Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

AuthorCaroline Fraser
TitlePrairie fires : the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2017.

Like anyone else who grew up in my generation, I watched and loved the tv series Little House on the Prairie as a kid. In fifth grade we read a section of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie and I was entranced.  I immediately read all the books in the Little House series in sequence (except I skipped Farmer Boy because I had no interest in Almanzo).  The earlier books were my favorites and I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek multiple times. This was an important time in my life as a reader because up to that point I was rather finicky and found it hard to finish books, especially fiction.

Of course, I knew that the books were highly fictionalized stories of Wilder’s life and the tv show even more greatly removed from reality.  It was interesting to read this biography to learn the true story of Wilder’s life. Fraser’s research and writing is especially good at establishing Wilder’s story in the context of historical events – conflicts with Indians, financial crises and depressions, political movements, and even climate change. The period of Wilder’s life covered in her 9 books is just a small portion of her long life and is covered in the first 150 pages of the 500+ page book.  For all her romance of life on the Great Plains and the admiration of the rugged individualism of farming, Laura and Alamanzo Wilder were not able to find stability and success in life until they left the West for the South (specifically the Ozarks of Missouri) and found work off the farm.

Laura Ingalls Wilder established herself in Mansfield, MO through her activity in local clubs and working for Farm Loan Asssociation, a federal agency that made small loans to farmers.  Wilder also worked as a writer and editor, eventually creating a popular column in a publication called The Ruralist. Wilder’s entry into writing was inspired by a key figure in this biography, Rose Wilder Lane, who lived in various parts of the country working as a journalist (albeit specializing in “fake news”) and freelance writer, and eventually writing novels and political treatises.  Fraser is barely able to contain her contempt for Lane, who admittedly is an awful person, but nevertheless its surprising when someone is so bad that a historian can’t keep a neutral tone

Wilder writes the Little House books during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s and early 1940s, with the current events informing her reflections on the past. Since the books were written for children, Wilder naturally sanitized some of the darkest times of her childhood, elided events, and created composite characters.  But she also chose to use the books to hide her family’s deep poverty and multiple failures while idolizing her parents as exemplars of independence. This means leaving out parts of their lives when Charles Ingalls skipped out of town to avoid a debt or when the family had a miserable time working at a hotel in Iowa.

Lane served as an editor for her mother’s writing, and the surviving manuscripts includes notes back and forth, of what to retain and what to cut.  Fraser indicates Wilder fought to retain many of her own ideas and writing against Lane’s edits and suggestions and the finished novels have the same style as Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts.  Some scholars believe that Lane ghost wrote some or all of the novels, but Fraser use this evidence to attest that Lane mainly did the editing while writing an occasional interpolation. Lane’s increasingly radical right wing, libertarian ideology also influenced her mother’s political leanings and the underlying messages of the novels.

Fraser also examines the cultural effect of the Little House stories, both as a response to the New Deal when the books were published and in the post-Nixonian era of the television.  In both eras, Little House played the role of offering a rose-tinted view of a patriotic past where Americans took initiative and supported themselves through hard work.  Ironically, Wilder created a fictional version of her parents as independent farmers by erasing their poverty, their inability to survive as subsistence farmers, and the times they benefited from help of the government.  In fact, if the government is to be blamed for an of the suffering of the Ingalls, Wilders, and thousands of other pioneer farming families it is when they acted on laissez-faire and libertarian policies that someone like Lane would support. Examples include the US government ignoring their own scientist’s research that showed the Dakotas should not be opened to farming because it was too arid, and state governments offering little aid to farmers suffering from plagues of locusts and droughts because they did not wish to create “dependency.”

This is an excellent work of biography and history.  While offering a look at the exceptional life of a successful and beloved author, it also is a glimpse into the lives and dreams of many Americans in some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Amazingly the book contains contrasting ideas of what it means to be American and the best way to govern this country that are still relevant to the current political debate. If you love the Little House books, this is a good way to deepen your understanding of their author and the books’ place in our culture.  But even if you have never read or watched any Little House material, this is still a great biography that I’d recommend.

Favorite Passages:

“The New York Times asked recently, ‘Why Do People Who Need Help from the Government Hate It so Much?’  It was no mystery to Wilder.  As she knew too well, people who are poor are ashamed.  It’s easier to blame the government than to blame yourself. Wrestling with shame was one of the reasons she wrote her books…” – p. 511

Recommended booksThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

Rating: ****