"The Wilder Life" by Wendy McClure

Uploaded by HooverPresLib on 01.11.2011

I want to welcome you this gorgeous Sunday afternoon to our author talk of Wendy McClure.
I know most of you are probably in a pioneer mode, and this won’t apply to you, but for
those of you modernists, if you would silence your electronic devices so that we don’t
have any interesting bell tone rings during the talk.
One of the most important aspects of this particular Library-Museum is that it is located
within distance of Herbert Hoover’s actual birthplace home. So the power of place is
very important in understanding the Hoover story. And it’s clearly important for Laura
Ingalls Wilder and for those who want to follow that adventure. So I think it’s very important,
or appropriate, to have this talk, not only because we have Rose Wilder Lane’s papers
here, and some of the manuscripts of her mother, but also that connection with place. I’ve
not read any of the Little House books. And when I was reading Wendy’s book, this passage
struck me. “Boys in these early books rank about the same level as bears. Obviously not
as dangerous, but like bears, their exploits make for swell anecdotes once in awhile, the
sort of story that invariably ends with a good whipping.”
[Laughter] Now about the author, Wendy McClure is an
author columnist for BUST magazine, which is “Breaking Through and Busting Stereotypes.”
There may be a double-entrendré there as well. And a children’s book editor. Her
essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Chicago Sun Times, and a number
of anthologies, including “Love is a Four Letter Word,” “Feed Me,” and “Sleep
Away: Writings on Summer Camp.” In addition, she’s contributed to the radio show “Writers
Block Party” on NPR station WBEZ in Chicago. And has spoken at conferences for Blog Her,
and American Society for Journalists and Authors, and for literary events at the Chicago Tribune,
Printers Row Book Festival, and Story Studio Chicago. She has a Master’s in Fine Arts
in Poetry from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her 2005 memoir, “I’m Not the New Me,”
was featured in publications such as Time Magazine, USA Today, Al, and the San Francisco
Chronicle. It was based in part on her web log, “Pound,” which she first began in
2000 to write about body image issues and to make fun of aerobics instructors, and has
been featuring “Glamour” and other magazines. Her infamous on-line collection of vintage
Weight Watchers recipe cards and commentary was published in the 2006 humor book, “The
Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan.” Her new book, is the one she’s talking about
today, “The Wider Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.”
Wendy is a part-time senior editor at Albert Whitman & Company where she’s edited over
50 novels and picture books for children, and has written and ghost written a few of
her own. She has been a speaker and visiting editor at a number of society for children’s
book writers and illustrator’s conferences around the country. Ladies and gentlemen,
please welcome Wendy McClure. [Applause]
Thank you very much. Can you hear me? Can you hear me okay? Great. I just noticed when
I carried this in that my husband, Chris, was looking like wondering if I got another
butter churn. No. This is, this is Mary’s. I already have two. So, that’s the turn
my life has taken the past couple years. I am going to start out with reading a little
bit from my book The Wilder Life. Just a little bit of introduction so you can get a sense
of how it was I became a person who now owns two butter churns. And then, after talking
for a little bit, I will be taking some questions. But I want to make sure everyone hears me
okay. Audience member: Not as well as before.
Wendy: What? Not as well as before. Okay. Let me see if this is set a little higher.
How ‘bout this? Is this better? Okay. All right. So I’m going to talk a little bit,
read from the book, and then show you some pictures, which is essentially what I did
on my Laura Ingalls Wilder vacation. We’re starting out the opening chapter from
the book – just to get you in the right state of mind.
“I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin and maybe you were, too. We lived with our
family in the Big Woods, and then we all traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory, where
Pa built us another house, out on high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?
“We remember the strangest things: the way rabbits and wild hens and snakes raced past
the cabin to escape a prairie fire, or else how it felt when the head of a needle slipped
through a hole in the thimble and stuck us hard, and we wanted to yell, but we didn’t.
We moved on to Minnesota, then South Dakota. I swear to God it’s true: we were a girl
named Laura, who lived and grew up and grew old and passed on, and then she became a part
of us somehow. She existed fully formed in our heads, her memories swimming around in
our brains with our own. “Or that’s how it felt to me at least.
