Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Caroline Fraser. (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017).
From the ironic epigraph to the 626th page, this monumental work held my attention. I’d hoped to skim a few pages, since I’ve read all of Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books and know a great deal about her. Caroline Fraser’s work provides not only a deep study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, but a fuller understanding of the entire prairie pioneer experience in details supported by 2,074 footnotes.
The ironic epigraph?
“The prairie burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country,” said George Catlin.
Just as the destruction of a prairie is a beautiful sight to some, the book sweeps back and forth between the splendor of the prairie and its harshness, between Laura’s writing and the realities of the life she disguised.
Because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were so widely read, as well as the subject of a TV series, we may think we know her. But as Fraser says, “Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine.” Fraser shows us the pioneer woman and writer as part of a deeper history which includes the Homestead Act, the spread of railroads and the closing of the frontier.
Fraser notes that, “Across every inhabited continent, just as on the Great Plains, mass land clearing and wheat farming has led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack. Combined with the market forces controlling distribution, human-caused climate change joined with natural weather patterns to wreak absolute havoc.”
During the 1930’s, the Great Plains were known as the Dust Bowl because of severe dust storms as a result of the foolish plowing of two and a half million acres of native grassland, destroying an ecosystem that had flourished for millennia. This horrendous phenomenon was no act of a god or freak natural accident. “It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time,” Fraser says. “Farmers had done this, and they had done it to themselves.” We’ve known for centuries that plowing native grassland is destructive, but then and now, plowing is misguidedly encouraged by the government.
Oddly, while discussing grassland destruction by farming in depth, Fraser never distinguishes between the tallgrass prairie where Laura’s families lived, and the shortgrass prairie farther west.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s farming families, memorialized in the Little House books, were part of what Fraser terms a “game of chance,” with the prairie as the casino. While the published version of Laura’s story has been popular in many cultures, Fraser tells us how she really lived. Laura wrote that “The commonplace, home work of women is the very foundation upon which every rests,” and her own writings reflected that view. Though she often acted courageously, and supported the education and independence of women, she was discouraging on the subject of woman suffrage.
I was surprised to learn in this book how thoroughly Laura’s daughter Rose dominated the creation of the Little House books. Rose’s dishonesty and distortion of the writer’s life were aided by a profit-seeking shyster. History conspired in helping make the books popular: the tales of rural steadfastness were a heart-warming antidote to the Vietnam era. The TV show inspired by the books was even more misleading and simplistic, but audiences loved them. Teachers in South Dakota even read the books in classrooms, ironically at the same time as we began to come to terms with our treatment of our Lakota population.
In spite of all that is wrong about the books, and in spite of the profiteering that warped the way they were published, they endure because they show us over and over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s belief in the value of honesty, endurance, and of making the best of what we have.
If I decide to keep one of the hundreds of books I buy a year, I write in the back the page on which I made that decision. I chose this book because Fraser quotes Wilder in a speech as saying, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth.” She acknowledged what every writer knows, and every reader should realize: that no matter how hard we may try, and how strenuously we may declare we have succeeded, we can never tell the whole truth.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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This book review was first published by Story Circle Network book reviews in September, 2018. See: http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/
Caroline Fraser’s website may be found here
The photo of her book with flowers was borrowed from her website.
Learn about American artist and author George Catlin (1796-1872)
Catlin’s painting, “Prairie Meadows Burning” (1832, Smithsonian American Art Museum), is used at the top of this blog.