Caroline Fraser’s endlessly fascinating biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, honors the 150th anniversary year of Wilder’s birth.
Fraser, who has written for publications including The New Yorker and The Atlantic, has been immersed in Wilder’s world for years, having edited the Library of America edition of the Little House books. On the desk of her home in Santa Fe, she keeps a program from the 1937 Detroit Book Fair, where Ingalls gave what Fraser calls “her most important statement about why she wrote the books.” Wilder said in her speech, “I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history,” specifically, the settling of the American frontier.
(Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls)
Fraser’s goal with Prairie Fires was to meld the “great story” of Wilder’s life with American history. “While there are good biographies of Wilder available,” she explains, “I felt that the history really merited a closer look.”
Like generations of young readers, Fraser was fascinated by the Little House books as a child, especially because her maternal grandmother’s family emigrated from Sweden to Duluth, Minnesota. But what ultimately drew her into years of research was an interview she heard with William Holtz about his 1995 biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, whom he claims essentially ghostwrote her mother’s books.
“I just thought really,” she remembers. “That was such a surprise.”
Lane was a well-traveled reporter and celebrity biographer who had publishing connections that were vital to her mother’s success. “If she had not,” Fraser says, “I don’t know that [the books] would have ever seen the light of day.” However, Fraser’s research reveals a more balanced collaboration between mother and daughter, one that she says “brought out the best part of both of them.”
Wilder began writing about her childhood as early as her late teens, although those manuscripts haven’t survived. Over the years she wrote for newspapers and farming magazines, also penning a gritty manuscript titled Pioneer Girl, which remained unpublished until 2014, well after Wilder’s death in 1957.
Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, when Wilder was 65. After years of financial instability, her books about her poverty-stricken childhood finally brought her wealth. In the introduction to Prairie Fires, Fraser calls the feat “a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation,” as she “reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting.”
The Little House series “has all of Laura’s stoicism and her grit and determination,” Fraser says. “I think Rose made it more accessible for children at times―to kind of gentle down some of the harsher realities of what her mother was writing. She polished some of that and brought out the high points, the cheerfulness, the love in the family.”
Still, questions linger. At the Detroit Book Fair, Wilder firmly stated, “All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” Not quite, as it turns out.
“Laura and Rose would take factual material and transform it into fiction,” Fraser asserts, “and then claim it was factual, and have no problem with that. Rose cut her teeth in yellow journalism. Insofar as she had any training, it was in the yellow press. It was the real fake news.”
Wilder aptly described her books as “a long story, filled with sunshine and shadow.” The privations she and her family suffered, however, were much harsher than what was described in the books. The family’s only son died at 9 months, and Wilder’s sister Mary went blind. Years later, Wilder’s husband, Almanzo, suffered a stroke early in their marriage, making farm work difficult, and their only son died as an infant. A short time later, their house burned down. Wilder, her husband and daughter finally left South Dakota in 1894 to settle in the Ozarks, on a farm they called Rocky Ridge.
After their departure, Wilder didn’t see her beloved father again until years later, when he was on his deathbed. After that, she didn’t see her mother or sisters for years and wasn’t able to attend her mother’s funeral. Fraser says Wilder’s “exile” from her family was critical to her writing, adding, “I think all those years added up to a very intense yearning and nostalgia for her family, which resulted in her wanting to recapture and revisit her childhood in these books.”
In recounting her pioneer childhood, Wilder and her daughter blurred the lines between fact and fiction.
Fraser notes that readers cherish the Little House books for their “incredible sense of the closeness of the family.” The paradox, she says, is that Wilder and her daughter never had that. Lane suffered from depression and described her childhood as a “nightmare.”
“It says something about the extraordinary nature of literature that a relationship as fraught as that between Laura and Rose was able to produce this amazing testament to the American family,” Fraser says.
In recent years, many have criticized the series for its racist attitudes toward Native Americans. For example, in Little House on the Prairie, Wilder begs her father to let her adopt a Native American baby whom she sees passing by. Fraser notes that while the young girl’s statement may seem “innocent on the surface,” it embodies “a perfect image in American literature of what white settlement was all about, and the acquisitive nature of the people who came to the West and wanted to take everything that belonged to somebody else.”
Nonetheless, in 1894 Wilder wrote in her diary, “If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left [the wilderness].”
“It’s a very bold statement,” Fraser says. “I really think it’s one of the most extraordinary statements that she ever made and a really astonishing one for a woman of her era to make. Many other people were just terrified or overwhelmed by the kinds of experiences she had. She remembered the terror, she remembered being overwhelmed, but it did not affect how she felt about the land, and that, to me, is extraordinary.”
Despite the controversies about the Little House books, Fraser believes they will have an enduring legacy. “I certainly hope that people continue to read them, because I do think that they are really important, not only as children’s literature, but as American history,” she says. “They deserve a place among the classics of American literature.”
(Author photo by Hal Espen.)