That’s how it still feels sometimes, if I really think about it. It’s just how reading
the Little House books was for me as a kid. They gave me the uncanny sense that I’d
experienced everything she had, that I had nearly drowned in the same flooded creek,
endured the grasshopper plague of 1875, and lived the Hard Winter. It’s a classic childhood
delusion, I know, and in my typically dippy way I tended to believe that the fantasy was
mine alone, that this magical past-life business was between Laura and me and no one else.
Surely I was the only one who had this profound mind-meld with her that allowed me to feel
her phantom pigtails tugging at my scalp: I had to be the only one who was into the
books that much.” Obviously that’s not true.
“Most of the Little House books I read came from the public library. . . . I remember
studying the list of books in the series; their titles appeared in small caps in the
front matter of every book, and I loved the way the list had its own rhythm: Little House
in the Big Woods. Little House on the Prairie. Farmer Boy. On the Banks of Plum Creek. By
the Shores of Silver Lake. The Long Winter. Of course I memorized them. Little Town on
the Prairie. These Happy Golden Years. The First Four Years. The words plodded along
reliably, like the feet of Indian ponies. “And, oh my God: I wanted to live in one
room with my whole family and have a pathetic corncob doll all my own. I wanted to wear
a calico sunbonnet – or rather, I wanted to not wear a calico sunbonnet, the way Laura
did, letting it hand down her back by its ties. I wanted to do chores because of those
books.” [Laughter]
“Carry water, churn butter, make headcheese. I wanted dead rabbits brought home for supper.
I wanted to go out in the backyard and just, I don’t know, grab stuff off trees, or uproot
things from the ground, and bring it all inside in a basket and have my parents say, ‘My
land! What a harvest!’” [Laughter]
“There were a host of other things from the books that I remember I wanted to do,
too, such as: Make candy by pouring syrup in the snow. Make bullets by pouring lead.
Sew a seam with tiny and perfectly straight stitches. Have a man’s hand span my corseted
waist, which at the time didn’t seem creepy at all. [Laughter] Twist hay into sticks.
Eat salt pork. Eat fat pork. Keep a suckling pig as a pet. Chase a horse or ox into a barn
stall. Ride on the back of a pony just by hanging on to its mane. Feel the Chinook wind.”
So that was my state of mind when I was a kid and read the books. And as it happened,
I didn’t really return to the books again for a very long time. For more than 30 years.
I’m a children’s book editor, so I don’t know why, but in partly it’s because I look
at things with so much of an editor’s eye that I was afraid the books wouldn’t be
as good as I remembered. But all that changed a few years ago when
my parents were moving across the country and they were having a garage sale and I came
across a box of children’s books. And, I know I mentioned before that I read most of
the books from the public library, so I didn’t think I had that sort of beloved set that
a lot of you I know have, that you read again year after year. But as it turned out, way
back in the day, I did own one little battered copy of Little House in the Big Woods. And,
this isn’t even my name on the inside. [Laughter]
I don’t know where this came from! But, I know I read it and that’s how it started
30 years ago. And then, 30 years later, that’s how it started again. Because I re-read the
books for the first time and it was just really, just a kind of revelation. So I became kind
of obsessed. So, you know, when I say, you know, “My
Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie,” you do know I mean this
Little House on the Prairie, and not this Little House on the Prairie.
[Laughter] Nothing against the TV show, I never actually
really watched it when I was a kid. I have gone back and I’ve watched a little bit
now. But really my love is with the books. So, as you know this is Laura Ingalls Wilder
at the time she wrote the Little House books. And this is her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
Who, as you heard, her papers are here at Hoover and with them her mother’s papers.
So that is part of the connection here. And she also helped her mother a great deal in
writing the books. This is me around the time I was reading the
books. This is camping in Illinois. And this was sort of my own sort of version of Plum
Creek in the background that I loved to play in. My hair is as long as it would ever be.
I really wanted it to be long enough to braid into pigtails. But I couldn’t really bring
that off. Around the same time I was in a production
of A Christmas Carol. That’s me, front and center. It was my stage debut. I got to be
on stage, but that wasn’t nearly as thrilling as something else I got to do. And I wonder
if you guys can guess what it is. Audience member: The fur muff.
Wendy: What? Audience member: The fur muff.
Wendy: Well, the fur muff – yes. Well, actually that’s another girl. But I got to wear – have
the fur muff the next year. This is me front and center with the red dress and the shawl,
and wearing a bonnet. And that was, that was incredibly thrilling, even more so than getting
to go on stage. And then, I was in the same production the next year and then my costume
included a fur muff. And that was awesome! Let’s see, so and then this is my, set of
books that I began to read a few years ago after I read through this copy and was telling
my now husband, Chris, how, how great the books were. How great this book was. He happened
to find a copy of the Blue Set. I’m still looking for a Yellow Set. But he brought back
the Blue Set of books. And, I remember at the time I thought, well that’s nice. I’ll
get to them eventually. No! I read through them all one after the other in the course
of a summer. I just devoured them, and that’s really when I became obsessed. I remember
taking a copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek with me to a conference in Anaheim, California.
And Disneyland was within walking distance and all I wanted – the only place I wanted
to be was in Minnesota in the 19th century. [Laughter]
That’s when I knew I had to do something. So that’s when I wanted to sort of enter
the world of the books. So one of the things I did to start out with was some hands-on
activities. As you can, as you know that’s a really big part of Little House books. So
this is, I remember looking at this as a kid and really, really, really, really wanting
to do that. And so, in time I bought my own butter churn and got to do just that. I was
real disappointed that the butter churn wasn’t as tall as I am like it was with Mary. But
that’s okay. And so I took whipping cream and this is what
the butter looks like after you take it out of the churn. I was a little surprised, to
find out that it tasted exactly like the butter you get at the supermarket because I was using
supermarket cream. [Laughter]
I was also under the impression that churning took a really long time. And I remember thinking
I was going to have to spend a whole day just, just doing this. When in reality it – if
you’ve got – if the cream is at the right temperature, it takes about 20-25 minutes,
maybe even less depending on the amount. So, so that was fun. Let’s see, I followed,
I really have to thank Barbara Walker and The Little House Cookbook, for, for guiding
me for-through making a lot of the other foods from the Little House books. If it weren’t
for her I think I would have been very lost. Does anyone know what this is?
Audience: Snow candy Wendy: Snow candy. It didn’t turn out so
well for me. [Laughter]
I liked it. But I think I like regular candy better.
[Laughter] Pans of snow. I felt in my case, I, I’ll
have to try it again with a real candy thermometer. But I found that the candy stuck better to
everything, it hard – it cooled better on everything except the snow – the counter,
everything. But I still, I still enjoyed that. I had to do that.
This is cooking up salt pork, par broiling it, par boiling it in the pan. And we cooked
that up. And a little salt pork goes a long way –
[Laughter] As we found. It’s very chewy and dense.
And I cooked up a whole sort of prairie dinner one night and including salt pork and gravy,
apples and onions, buttermilk biscuits. And my husband ate it. He said, “This is the
kind of food that is good after a day in the fields, not after transferring from the old
Yahoo mail to the new – ” [Laughter]
Transferring all your e-mail which is what he was doing. And we kind of needed a nap
afterwards. So anyway, those were the buttermilk biscuits, they were good. And then this is,
let’s see, this might be something a little interactive. If I can have a volunteer come
up and help me. Do both of you want to come up and take turns?
This is for making the bread that they had in The Long Winter. And – come on up here.
All right. So, I’m going to hold this down, and if you could just turn the grinder, and
help grind the seed wheat into flour. Is that hard? Kind of like grinding a great big pencil,
isn’t it? Sharpening it, yeah. Thank you. Is your arm tired?
[Laughter] I’ll hold that.
All right. It doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.
