I’ve been fortunate enough to read a spate of good books lately. Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn have all kept me entertained and engaged over the past couple of months.
But the last two books I picked up have been the best of the lot, and the most perfectly paired.
First is The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure.
McClure was a Little House on the Prairie fan as a girl (the books, not the television show) and when she rediscovered this passion in adulthood she undertook a series of field trips and projects to become closer to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
The book takes us through her research, attempts to churn butter and make bread from scratch (really from scratch, no store bought yeast) and travels to historical sites like Walnut Grove, Minnesota (from On The Banks of Plum Creek); De Smet, South Dakota (from Little Town on the Prairie) and the childhood home of Laura’s husband Almanzo in Malone, New York.
Being a former Little House girl myself, I felt a connection to the author, like she was speaking for me.
I have never taken a Laura road trip (Although the Almanzo site is fairly close by and I just might go one day) or tried any of the recipes in the Little House cookbook, but I did own a sunbonnet and have read the books not officially in the series, like On the Way Home, Laura’s travel diary published after her death.
Reviews of The Wilder Life complain that McClure is a “casual” researcher and that her book isn’t a complete biography of the Little House author.
But that’s what I enjoyed about the book. I loved Laura and Little House as a child and I’m not interested in scholarly articles on her effect on culture or gender stereotypes.
The book was fun, funny and I loved reading someone who shared my special girlhood relationship with Laura Ingalls Wilder.
On page 12, McClure writes:
“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 hang down her back by its ties.”
When I read that, I wished I could call McClure up, talk to her, hang out with her on the weekends. I wanted to be her friend.
When you want to befriend the author, you know it’s a good book.
Within hours of finishing The Wilder Life, I picked up my (autographed!) copy of Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks.
I admit that I was hesitant to read this novel. I loved the author’s previous two books, especially his first Unexpectedly Milo, and frequently the first book I read continues to be my favorite as I read on and, while I enjoy the books that follow, I’m always just a little disappointed that I didn’t like them as much as the first.
Also, all my literary type friends, both real and cyber, were buzzing about this book. Calling it Dicks’s breakout book, brilliant and that it made them cry.
I hate going into a book with high expectations, because it probably won’t live up to them.
It’s much better to be pleasantly surprised by a book you didn’t think was going to be very good, than to start a book you think is going to be the best you’ve ever read and discover it’s not.
So I began reading Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend with some trepidation. Unnecessary trepidation, as it turns out because the book is wonderful.
The novel’s narrator is Budo, the imaginary friend of Max, a socially awkward third grader who finds himself in a dangerous situation. (I hesitate to elaborate further because although I don’t think the situation is supposed to be a surprise, I was shocked by the development and I enjoyed that surprise.)
Using an imaginary friend as a narrator is worked extremely well because Budo witnesses everything, much like the reader, but can physically do little to actually help.
I found myself trying to think of ways Budo could influence the situation despite being unable to touch things like pens or elevator buttons or be heard by anyone other than Max.
Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game is the story of a women handcuffed to a bed in a cabin in the middle of nowhere when her lover drops dead while they are having sex.
When I read Gerald’s Game, I frequently put the book down and held my hands to my headboard, trying to figure out how she could get free.
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend had me problem solving in the same way, minus the handcuffs.
Being led through the story by Max’s imaginary friend was also wonderful because it allowed the reader to love Max as much as Budo did. I have never experienced a narrator with such powerful love for another character.
A book about an imaginary friend could easily be frivolous, but this book creates a rich, well thought out world and includes many deeper insights, like a great discussion of death where a character says he is not afraid of dying because “I think probably nothing happens. And if it’s better than nothing, that’s okay, too.”
My favorite line of the entire novel, however, is on page 152. “Monsters are bad things, but monsters that do not walk and talk like monsters are the worst.”
You may be wondering why I wrote that these two books were perfectly matched since they are so different.
Well, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend has spurred a lot of discussion of people’s own imaginary friends, or their children’s imaginary friends.
When I first started thinking about it, I was sad that I didn’t have one as a little girl. I consider myself quite creative and I was the type of child who would likely have an imaginary friend.
But I realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder was my imaginary friend. I used to play with her, have conversations with her, and do all the things kids do with imaginary friends.
I didn’t make her up all by myself. I had books full of her story on which to base my friendship. But Laura was still my Budo.
And, as reading these two books in succession reminded me, everyone should have a Budo.