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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder Hardcover – November 21, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of November 2017: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books are perhaps the best known and beloved American stories for children. Some of the books’ fame is thanks with their afterlife in Michael Landon’s long-running television series, which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off.” But the question of verisimilitude doesn’t begin and end with television. Though Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, her politically cranky journalist daughter, defended the books’ historical accuracy, Fraser’s meticulous, smart, historically informed biography shows where the books hew to – and diverge from – the facts of Wilder’s long and eventful life. Fraser looks, too, at emotional truths: Wilder’s father, Charles Ingalls, whom she called Pa, is the hero of her recollections. But he dodged service in the Civil War, put his family in harm’s way, and tried to settle on land he knew belonged to the Osage. This image of Charles Ingalls, Fraser writes, “contains elements of moral ambiguity missing from the portrait his daughter would one day so lovingly polish.” Fraser got a head start on her work for this biography when she edited the Library of America editions of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing. Even readers who have already enjoyed those annotated volumes will find a trove of new material in Prairie Fires, which puts the books in a richer, more complicated context without undermining their value. Fraser concludes, “They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. …Anyone who would ask where we came from and why, must reckon with them.” —Sarah Harrison Smith, The Amazon Book Review
“An absorbing new biography [that] deserves recognition as an essential text.... For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading Prairie Fires will provide a lasting cure.... Meanwhile, ‘Little House’ devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth.”
―The New York Times Book Review (front page)
“Important and meticulous biography... Complex and astonishing... A subtle, intelligent and quietly explosive study.”
“The definitive biography... Magisterial and eloquent... A rich, provocative portrait.”
―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Magnificent... A remarkable, noteworthy biography of an American literary icon. It will captivate Little House fans as well as anyone looking to understand ‘the perpetual hard winter’ of life in frontier times.”
“Impressive... Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life.”
―The New Republic
“Unforgettable... A magisterial biography, which surely must be called definitive. Richly documented (it contains 85 pages of notes), it is a compelling, beautifully written story.... One of the more interesting aspects of this wonderfully insightful book is its delineation of the fraught relationship between Wilder and her deeply disturbed, often suicidal daughter.”
―Booklist (starred review)
“A fantastic book. We’ve long understood the Little House series to be a great American story, but Caroline Fraser brings it unprecedented new context, as she masterfully chronicles the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family alongside the complicated history of our nation. Prairie Fires represents a significant milestone in our understanding of Wilder’s life, work, and legacy.”
―Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
“Meticulously researched, feelingly told, Prairie Fires is the definitive biography of a major writer who did so much to mold public perceptions of the Western frontier. Once again, Caroline Fraser has shown that she is a master of the careful art of sifting a life, finding meaning in the large and small events that shaped an iconic American figure. Prairie Fires is a magnificent contribution to the literature of the West.”
―Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West
“At last, an unsentimental examination of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life on the frontier. Caroline Fraser rescues Wilder from frontier myth and gives us the gritty, passionate woman who endured the harshest experiences of homesteading, loved the Great Plains, and was devastated by their ultimate ruin and loss. Elegantly written and impeccably researched, Prairie Fires is a major contribution to environmental history and literary biography.”
―Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature and Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
“In the twenty-first century, the tense and secret authorial partnership between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane has emerged as the most complex and fascinating psychological saga of mother-daughter collaboration in American literary history. Caroline Fraser’s deeply researched and stimulating biography analyzes their controversial relationship and places Wilder’s influential fiction in the contexts of other myths of pioneer women and the frontier.”
―Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers and The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe
“Engrossing… Exhilarating… Lovers of the series will delight in learning about real-life counterparts to classic fictional episodes, but, as Fraser emphasizes, the true story was often much harsher. Meticulously tracing the Ingalls and Wilder families’ experiences through public records and private documents, Fraser discovers failed farm ventures and constant money problems, as well as natural disasters even more terrifying and devastating in real life than in Wilder’s writing. She also helpfully puts Wilder’s narrow world into larger historical context.”