(Laughs) Thank you. Yeah! – Applause
So this is, this is seed wheat which was part of the only provisions that the Ingalls family
had during the Long Winter, in the book The Long Winter. And they, the only thing they
could really do with it, I think the boiled it, they did some other things with it, but
one thing they did was they used a coffee grinder to grind it into flour, which you
can see, is forming in the little drawer here. And they used that to make bread. So, you
kids could see how hard it was to turn and they had to do that every day. So, it took
a really – an awful lot of sitting around and grinding that. And we got to sit in front
of the TV and do that. So, anyway, this is the bread that we produced from that. It did
taste very good, but it was a lot of work. Let’s see, these are Vanity Cakes that,
as you know from the book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. And they’re supposed to be really
light and airy. I kind of thought they were like the Crispy Creams of the prairie.
[Laughter] So, it involves frying dough, and you cook
them in about two pounds of lard. And the apartment smelled like a state fair!
[Laughter] I don’t think I really – no one really
knows if they have the right recipe for Vanity Cakes. It is some sort of fried dough recipe
and I don’t feel like I came even close to mastering what Ma had done. But, I definitely
wanted to try. This is parched corn, like the corn that they
had at Thanksgiving. They would have a couple grains of parched corn by their plates to
represent all that the pilgrims had at Thanksgiving. And this was surprisingly good. You take dried
corn and you cook it up in some butter or oil in a pan until it sort of puffs up. And
some of it pops even a little bit. But you have that and you can salt it or add brown
sugar and it’s really good. This is a, a pie – in the middle of making
it. This is a green pumpkin pie that I made from, yea a green pumpkin. In the City of
Chicago, it’s kind of hard to find a green pumpkin.
[Laughter] So what I did is I had to go to the local
farmers’ market in, long about September and start asking people if they would bring
me a green pumpkin and sell it to me. And so then they said they had to tell me just
keep coming back till the green pumpkin showed up. So, finally one morning I went, and there
was a green pumpkin. And I brought it back with me on the “EL” train.
[Laughter] So, doing all this stuff in, in the City was
a little bit of a challenge. Let’s see, what else? We also went out to a living history
farm where they had a sugaring times where you learned to tap maple trees and see how
that worked. This is something that I think I will pass
around. This is something that a reader of the book, a retired machinist from Minnesota,
sent me. He makes these buckets that are sort of exact replicas of the cedar buckets used
during sugaring time in Little House in the Big Woods. And everything is made just with
pegs and all the old-time materials. And he said, “Do you want a cedar bucket?” and
I said, “Sure!” So, I’ll pass this around so you guys can look at it.
I figured since so much of the book was doing hands-on stuff that I wanted to give you a
chance to do some hands-on stuff as well. Let’s see. Now, this is the second part:
Entering the World of the Books Part Two: Road Trip. I went on a series of road trips
in order to see the Little House sites. Now this is a sign that you’ll see at one of
the home sites detailing Laura’s travels. If you’re familiar with the books, it seems
as if they start out in Wisconsin and just sort of gradually move west. In reality, as
you can see from this map, it’s actually a lot more complicated. They were in Pepin,
Wisconsin and then when Laura was just a toddler, was when they moved down to Independence,
Kansas which differs a little bit from the account in the book Little House on the Prairie.
But they were there for a little over than a year and then they actually returned to
Pepin, Wisconsin because the owner, the person who had bought the log cabin couldn’t pay
for it. So, they decided to go back and reclaim that, that property. So they returned to Pepin,
Wisconsin. So when you read the events of the novel The Little House in the Big Woods,
it’s actually kind of covers more of that second time that they lived in Pepin, Wisconsin.
From there, they moved to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. And then from there they actually moved back
east for a little while to Burr Oak, Iowa. They also lived a little bit in Minnesota.
So, it wasn’t really quite the straight shot west. There was a little bit of backtracking.
They moved on from Minnesota to DeSmet, South Dakota. And then, when Laura was an adult,
she and her daughter Rose, and her husband, Almanzo, would move down to Mansfield, Missouri.
So that’s sort of the typical trip. So I visited lots of these sites.
This is the replica log cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin, where Little House in the Big Woods took place.
I don’t think this is the exact spot that the cabin stood. But you can get a sense of
what it was like. We went in late March, which is a really interesting time to go. This is
the “Little House on the Prairie,” again, a replica cabin, in near, Independence, Kansas.
