Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Image of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Release Date: 
November 20, 2017
Metropolitan Books
Reviewed by: 

"a comprehensive biography befitting a giant of the literature of the United States.."

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, is not a major American writer, at least not by the standards applied to the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

Still, Caroline Fraser, the author of Rewilding the World, and God’s Perfect Child, has written a comprehensive biography befitting a giant of the literature of the United States.

Aficionados of Wilder’s many books, as well as fans of the long-running TV series that was inspired by them, will probably be delighted by the size and the scope of Prairie Fires.

Those who would rather curl up with Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Ellen Glasgow’s Vein of Iron, or John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat—all published in 1935, the same year that Little House appeared in print—may feel that Fraser’s 625-page biography with 85 pages of footnotes is a case of overkill.

Do we really need to know that by the time she was 18, Laura had lived in a dozen different homes, from Wisconsin to Kansas and Missouri? Yes, we do. Writing her books help her fix a time and place that provided a sense of comfort and security.

In fact, Prairie Fires is a dual biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her feisty, opinionated daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Had mother written a book about Lane it might have been ironically entitled, Daughter, Dearest.

Fraser aims to tell their individual and combined stories, as well as to offer a narrative about the American “frontier,” that legendary territory that Wilder conjured in her books and that has appealed to both children and adults for the past 80-plus years.

The biographer’s motives are in part personal.

In the acknowledgements at the back of the book Fraser writes, “my preoccupation with western settlement began long ago, with my maternal grandmother telling me about her own labors on a Minnesota farm, where she baked bread before dawn to feed a multitude of brothers and sisters.”

On the subject of settlement, historians remind us that they were profoundly “unsettling for Native Americans.”

The oral tradition was a powerful force in Wilder’s life. A main reason she wrote was to retell and preserve the stories she heard as a child and young girl, even as she sanitized them.

Prairie Fires pays homage to pioneers like Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, who worked the land and were worked by it.

It also honors a couple of generations of pioneers who fled from the East and moved to the West where they built houses, raised children, and grew crops that often failed to reach the marketplace.

Fraser explores and records hardscrabble lives.

Prairie Fires is perhaps most intriguing as a study of the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter who were inextricably linked from the moment that Rose Wilder was born in 1886 until Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957. Even after the mother died they were connected through the books that were republished repeatedly.

Sometimes it seems that the umbilical cord was never severed.

Rose Wilder Lane played a major role in the creation of her mother’s fictions, though she was never officially recognized as co-author. Only the name Laura Ingalls Wilder appears on the covers. Rose Wilder Lane’s name ought to appear there. So Prairie Fires suggests.

On the question of who wrote what, and who provided the primary engine of creativity, Fraser walks a fine line. On the one hand, she insists that  “Wilder’s writing was . . . uniquely her own,” and in the next breath she adds that it was “a product of collaboration with her daughter.”

Prairie Fires does not adequately make clear where the books are a cooperative enterprise between the two women and where they are uniquely the products of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own memory, imagination, and labor.

Perhaps it does not matter, though Rose Wilder Lane is a curious figure in her own right, and her role in the Little House series ought to be more precisely defined.

Fraser explains that Lane wrote biographies of Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford in which she blended fact and fiction and muddied the historical record.

Moreover, she points out that Lane invented stories about her mother’s life and times that are not to be trusted. The daughter made Native Americans more menacing than they were in realty and emphasized “Indian raids.”

In the pages of Prairie Fires, Laura Ingalls Wilder— the author and public figure—appears to be, to a large extent, an invention of her own daughter, who was a mythmaker par excellence.

Lane also had keen ideas about how to market and promote the Little House series of books, a fascinating story that Fraser relates.

A bit more psychoanalysis might have been helpful to readers. After all, Lane read Freud and Jung and applied their ideas in her biography of Jack London. Indeed, Jungian archetypes are all over the Little House series.

Fans will find plenty of reason, in the pages of Prairie Fires, to go on idolizing Wilder. There’s also information that makes her less than appealing, as, for example, when she wrote of the small frontier towns, “I didn’t care for all these people. I loved the prairie and the wild things that lived on it much better.”

That love of the prairie comes across loud and clear in all Wilder’s books.

Fraser’s big biography could keep a reader entertained during a long cold month of Sundays. No one will read this book in a single sitting. It’s meant to be savored.

The many roadside attractions take readers into the political, economic and literary history of the United from about 1880, near the end of “the frontier,” to the 1950s and the nuclear era. One can learn about Teddy Roosevelt and Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, the Depression of 1873 and the Panic of 1893.

Fraser is too smart and too well informed to present a sanitized portrait of Wilder. She also recognizes that the Little House series occupies a pivotal place in popular American culture. “Whether you find the books an inspiration or a provocation,” she writes, “they’re a significant part of our history.”

In that regard, Wilder joins the company of Stowe, Steinbeck, Twain, and Henry James.