A Walk on the Wilder Side

Today as I wade through my co-worker’s copy of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I keep thinking about just what makes the book superior to any electronic form. You see, I’ve resisted buying a Kindle, Nook, or I-Pad longer than most folks. My most recent literary love affair has been with a paper copy of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

This book brings back so many memories—my own love of the Little House books and how I could so easily escape into “Laura’s world.”  You see, like McClure, I, too, imagined myself making candy by boiling maple syrup and pouring it onto snow; I, too, had wanted to help Pa make those twists of hay that kindled the family’s fires;  and I, too, had wondered how on earth Ma could feed her starving family on nothing more than a bag of wheat during the Long Winter. Thanks to McClure, who does all these things herself and more, I think I now understand why Ma sometimes seemed to be in a bad mood!

As she retraces the steps of Laura’s life, McClure takes us on an enchanting journey behind the real story that leads her on some interesting adventures of her own, from sleeping in a covered wagon during a hailstorm to participating in a homesteading experience hosted by some “kooky survivalists.” If you are a Little House fan who’s ever suspected that the real story may not have been the saccharinely sweet version portrayed by Michael Landon, this book is for you. Ever wondered why the Ingalls family moved around so much? McClure does her own detective work and reveals that Charles Ingalls may have been skipping town for a reason. And did you know that the Ingalls family had once included a baby brother named Freddy who died tragically young? And have you ever wondered about the relationship between Laura and her only surviving child, Rose Wilder Lane? It’s a lot more complicated than I ever thought.

So the real story wasn’t as pure and simple as the books led us to believe, but that knowledge doesn’t diminish my appreciation of the Little House books one bit. It brings Laura’s story to life even more, told through the lens of an author who also admired Laura and longed to experience a fragment of Laura’s life herself. While McClure’s book is nonfiction, her story underscores the role of fiction in our lives. Her book reminds us of the beauty of novels and the importance of letting oneself enter the world of an author and feel something felt by someone besides ourselves.

As Carr so painstakingly reveals (with neurological evidence to boot), our brains are being reprogrammed to resist the urge to lose oneself in a book thanks to the “ecosystem of interruptions” surrounding us. Who would have thought that my mother’s torment (“Don’t think you can lose yourself in a book today, Missy; we’ve got chores to do!”) might one day be physically impossible? With a nod to Laura, this tragedy is a little bit like waking up one day and finding the wheat field of your mind destroyed by locusts.


Fiction As Social Discipline

The magnificent novel, The Imperfectionists, by debut author Tom Rachman, is a treasure trove of humanity. It is a book to be read over and over again. From loneliness to heartbreak, the author lays bare the universal emotions that unite us all. And yet, at its conclusion, I chanced upon another delight. In the back of the book, the author is interviewed by none other than Malcolm Gladwell, one of my favorite philosopher/authors.

Not only does this interview deliver great insights into the novel, but Malcolm, known for his nonfiction books, The Tipping Point and Blink among others, shares his insights on fiction:

“In a good book, we get an intimate and nuanced picture of someone–to the point where our own prejudices are completely displaced by the world created by the author. That’s an extraordinarily important kind of social discipline: It reminds us that an important part of what it means to be human is to replace our snap judgments about people with the empirical evidence they offer us.”

Va-va-voom! Upon reading this, I felt my heart swell with happiness. Malcolm had just articulated one of the many reasons that fiction appeals to so many of us. In this multi-tasking, technology-driven world, reading fiction takes on a new urgency. It’s not just leisure anymore, as Malcolm asserts, it’s social discipline. I’ll take that one step further: reading fiction is our duty!