Wendy McClure stands, slipper-clad, next to the breadbox in her kitchen inspecting a jar of sourdough starter, a simple mixture of fermenting flour and water. It will be the base of the Long Winter bread we are about to make.
"It's alive!" she jokes, referring to the yeast bubbles. "Of course, Ma would have kept her starter under the stove, not in a breadbox."
The "Ma" that McClure is referring to is Ma Ingalls, matriarch of the Ingalls family and mother to Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the world-renowned "Little House" book series.
In addition to her extensive "Little House" knowledge, McClure owns seven sunbonnets, two butter churns, a Laura-themed charm bracelet, a corncob doll, many "Little House"-themed magnets, a bottle of Laura Ingalls Wilder wine (red), a "Little House on the Prairie" shot glass and a Laura bobblehead, to name only part of her collection.
"Fan" really doesn't do justice to McClure's connection to "Little House"; she is obsessed.
McClure's enthusiasm is the subject of her new book, "The Wilder Life," set to be released Thursday. The humorous memoir is written in a conversational tone similar to "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell and follows McClure down the rabbit hole into her "Little House" obsession.
McClure, 40, who lives in Ravenswood Manor and is a senior editor at children's book publisher Albert Whitman & Co., got the idea for "The Wilder Life" when she cracked open her childhood copy of "Little House in the Big Woods" and immediately became hooked again. Within months, McClure had soaked up all the books and set out on a yearlong adventure to find the real Laura World, which is what she calls her childhood construct of the world in the novels.
The book follows McClure as she travels to eight Laura-themed museums or homesteads across the Midwest in 2009-10, taking tours led by Laura lovers, retired volunteers or spunky teenagers. She attends community theater adaptations of Wilder's books and a professional stage production of "Little House on the Prairie, the Musical." She befriends many equally zealous fans. She spends the night in a covered wagon and sits on a panel discussing "Loving Laura in a Lindsay Lohan World" during the first Laurapalooza, an academic conference.
Back in the kitchen, we add hand-ground wheat flour to the starter mixture, knead the dough into a loaf and grease the pan with bacon drippings. "Everything tastes better with bacon drippings," McClure says.
As a child growing up in Oak Park, McClure was attracted to the "Little House" books because of the detailed descriptions of the Ingalls' daily lives. In "The Wilder Life," McClure notes her realization of simplicity's importance in Laura's world: "It's a realm that gets much of its power from single things — the lone doll, trundle bed, china shepherdess, each one realer than real," McClure writes.
Wilder "was trying to evoke the era of simplicity," McClure says. "And by the end of the series, readers can see how her world has changed. It's really … about the world changing, not just looking at a static period of time."
Writing the book came in the middle of two great changes in McClure's own life. Before she began the "Little House" journey, her mother died of cancer, and though her death was not the only reason McClure began to look back at this childhood obsession, she writes, "I suspected it might be, at least in part, because of mom."
Talking about her mother, McClure tears up. "I spent from January 2007 to summer of 2009 not really feeling like I had the courage to look back, and I (think) going through (this journey) sort of helped me be able to look back and see the good."
In December, McClure's longtime boyfriend, Chris Sienko, proposed. The couple is set to wed in September - and no, it will not be "Little House"-themed.
By the end of our conversation, the room has filled with the smell of freshly baked bread. Our Long Winter bread, named for the "Little House" book that chronicles Laura's experience during the debilitating winter in which the Ingalls ate only this, is dense and has a distinctly nutty flavor.
When I say it tastes much better covered in Country Crock butter, McClure, ever the "Little House" stickler, comments, "Just remember Laura wouldn't have any butter for her bread."
Meet McClure at a local signing:
7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes &; Noble, 1441 W. Webster Ave.
7 p.m. April 21 at the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.
6:30 p.m. April 29 at the Bookstall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm St., Winnetka
7 p.m. May 3 at Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville