Book Remarks: Prairie Fires

George Catlin prairie meadows burning 1832 - Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

book Prairie Fires Caroline Fraser from author websiteBecause 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.

book Laura Wilder Little House series

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
https://prairiefiresbook.com/

The photo of her book with flowers was borrowed from her website.

Learn about American artist and author George Catlin (1796-1872)
https://www.georgecatlin.org/

Catlin’s painting, “Prairie Meadows Burning” (1832, Smithsonian American Art Museum), is used at the top of this blog.

6 thoughts on “Book Remarks: Prairie Fires

  1. Betsy Vinz

    I’m finding this book interesting and also sad. Often difficult to read, so I read if for awhile then switch to something else, then return. Certainly one of the most spectacular first couple of chapters I’ve ever read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book, Linda
    .

  2. Linda M. Hasselstrom

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on it, Betsy; please feel free to share them here. I was a little hesitant about saying all this, but felt strongly.

  3. I was not expecting how complicated my reaction to this book would be. I read/had read to me the Little House books when I was young, and have picked up a rough outline of the working relationships between LIW and her daughter Rose over the years. Fraser does an excellent job of showing how the books came to be as well as filling a lot of relevant social and ecological history.

    She raises the issues of truth and factualness in nonfiction writing, and since I’m so interested in these topics I wish she had been able to spend more time on them. I think additional perspective on the popular literary culture of the time, including Yellow Journalism, would have been helpful in understanding the career arc of Rose Lane. Fraser makes it a bit too clear that she disliked Lane and her professional choices, and I wonder how those depictions might come across to “serious” writers today who find themselves doing what needs to be done to earn a living through more “commercial” writing. Fraser also alludes to the effects of editing on published works, but she seems committed to the ideal of sole-author authenticity that should be taken with a grain of salt.

    That said, any nonfiction writer or memoirist contemplating composite characters, tweaking timelines to make a “better” story, and other compromises to factuality and actual events should read this book as a cautionary tale.

    Reading about episodes from the Little House books forty years after I read them was curious indeed. If you had asked me a few weeks ago about my history with that series, I would have simply said yes, I read them and enjoyed them. Now I’m thinking about how much Wilder’s work influenced my understanding of the West, our collective pioneer history, and the mythology of self-reliance and rugged individualism.

  4. I really appreciate the depth of your thinking, Andrea. And I’ll expand a little on a point: I was uncomfortable with Fraser’s dislike of Rose and her choices. I didn’t care much for them either, but we are operating from the perspective of decades of considering Laura Ingalls Wilder as a wonderful writer who portrayed the truth of the prairie. To Rose, she was just an annoying mother, and I find myself sympathizing–empathizing–with that view because I was not as patient with my mother’s views and comments on my writing as I could and should have been. If we’d been trying to support ourselves with Laura in the background, we might have understood Rose a little better. And like you, I want to give some thought to how much Laura’s view influenced my own.

    1. The frame of the mother/daughter relationship puts an interesting spin on the author/editor collaboration, doesn’t it?

      In addition to the other layers of my response, I was surprised by how much my reaction to Fraser’s characterization of Rose was affected (colored, biased…) by having read Susan Wittig Albert’s A WILDER ROSE a few years ago. That fictionalized account is also based on correspondence between Wilder and Lane, but puts a different spin on the family dynamics, shining a more sympathetic light on Rose and giving more credit to her editorial efforts.

      It becomes easy to see how researching the Little House legacy has become an academic field unto itself.

      1. I’m tardy in replying to this, Andrea, but I agree completely. I, too, read Susan Wittig Albert’s book, and actually liked Rose a lot better afterward. I know that it is fictionalized, but I also trust Albert to be a thorough and sympathetic researcher, and believe she may have understood things that few other readers have. And I could empathize with Rose as I thought about what it would have been like to have my mother writing while I was writing my own books!

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