Sunday, March 10, 2019

Prairie Fires

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (2017)

This biography covers the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, within the larger context of American history. I've read the Little House series numerous times, Pioneer Girl, and some articles here and there, but this is the first time I've gotten such a full story. The Little House books are a fictionalized version of Wilder's early life and Pioneer Girl sets the story straight, but it still doesn't go past the early years of her marriage. Prairie Fires gives us a picture of her whole life, extending also through the end of Rose Wilder Lane's life, touching on Wilder's legacy.

At over 500 pages, this book covers a lot of ground. I'm admittedly not as educated about American history as I wish, and this filled in some gaps for me while providing the backdrop for stories I've been reading over and over again since I was a child, while giving me new perspectives on parts of history I did know about. For instance, I didn't know there was a depression in the late 1800s, nor did I realize how many farmers opposed the New Deal. I knew almost nothing about the Dust Bowl except that there were a lot of dust storms, so it was fascinating to find out that it was caused by farming.

Of course Fraser covers all the parts of the Ingalls's lives that were left out of the Little House books, but then later on when Laura is writing the books about her early life with Rose's editing help, there are some interesting conversations about what constitutes truth versus fiction. Laura and Rose had a number of disagreements about what to leave in, what to take out, and what to change to make the stories more palatable for children and to maintain the narrative of independence and self-reliance. Laura was concerned about not telling the truth. Lane says: "Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it."

I really liked how she put it and agree with it, but that doesn't change the fact that Rose Wilder Lane, despite being a journalist, was prone to lying and embellishing the truth throughout her entire career and was totally oblivious to journalism ethics. She was also a libertarian who admired Ayn Rand and Hitler. Her life was always sort of a mess and she supported her parents financially while also constantly borrowing from them until their finances were so entangled it became unclear who was supporting who. She also borrowed heavily from Laura's stories in writing her own fiction. She was hot-headed and opinionated and would cut people out of her life without a second thought. She was also depressed and mentioned suicide many times.

Rose was invested in Laura's work telling the story of the family in such a way that it emphasized self-reliance, and Laura was pretty on board with this. They left out or glossed over any situation in which the Ingalls family accepted assistance from others or, as happened in one case, left town in a hurry because they couldn't pay their debts. The truth is that the family was very poor. The books hint at this with their simple life, but present that as a choice. In fact, Charles Ingalls never could make a living at farming, and Laura and Almanzo also struggled their whole lives. Relief only really came when Laura's novels became so popular. Which is not to say that their lives weren't happy or satisfying in many ways, but they weren't as easy as they'd like us to think.

My one criticism was the way that Fraser presented the relationship between Laura and Rose because she kept saying that it was extremely strained or that it completely broke down, but didn't show that. What she showed was that they constantly wrote to each other when they weren't living near each other, and she didn't really present any specific conversations or letters that illustrated the breakdown of their relationship that she kept alluding to. I was a bit confused about this point. I know there were things Laura was unhappy about, like when Rose populated a book with thinly-veiled versions of their neighbors in Mansfield, much to their displeasure, but it wasn't clear to me that Laura ever confronted her about it.

Prairie Fires was definitely what I was looking for in rounding out the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life for me. It wasn't perfect and I was much less interested in Rose than in Laura, but it felt comprehensive. I spent a week or so reading it because it was so detailed and didn't move along that quickly, but that's not really a criticism. It has kind of made me want to learn more about Westward Expansion, especially about the treatment of Native Americans. More than anything it just made me want to read the Little House books again. Yes, even knowing how much of those books are untrue and how much they try to promote a philosophy I'm not especially on board with (including the desire for the Indians to just "go away") I will always love them for the simple stories about traveling across the country in a covered wagon and a way of life that is gone forever.

This book is part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, which I'm doing well with so far. The rest of it is fiction (except one memoir) so I think I've gotten the most difficult ones out of the way - this book and the one I read half of before abandoning. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books on my list!


Kevin said...

Your review is really interesting. It's ironic Rose was a libertarian because her grandparents got farmland only because the US government was willing to give it away for free under the provisions of the Homestead Act. I never knew Charles Ingalls could never make a living farming, which is also interesting because Pa is presented as the hero of the Little House books.

I'm also curious as to how the Wilders ended up out West. In Farmer Boy the family seemed so prosperous in New York: able to send their kids to private schools, etc. Maybe it's covered in the Little House books but I don't remember.

3goodrats said...

Rose really bought into the idea that the family was extremely self-sufficient even though that wasn't the case. I think the family really *wanted* to be completely independent and not take help from anyone, and just sort of made that the story even though they weren't successful at it. I can't remember why the Wilders ended up going West, but I think it was just the kids of the family - Almanzo, his brother, and his sister - who left to set up homesteads.