Prairie Fires

Several years ago, I read a fantastic article in the LA Times Review of Books called “Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Wolves.” Around that time (2012), a number of books and articles were published  discussing LIW’s possible Libertarian politics and whether those politics were inserted into the Little House books either by LIW or her editor/daughter Rose.  Fraser’s article takes on the politicization of LIWs works, and particularly how her works were being used in contemporary politics to forward conservative policies and agendas.

Fraser lays out a compelling argument that LIW was more interested in the wild open places and the freedom and beauty of wild creatures that she has seen disappear from the West in her lifetime than politicking. She writes, “Lost in the discussion of whether she was a libertarian or a mere purveyor of liberty is the Wilder who rejoiced in wilderness.” When I’d finished I thought, who is this Caroline Fraser and where can I read more?

Turns out Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America’s two volumes on Laura Ingalls Wilder and a former staff writer at the New Yorker. At the time, she must have also been reading and researching all things LIW to write the brilliant Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, released at the end of last year.

Finally, in Fraser, Laura Ingalls Wilder has a scholarly biographer who doesn’t seem to have a completely personal or overtly political agenda. In Prairie Fires, Fraser situates the events of LIW’s life (those in and out of the Little House books) in the broader historical, political, and environmental context of the times. Fraser especially emphasizes how LIW’s outlook and choices were in most ways defined by extreme poverty and hardship. She started writing because she needed money to supplement the meager income she and Almanzo eked from farming. But LIW’s poverty and hardship was not unique to her or her parents. The settlement of the American west, fueled by the much romanticized homesteading act, almost guaranteed hardship for the thousands of pioneers it enticed west. Their farming efforts destroyed the prairie grasslands, brought drought and natural disasters, and ensured that they would not and could not succeed and rise out of the poverty that had driven them westward.

LIW started writing to make money to supplement her meager farming income at Rocky Ridge farm. She wrote a column for local paper and then later, began to record her family stories. I was really struck by how Laura’s desire for financial security played such a big part in her starting to write. I started to say “in becoming a writer,” but from this book, I am not sure LIW ever considered herself a writer.  She was a farm woman whose daughter was a glamorous (if incredibly difficult) writer and editor. But it just so happened that she had witnessed firsthand the great changes in natural world brought on by people just like her and her pioneer family, so she wrote them down. Rose helped her shape them into the quasi-autobiographical gems of American writing they have become. The royalties from the books did make Laura money and bring her financial security by the end of her life. But she lived her whole life on a farm in one of the poorest cities in the U.S.

Fraser seems to have read and traveled widely to research the book. Thought she doesn’t complain, she does wonder: why isn’t there a dedicated museum or archive to one of our most celebrated and uniquely American writers? LIW’s manuscripts and artifacts are scattered from the Ozarks to Iowa to Minnesota to southern Kansas to South Dakota. Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura and Almanzo lived most of their adult lives but now a museum, has never had a professional curator. The people who work there are volunteers. If LIW had been a male writer, I am sure we’d have had serious effort to assemble a serious, conserved, scholarly archive of her works and letters by now.

This is Fraser’s last paragraph in the book, but I don’t think my quoting it here will spoil anything:

Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it — embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfaction, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.

library copy