By Martin Northway
Ever since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the American frontier, people have been trying to find that frontier once again.
At about the same time in 2008, nearly coinciding with the Wall Street meltdown, two writers plying their trade almost half a continent apart began fulfilling their own separate “back to the land” dreams. In Chicago, editor Wendy McClure (author of “I’m Not the New Me”) began a tour of the Midwest settings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” frontier books that had been so formative in her youth.
Meanwhile, Boston newspaperman Lou Ureneck (author of award-winning “Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska”) was burrowing into New England’s own version of the “West”—upland Maine—to build a cabin and thereby reclaim his version of the American homesteading dream.
Each was responding in part to personal tragedy in their lives—in McClure’s case the death of her mother, and in Ureneck’s a decade’s worth of setbacks in marriage and career as well as the death of his own mother.
McClure is of the generation that discovered scrappy frontier girl Laura Ingalls in the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series starring Michael Landon, but she befriended Laura through the books themselves. To McClure the trials and tribulations of Laura and her family became very personal—“in my typically dippy way I tended to believe that the fantasy was mine alone”—and McClure grew up refining a fictional realm she called “Laura’s World” in which she lived out her fantasies while still occupying the modern world.
For her the link between the two worlds is what she calls “thinginess”—the quality of artifacts and objects that recall the largely interior setting of Laura’s life. The mere sight of a dusty glass oil lamp at Bonanza steakhouse transports McClure to a time that only lives in imagination. After her mother’s death, she felt a growing urgency to visit the places where the westering Ingallses had lived, clearly an attempt to clarify and consolidate her lost Oak Park childhood (there’s no mention of that long shadow Hemingway!) with her own adult version of herself.
Her fellow traveler is her patient, supportive husband, Chris, who out of love and genuine developing interest reads all the “Little House” books. In bright, engaging reportage, she records both their adventures and disappointments; for example, she confronts in a fare-thee-well at the end of the book that in reality not only is much of Laura’s world gone, but also as an author she burnished some of the books’ more unpleasant experiences, keeping them as a more positive fiction that communicate a quality of contentment.
But reality does not always disappoint fantasy. Near De Smet, South Dakota, Chris alerts Wendy after looking up from one of Garth Williams’ characteristic illustrations in “By the Shores of Silver Lake” that they are viewing the same prairie scene: “I just looked up … and there it was.”
Along the way, they encounter “Little House” enthusiasts of all stripes; clearly McClure is not alone. As a writer she is self-effacing enough not to disguise her own urban naïveté. (Encountering “creepy” Christian End Timers deep in the Bible Belt in Mansfield, Missouri? What I found noteworthy was that these pilgrims were from Wisconsin.)
This book’s appeal will be greatest for grown-up young girl enthusiasts of “Little House,” but men inevitably puzzled about what makes women tick will appreciate it too. A map and a listing of the books with their settings (there is a bibliography) would have been nice, but you’ll get over it.
For sixty-something journalist Lou Ureneck, the notion of building a foursquare cabin on a small wooded homestead offered multiple prospects of simplifying his life, reconnecting with family, whom he felt he had too often neglected, and reclaiming an intimacy with nature he had enjoyed as a boy fishing and trapping on the New Jersey shore, a refuge from his often peripatetic, fatherless existence. (Back then it was the animals, not the humans, who were wild on the shore.)
“Cabin” is an eloquent, often meditative evocation of Ureneck’s experiences working with male relatives in constructing a permanent but seasonal home for him they will also all share for hunting and holidays. In perfecting his plans and obtaining materials and building, his kin become valued partners and his friendships with them deepen.
If “thinginess” anchors McClure’s world, it is “placeness” that roots Ureneck’s, and the place that patiently emerges on his hillside is an L-shaped structure of post and beam, mortise and tenon construction with an ample porch and oiled, tongue and groove siding. There are obstacles along the way, and at least one apparent disaster recovered from by his fellow kinsmen.
A true naturalist of the stamp of Thoreau (whose influence Ureneck acknowledges), the author experiences grace even in odd moments. “There are subtle pleasures that should not be hurried,” he writes, like pausing in an unfinished cabin to enjoy the rain. Similarly, he recalls a gorgeous night scene in the craggy Peloponnese shared with an older Greek relative.
“We watched the moon ascend (as a big silvery disc),” the author remembers. “We said nothing. Stelios spoke no English; I spoke only a little Greek. Slowly … the big moon cleared the ridge and it was fully surrounded by the dark Mediterranean sky.
“‘Oreia,’ Stelios said in Greek. ‘It’s a fine thing.’”
Hemingway once said his daily goal was to write “one true sentence.” I believe he meant it in the carpenter’s sense, of its being square and shaped as intended. Just so has Ureneck written an absolutely true book, floor laid on foundation, posts set square, joists across beams. Functional, beautiful.
“The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’”
By Wendy McClure
Riverhead Books, 348 pages, $26
“Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine”
By Lou Ureneck
Viking, 256 pages, $26