine nonfiction with memoir. They are books that take an investigative topic, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, and then adds the aspects of the memoir. It’s a compelling format, but sometimes I think it works better than others. In The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of  Little House on the Prairie, I think McClure’s book is a good example of how it can work, there are also times when I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Writing a review of a memoir is always difficult. If you don’t like a memoir, does that mean you don’t like a person? Of course not, but sometimes it feels like you are reviewing a person’s life rather than an author’s book. I want to make it clear that for the most part, I really enjoyed The Wilder Life and what McClure did with the premise, but the ending felt rushed and some of the connections McClure made to her personal life were tenuous. I wanted more reflection about where her journey had taken her, rather than a tidy wrap-up at the end.

One day, when her father and mother are cleaning out their house, McClure rediscovers her childhood favorites: the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. She rereads them and finds herself obsessed with the books and living “the Wilder life”. She peruses message boards, does research, purchases a butter churn. She wants to find any facet of prairie life that she can in the modern world, so she decides to visit all of the existing Wilder museums and homesteads.

As someone who read the books as a child, but was not obsessed with them, it was fun to read about someone who was. I understood completely this kind of obsession. There’s one moment when McClure says she “felt like a fan girl”. I wanted to sit her down and say “Honey, you are a fan girl. Let that flag fly.” And for the most part, she does. McClure is funny, she is intelligent and she asks all the questions you would want someone analyzing the Little House books in 2011 to ask. For example, she asks if Laura is a feminist. She asks if Laura is racist. She examines the questions of poverty and homesteading and anything you would want to know about prairie life.

Beyond that, she also provides and extensive bibliography. If there is anything you could possibly want to know about Laura Ingalls Wilder, her family or her history, you can be sure that McClure has already read it for you. Anywhere you could possibly want to go to learn about Laura, McClure has been there. And she has talked about it in an entirely honest way. Not all Laura exhibits are created equal and McClure is honest about that.

I really liked living in McClure’s world. She’s a candid narrator and I’d love to meet her one day and talk about what it means to be a fan. I feel like Wendy McClure and Melissa Anelli would really get along. I’m certainly happy to have found McClure and her writing and will be picking up her memoir I’m Not the New Me, so if that’s not a recommendation for The Wilder Life,  I’m not sure what is.

So go read this!:  now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Do you have a review of The Wilder Life? Link to it in the comments and I’ll add it here.

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11 thoughts on “The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

  1. I appreciate this review-my sister is a big fan of Wilder and I want to get this bk for her as I think she can appreciate it

  2. I just skimmed your review since I still have to read the book and write my own and like to go in without knowing too much, but I agree with you about how hard it is to review memoir. It always sounds like a critique of the person’s life, when it’s not — Book Author is not the same as Real Author, but it’s a tricky difference!

    1. I think you would! I was bummed that you missed asking for this one on Twitter by only 2 seconds! (I mean, I’m very glad that that other person got it, but I would have loved to send it to you!!)

  3. I am not real into memoirs or into the new “genre” of memoirs/topical books, but I like your question of how to review a memoir. I’m reading Francisco Goldman’s “Say Her Name” right now and I’m not sure how to review it when I get around to it – because so many of my issues with Goldman’s writing & narrative so far are also comments, to some degree, on his life & the life of his wife, and I feel even less sure about the whole thing because he wrote the whole book about his wife’s death. How do you even start picking that apart to review what he wrote?

    1. I run into this a lot. I really enjoy reading memoirs and I think you have to have some distance from the events in the memoirs (because they’re often about sad things) in order to be able to review them. Since I enjoy them, I rarely feel like someone doesn’t “deserve” to have a memoir published. I think we all have story to tell and it’s just in how we tell it.

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