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by Caroline Fraser (Author)
Where did the Ingalls come from? Why did they really leave their Little House in the Big Woods? Why did Pa keep relocating his family, starting afresh, again and again? What happened to their extended family? Did wolves really run with Pa and besiege their home? How did that Homesteading Act work, could you really get free land? Why did Pa's farming always fail? Did Laura really love Almanzo, and what happened to them after their marriage? Why did they only have one child? How did they end up in Missouri, and how did they manage to keep that farm? Why did Laura start writing, and did she get rich? Did her daughter really write all the books? Are they racist? How conservative are they, and what is the connection to the Libertarians? Where do the profits go today?
My background: I read all the LIW books as a child, and had them read to me. We watched the TV show. As an adult I read the entire series to my children. Twice. And I'll read them again for my youngest. The books I read are my wife's, from her childhood, falling apart, read to death. I pre-ordered the annotated autobiography "Pioneer Girl" and devoured it. And I leapt at the chance to read and review this new biography. I live in the heart of the "Big Woods." An hour's drive East of my house is Pepin, site of the Little House. An hour south is Spring Valley where Almanzo's family lived. The Zumbro river runs under my porch and canoeing downstream takes me to South Troy where Laura and her cousins waded, and where baby Freddie is buried.
As an adult I wondered about the "real Laura" and I learned much from the annotated Pioneer Girl, Laura's original autobiography. But that book is dominated by Laura's narrative, and there's only so much that editorial commentary can correct or expound when entire facets of her life were simply omitted. In any case, Pioneer Girl ended at Laura's marriage, at the very beginning of her long adult life.
Enter Caroline Fraser and "Prairie Fires," a biography of two women, a textual history of their work, and the historical context of their times skillfully interwoven as a narrative. It is no exaggeration to call this a tour de force! The author has apparently made it her life's work (e.g. The Prairie Queen, New York Review Books, circa 1994) to learn everything that can be known about Laura Ingalls Wilder, including her family, her daughter, her times, and even the natural history of the Midwest. Reading this is to journey with Pa, Laura, Almanzo and Rose from the pioneering days of breaking prairie sod, through the 1890's depression, the populist era, the roaring twenties, the depression, WWII, and into the recognizably modern 1950's.
Prairie Fires starts strong, with genealogical research harking back to the colonial Pilgrim era, then flashing forwarding to the Dakota War of 1862 (a skirmish of which wiped out the Dustin family just ten miles from my childhood home, six months *after* the mass-execution at Mankato). As an aside, I don't think I've ever read a more fair exposition of that war, and the book is practically worth the price for that chapter alone. In this case the clichés are quite true: there was ample blame on all sides, but the Dakota lost and so they got the worst of it in the end.
From a formidable opening Ms. Fraser runs to strength on strength. For me the book was literally a page turner, I couldn't put it down, took it on vacation, read it in every spare moment, several times hiding in the bathroom just to get to the end of a chapter. I lost sleep, and got really clean from taking long baths. I finished it in ten days. The writing is so good I literally choked at the end, me, a grown man. It answered all the questions I had, and many I never knew I had. Along the way I learned more American history and began to understand just how and why families like the Ingalls went to the frontier. In my mind Laura Ingalls Wilder left "fairyland" and came into the real, recognizable world.
But Prairie Fires is not only about Laura, spilling a considerable amount of ink on her daughter Rose Lane, a very unflattering picture: selfish, immoral, manipulative, petty, mentally ill (manic depressive), dishonest, modestly talented, irreligious (flirting with Islam her whole life), plagiarizing, economically incompetent, politically hypocritical, casually anti-semitic. In a word: a fraud. For all that, we get glimpses of her intermittent success. Lane moved in fairly high political and literary circles, made her living by her writing and would have lived well but for her financial naivety. Without Rose's efforts it's safe to say we would not have Laura's beloved books at all, and Ms. Fraser is a fair reporter for letting that be known.
Yet she comes across as having an "axe to grind" against Lane. You will finish Prairie Fires in no doubt whatsoever about the absurdity of charges that Rose Lane ghost-wrote the LIW series, and you will wonder how it was possible for such a hack to ever make a dime as an author. Ms. Fraser seems generally in favor of collective politics, supportive of Roosevelt's New Deal programs, and bothered by Wilder's criticism thereof. She spends a great deal of energy detailing the misguided attempts by Laura's successors to corral her work into the Conservative/Libertarian cause, and in this she is somewhat successful. But her attempts to explain away the fundamental reasons why people like Laura Wilder resented the very New Deal programs intended to help them come across as feeble and condescending. We read somewhat about a religious heritage of independence going back to the Pilgrims, resentment of land use decrees, and crop destruction. But we hear again and again and again the litany of supposed hypocrisies: the homestead act was a Government Program after all, everyone necessarily took jobs off the farm, the bank where Laura worked administered Government Lending, the frontier was only open thanks to the Army, Pa cheated the Railroad, Almanzo lied on his Homestead Application... and that's about it. It's a mighty thin list to set against decades of hard toil, thrift and scrupulous morality, and it doesn't bear the weight of being Exhibit A in Wilder's Real Politics On Trial.
