Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

On the Frontier

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan, 640 pp., $35)

In 1937, Laura Ingalls Wilder explained her motivation for writing her already well-loved Little House books: “What a wonderful childhood I had had. . . . I realized that I had seen and lived it all — all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.”

In this new book, author Caroline Fraser has turned Wilder’s evocation of progressive phases of western American history upside down. What the dust jacket calls the “first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder” takes to task the entire panorama of western history as it is depicted in Wilder’s novels. Fraser squarely places the blame for the environmental degradation of the West and farmers’ financial failures in the 1890s on the shoulders of western homesteaders such as the Ingalls and Wilder families, who made the choice to listen to boosters who claimed that the rain would follow the plow and that homesteads would succeed in the arid Dakota Territory.

In questioning Wilder’s celebration of the farmer despite the years of privation visited on her family through harvests lost to locusts and drought, Fraser brings readers to see the Little House books as a subtle assessment of homesteading: There is a “deep yearning for security” in the novels’ nostalgic depiction of the family’s “astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession.”

Fraser, the editor of the Library of America edition of Wilder’s Little House books, has compiled a comprehensive tome about Wilder and her times. Annoyed by the Little House marketing machine that largely grew out of Michael Landon’s TV series, Fraser laments that Wilder has become a “caricature, a brand, a commodity.” The author intends to rescue her and place the 90-year story of her life into the context of a larger study of the American West. She makes use of a host of unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents to tell what she calls “an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention.”

The author presents Wilder’s life in three acts. The first section discusses the background of her pioneering family and her first 27 years, in which the stories told by her father were a formative influence. Her family relocated from their native Wisconsin numerous times in search of better opportunities, ending up among the earliest homesteaders in Dakota Territory in 1879.

The second section describes her family’s 1894 trek out of the Great Plains and their settlement in the Ozarks. Having lost everything, including several years of crops (hailstorms and drought), their house (fire), their health (diphtheria), and their not-quite-one-month-old baby boy, the Wilders — Laura, husband Almanzo, and daughter Rose — joined an exodus of some 40,000 failed homesteaders. They bought a fledgling apple orchard just outside Mansfield, Mo., and would spend the remainder of their lives on it.

In this “second act” of Wilder’s life, her search for ways to bring in income led her to begin professional writing, on the heels of daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who wrote features for a San Francisco newspaper known for its yellow journalism. Here Fraser brings new information and analysis to the story of Wilder’s development as a writer, both on her own initiative, publishing in agricultural newspapers as early as 1910, and under the tutelage of her daughter soon after.

As other biographers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane have done, Fraser examines the complicated relationship of the two women. Through their discussions of the writing craft, a new basis for their relationship emerged, “the daughter becoming the often domineering partner, while the once strict matriarch was forced to acknowledge her own uncertainties as she launched herself into a new realm, holding tight to her daughter’s hand. This would be their relationship for the next four decades.”

Set in motion by the deaths of her parents and her sister Mary, Wilder’s turn — in her writing — to her childhood memories forms the third act of her life and the focus of the third section of Prairie Fires. Fraser intersperses her narrative about Wilder’s book-writing with analysis of the themes of the Little House series and the mother–daughter collaboration that birthed it.

The actual authorship of the eight Little House books has been the center of a scholarly debate for more than two decades, with Lane’s biographer William Holtz arguing that Lane deserves co-authorship. Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill studied the job done by typical newspaper and literary editors at the time and concluded that Lane’s work on her mother’s manuscripts fell squarely within the norm for editors. Placing even more emphasis on Wilder’s contributions than does Hill, Fraser makes a strong case for collaboration, arguing that “it would be the unique combination of their skills that created a transcendent whole: Wilder laying a plain, solid foundation of factual description, holding to simplicity of speech and emotion, while her daughter trimmed, honed, and heightened the drama, adding embellishment and ornamentation.”

Moreover, Fraser offers new and valuable insight into Wilder’s dream of saving her father’s stories and “promot[ing] her parents’ values, which were her own.” The question of truth in the Little House books is inextricably tied up in this project of preservation and transmission. The truth Wilder tells is the golden thread running through all of the books, emphasizing the “eternal verities,” as her mother called them, of “courage, self-reliance, independence, integrity and helpfulness.” Wilder would quote these words from her mother in a form letter her publisher sent as a response to fan letters when she became too old and frail to answer them. Citing the endurance of Wilder’s books as classics, Fraser states that “anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.”

A great biography not only serves as a window into a particular time and place; it puts the reader into the head of the subject. While Fraser has admirably accomplished this feat for Laura Ingalls Wilder, her take on Rose Wilder Lane leaves much to be desired. Fraser includes far more material on Lane than a biography of her mother should, and the author’s dislike for Lane skews her analysis. In trying to understand the mother–daughter dynamic, Fraser places too much weight on Lane’s erratic fits of depression, confided for the most part only to her diary. Missing is a basic understanding of the rollercoaster relationships between mothers and adult daughters, particularly those daughters who have no siblings.

These minor shortcomings aside, Caroline Fraser fundamentally grasps who Laura Ingalls Wilder was and brings the real woman and her dreams to life. In doing so, she reminds readers that the fictional character of Laura only scratches the surface of the real person, whose authorial voice speaks of her love for her family and their love for the land: “her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.”

– Dedra McDonald Birzer is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. She is the author of the forthcoming book Something No Other Woman Has Yet Been: Women Public Intellectuals in 20th-Century America.

Dedra McDonald Birzer — Dedra McDonald Birzer is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. She is the author of a forthcoming book on Rose Wilder Lane and her public intellectual community.

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