And so you can see a little bit about how they lived. After that, this is Walnut Grove,
Minnesota, which you may not have heard the words “Walnut Grove” in the books because
the name of the town is never mentioned. But it’s the town in the book, On the Banks
of Plum Creek. Most people know Walnut Grove from the TV show because that’s where the
TV show was set even though the show was shot it California.
Let’s see. Then from there, is DeSmet, South Dakota also known as Little Town on the Prairie.
And the last several books in the series take place there. And then another home site that
is also mentioned in the books is in – near Malone, New York. And this is the Farmer Boy
house. This is a really great house because it is the only the only house mentioned in
the books that still exists on its original foundations. And it’s a wonderful historical
reproduction – Or, I mean restoration. This is a site that’s not mentioned in the
books, but if you are going on sort of a Laura pilgrimage, it’s worth stopping. It’s
the, this is the Methodist church in Spring Valley, Minnesota. And this is where Laura’s
in-laws lived after they moved from this house, they eventually moved west to Spring Valley,
Minnesota. So in case you were wondering how it was that Almanzo came all that way from
where he lived in Farmer Boy to South Dakota it was because his family had moved to Spring
Valley, Minnesota. And in the sort of the early years of their married life when things
weren’t going so well for them, Laura and Almanzo and Rose stayed with his family in
Spring Valley, Minnesota. There really isn’t anything left of the Wilder farm except a
barn. But you can go to this church and see the museum and see a lot of great old photos.
This is one of my favorite sites. And there’s some applause because this is in Iowa! I knew
I wanted to go travel when I heard about this place. This is what some people consider “the
lost Laura site.” And this is the site of the hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa where the Ingalls
family lived and helped run this hotel in the years in between the books On the Banks
of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. So this is another place – and if
you were making sort of the circuit of trips around the Midwest to see the home sites you
definitely want to stop here. And then, there is this place: Mansfield,
Missouri. This is Rocky Ridge Farm. And this is where Laura and Almanzo lived for most
of their adult life after they moved down to Missouri. And it’s where she wrote the
books. And now it’s a really gorgeous museum. And, I did a little extra things; I was in
New York, and so I decided to stop by an apartment building where Rose lived for an number of,
I think one winter where the building wasn’t heated, but she sat at her typewriter and
typed away. Anyway, that building’s still standing. So anyplace that I could get to,
basically I went to see where they had lived. I went to see it.
This was the reason why I was really glad to see Pepin, Wisconsin in early March because
this is Lake Pepin, and it’s still frozen. And it’s where – it’s this ice – that
the Ingalls family drove over in the very beginning of Little House on the Prairie.
So they drove that whole distance over ice around the same time of year. And, I think
at this point the ice is still about two feet thick even though, even though it’s as late
as March. But it was really something. And I really sort of felt like if I could just
walk across that lake and then just sort of wind up in, you know, in the world of Little
House on the Prairie. But I didn’t try it. This is a sod house. This is part of a wonderful
exhibit that’s actually just outside Walnut Grove, Minnesota. And it is known as the “Sod
House on the Prairie” site. These are not historical buildings. They’re actually reproductions
using the old sod house building techniques. But it really does give you a sense of what
it was like to live out on the Minnesota prairie. And, it was just, it was a gorgeous place.
Also, just – even though you – a lot of places are reconstructed cabins and you don’t
get to see the original house, you know, or houses where Laura lived the landscape is
still very much the same. So when I remember things about going on this trip was seeing
the prairies in three different states. Prairie, more prairie, more prairie. Prairie
in Kansas. Prairie in Minnesota. And then this is where the Dugout in the book On the
Banks of Plum Creek stood. It’s now caved in. But you can visit and see the indentation
in the ground. But otherwise the site is very much the same. The trees are grown up a little
bit more, but the creek is still there. You can put your feet in it. I did that. It’s
still very clear. This is our attempt at twisting a hay stick,
like the sticks they twisted for fuel in The Long Winter. You can do this at Ingalls Homestead
in DeSmet, South Dakota. And, you have to twist a lot harder than this apparently to
make something you want to burn. Let’s see. I’m really glad that I grew
up with Barbies and not corn cob dolls. But, this is one I got. I named it Claudia.