However, for all that, I'm prepared to be charitable. It's fair to say that while the LIW books may be conservative, they are not Conservative in the modern Far Right sense. Given the attempts of politicians to corral them into their cause, it's forgivable for someone who loves them to over-inoculate against the corresponding charge that they are little better than racist propaganda for Trumpian America. For the sake of readers worldwide, I can excuse Ms. Fraser's going a little over the top.
Oh, and about all those questions? Get the book to get the answers. Happy reading!
The Homestead Act, homesteading and westward expansion are fundamental to the story. A clear understanding is obviously the foundation to the entire work. Fraser brings her environmental focus like a crusade into the story. The Ingalls and Wilders were simply duped into a “scam,” destined to fail because the Homestead Act was a failure and then were complicit in fraud and get this - climate change. Yes Almanzo with his two row sulky plow caused global climate change induced drought.
With that the reader may ask if Fraser has a grasp on 19th century agricultural practices, as this would form another foundation to the story? Well no, she doesn’t. For example, she will indict Almanzo as committing fraud in his HA claim because he left. She ignores the fact that a homesteader had six months to occupy said claim & this was because they would have had no crop or supplies to support the stock.
Unbiased scholarship as presented in Edwards, Homesteading the Plains shows that 50-60% of homesteaders proved up and were on the land a year later. As well, less than 10% of the cases show any indication of fraud. And in many of these it was not the intention of the homesteader to game the system, but instead they were within the spirit of the law while not with the letter. The Homestead Act, a complicated law covering many years and a massive geographic area is complicated; however, the old tropes that it was a “failure” and a “fraud” have been called into serious question. Unfortunately, Fraser continues this and reinforces it with her bias.
Little picture things are sprinkled throughout. For example, a “Missouri posse” fought a “proxy war” in “squatter Kansas.” Boy that’s a lot to unpack. A posse is a legal group raised by a sheriff. She does like a posse and will use the word incorrectly multiple times. The Missourian’s were most often called Bushwackers. The era known as Bleeding Kansas was not a “proxy war.” I am not sure what her “squatter” context even is. But there is no historical one for it. I imagine it is another bias against the entire settlement process.
When covering the move from Wisconsin to Mo/Ks she will use 1850’s overland travel as an example. The Wilders were not going 3,000 miles across unsettled land on a trail of tears covered in burials. It was 1869 in settled Iowa and Missouri. In general the entire life of Wilder will be set against a backdrop of hardship. Was it hard? Certainly it was, however, a historian would provide context for this.
Simple facts are incorrect, for example, Keystone South Dakota is not at 9,100 ft elevation. Google can be a friend to an author’s fact checker. Although I doubt one was used, a history undergrad intern would have caught most of this.
It is unfortunate we have another title in the Little House pantheon by a literary critic. While it is important to provide historical context to the work, Fraser will take large journeys into geography she has inadequate equipment for. She would have done well to stick hard and fast to her area of expertise. I found the literary sections interesting, but always there is the “can I trust this on a subject I am less knowledgeable in?” when the author has presented the historical background with such bias and obvious errors.
Even more unfortunate is the Little House fan who wants more and uses Fraser exclusively will take this as history. It most certainly is not and note Amazon did not classify it in that category. Fraser’s presentation is not for the faint of heart Little House fairy tale reader so be ready for a bumpy ride if you are. If one wants to learn Wilder and her times, Pioneer Girl would be a much better source. Then one could read other secondary sources on areas of interest. For the literary period, Frasers work is an engaging read.
Note- I also purchased the Audible version. The presentation is excellent. There are few local pronunciations issues, for example, Pierre South Dakota doesn't have a French delivery. Nevertheless it is even and pleasant. A must for audio books.