REVIEWED: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Prairie Fires

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

This thick, detailed, well-written and insightful biography of one of American’s most beloved authors is already a Number One Best Seller, so my saying it’s deserving of a wide readership may be considered gilding the proverbial lilly. But what the heck? It’s an impressive work, revealing the facts, darker realities and deeper truths behind Mrs. Wilder’s life, family and authorial career.

The Little House on the Prairie series of books were indeed based on real events and for the most part used the real names of her pioneer family and those around them. It was, of course, a somewhat fictionalized and extremely romanticized set of books. Fraser puts it all in context, detailing the things Wilder left out or softened in the process of turning the father she idealized and their overall experiences into a mythic story of pioneer struggle and triumph. As such, she glossed over repeated the failures and misjudgements of her Pa (and in a broader sense the misguided and frustrating naivety behind the attempt to turn unsuitable prairie environs into small farms).

Fraser in no way minimizes the courage and hard work of pioneer families. But she shows the pain of their inevitable shortcomings, resulting in two times of collapse (in the 1880s and in the later dustbowl of the 1930s). The unvarnished real story one encounters here is still somewhat inspiring, but Fraser isn’t interested in furthering Wilder’s myth-making. And the real, warts-and-all story is dramatic enough in its own right.

Particularly fascinating for me was the often difficult, competitive yet ultimately symbiotic relationship of Wilder with her only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane became a well-known writer before her mother, then coached and encouraged her, serving as a valuable (yet anonymous) first editor before the books went off to the publishing company. This has led some (including Lane’s biographer) to suggest Wilder was a mere figurehead, with Lane actually writing the stories of her grandfather’s family, including young Laura, based on Wilder’s recollections. Fraser makes short work of this claim, noting the many surviving manuscripts, letters and other items written in Wilder’s hand.

Nonetheless, it can’t be denied that Lane played a major part in it all as adviser, unofficial editor and promoter of her mother’s charming works. This even as her unstable personality, dubious journalistic ethics, spendthrift ways and combative political leanings undermined and finally crippled her own career. Today, Rose is little known and remembered, if at all, mostly for playing second fiddle to Ayn Rand in the rise of hyper-conservative liberatrian thought in the early-to-mid-20th century.

This book, itself a family saga of great interest set firmly in a combative and fascinating picture of the wider world where it took place, takes nothing away from the Little House series’ place in children’s literature. But it does serve a good purpose in reminding us that there’s often much more to the story than might be suspected.


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