What I’m Reading: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
One of my Christmas presents was this book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am kind of obsessed with LIW, so I was eager to read it. As a child, I read her Little House books over and over, and I used to pretend that the empty lot behind our house was the prairie. I wished for a sunbonnet and a prairie dress, but had to content myself with Holly Hobbie. I loved the stories of the self-sufficient family, pioneers on the prairie, eking out their living by building their own home and farming 40 acres.
Except that’s not really what happened. This book, exhaustively researched and written by Caroline Fraser, lays out not only how the family really lived, but also how LIW came to write her books. And you can’t talk about LIW’s books without also talking about her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. As Fraser demonstrates, the two women had an odd relationship where they relied on each other for support, both monetary and editorial. It’s probable that LIW would never have written her books if not for RWL’s suggesting it.
But it’s more than just a daughter encouraging her mother. RWL was envious of LIW’s success, and at first she put down the idea of writing “juveniles.” But once she saw her mother’s success, she scrambled to write her own. Also, she published her mother’s stories before her mother did, renaming the characters and publishing them in serial form in various magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post. To me, it was a bizarre push/pull relationship. LIW didn’t appreciate her daughter publishing her stories, but she never seemed to express it in her letters. And LIW continued to send her unedited manuscripts to RWL, accepting her daughter’s revisions and suggestions.
Fraser also reveals other things LIW left out of her Little House stories, such as the fact that her Pa wasn’t the saint she made him out to be. The most fascinating part of the book is the first section, where Fraser traces the Ingalls family journey from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to De Smet, in Dakota Territory. Pa repeatedly put his young family in harm’s way, and over and over again failed as a small farmer, subjecting the family to poverty and debt. Of course one of the other points Fraser makes is how it was (is) nearly impossible for anyone to succeed as a small farmer, especially in the Dakotas. But LIW never writes about her father’s debts (and how they skipped out of town when they owed money in Burr Oak, Iowa). She never writes with any bitterness about how she started working at age 9 to help support the family, and never stopped.
This book is an interesting (if sometimes tedious) read for anyone as obsessed with LIW as I am. Fraser covers her life story, the writing of her books, and what happened after her death, particularly the television show based on her books.