[Laughter] I went to see the Laura pageants, there are
two in the Midwest – or the Upper Midwest. There’s the, this is the one in Walnut Grove
which is very impressive with live animals and pyrotechnics, all kinds of things. And
then here is the one in DeSmet, South Dakota. And this is a production of The Long Winter.
And it has a special guest. I don’t know if you can guess who it is.
[Laughter] I enjoyed that very much. So, various things
I learned. I learned really how – what close quarters the Ingalls family lived in. This
is their room in the hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. And this was one of the rare places – times
that I could see the actual living space where they lived. And a family of five lived in
this room. And I don’t know if you can tell, but the room is not much bigger than the bed.
There’s just a little space in the wall behind the bed, and then the head of the bed
is just beyond the borders in that picture. I’m not even standing in the room and you
can see how small it is. And a, and a family of five lived there.
This is also – this is another place that they lived. This is the Surveyor’s house
in DeSmet, South Dakota. And when you read the description in the book, it sounds like
a really big house. And it was – I guess it would be if you, you were used to living
in a room this size. But, you know as from a modern perspective it was, it was really
something to, to see the actual size of, of these places.
Let’s see, I also learned – this is the line-up for the Laura and Nellie Look-Alike
Contest in Walnut Grove, during Family Festival. All the little girls in the Laura costumes
lined up. And I learned that while dozens and dozens of girls line up to compete in
the Laura pageant, there are only a couple of Nellies.
[Laughter] I like the Nellies! The few the proud. It’s
always, it’s, this takes place in the middle of July, it’s really hot and their curls
are kind of wilting. But, bless their hearts! Let’s see, I also learned that Almanzo was
very good looking. So, and then this is downtown DeSmet and what we – I loved about being
out here – you know things from the books really start to make sense once you go to
see the places. I remember reading The Long Winter and wondering how it was that they
could get lost in a blizzard just going across the street. And I think from here you get
a sense because the streets were pretty wide. But also I would probably also get a sense
if I experienced a Dakota blizzard, which I’ve not got a chance to, but I hope to
sometime. Let’s see, this is Ingalls Homestead. This
is again – over here is a reproduction of the homestead shanty, over on the left, where
the Ingalls family lived. You still get – to give you a sense of what it’s like. Chris
and I stayed out here in a sort of a covered wagon, a sort of sheep herder wagon where
you could camp out. And there was a, there was a hail storm, a real dramatic hail storm
the night we spent in the wagon. And we really worried about the wheat crop that they had
out, they have growing at the homestead site. A reproduction of the cabin. And here I really
sort of felt like I’d really entered the world of the books.
One big thing that I found out about doing all this as people were sort of asking me
“Aren’t you worried that you’re going to see too much? And that the world of the
books that you loved, if you find out the truth behind it that it’s not going to be
the same, that you’re going to be disappointed.” I was not disappointed! Even though, you know,
you find out things – Silver Lake isn’t quite what it used to be. It’s now behind
a cement plant, and it’s really kind of dried up. I found that everything I saw still
– the world of the books as I remember them it still exists. And it only just sort of
served to just really be my love. And it’s looking at pictures of this where I realize
that I’m really glad I got to go. These are some of the cottonwood trees that
Pa planted on the homestead property. And you can see how big they are now. Another
thing that was really interesting about going to the sites is seeing – really seeing – really
being there. In the 1940s Garth Williams, who illustrated the series, went on a similar
road trip to mine in that he went around to see all the sites. And when you look at a
lot of pictures you sort of wonder, you know, you know he could have, he could have just
drawn stuff from photos he could’ve just done research and looked at old photographs.
But I think there’s just something about the sense that he was really there, standing
in pretty much the same places that still really captures them in the art.
So this is the lake that you see in the background These Happy Golden Years. And then this is
the hill where Laura and Almanzo had their homestead in the book The First Four Years.
And you can drive right off the road and pull over and take a look at it. And you can see
from the book cover that it’s very much the same place.
And this is a marker showing where the homestead site of the Ingalls family is in South Dakota.
And that’s what I did on my Laura Ingalls Wilder vacation. So that’s where the talk
part ends. But I – all these places and more are part of the book. Thank you very
much. [Applause]