- Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
In 1976, Donald Zochert published the first biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Written for a general audience, it included an appendix, "The Truth of the Little House Books," which revealed that the fictional series did not always align with Wilder's life. This information surprised fans and challenged narratives perpetuated by the author and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Forty years later, scholars and fans remain hungry for details about the truth of the series, the lives of its author(s), and the process of its composition.
As Wilder scholarship evolved, it became clear that to tell the story of Laura must also mean telling the story of her daughter. Biographers—including Janet Spaeth, William Anderson, John E. Miller, Pamela Smith Hill, and Sally Ketcham—have demonstrated the degree to which, in life and art, Wilder and Lane's interactions and collaborations remained fraught. Hill's edited, annotated edition of Wilder's memoir, Pioneer Girl (2014), made accessible to mainstream audiences by the South Dakota Historical Society Press as the initial volume in its Pioneer Girl Project, brought to greater awareness the ways in which the fiction deviated from the facts of the Ingalls family's experience and was constructed and shaped by Lane as well as Wilder.
In Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser draws from decades of her own engagement with Wilder scholarship, including her editing of the Library of America edition of the Little House series. One of the NewYorkTimes Book Review's Best Books of 2017, Prairie Fires provides a remarkable breadth of knowledge of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history and culture. As Fraser explains, "The truth comes clear when we see Wilder as part of a wider history" (5). That wide-angle approach to Wilder's life and works is a striking component of this beautifully written and highly engaging biography.
Fraser opens with the perspective that the United States' approach to colonizing and annexing the Plains and the West should be linked to European American conflict with Native Americans in the 1850s and '60s, particularly the events of the US-Dakota War of 1862. Fraser asserts that these events shaped everything that followed: government policies, enduring psychological and emotional patterns, and, of course, literary reflections. What "opened the far west," as Fraser explains, "was not reasoned debate. It was wrath and righteous retribution" (24). [End Page 346]
Building on this assertion, the volume weaves compelling "big picture" themes and events into a rich tapestry. Fraser sees Wilder's storytelling as adhering to the way in which her ancestors told their stories, reaching back to Samuel Ingalls, Laura's great-grandfather, who celebrated American Exceptionalism, found himself "transfixed by natural disasters," and espoused a "belief in self-reliance as an absolute sacrament" (32). Applying her research and interpretive skills to all phases of Wilder's life and experience, Fraser provides a satisfyingly thorough portrait. In light of Rosa Ann Moore's and others' writings, familiar to academics but less known by general audiences, and most notoriously represented by William Holtz's 1993 assertion that Lane should be seen as the primary author of the Little House books, Fraser's assessment of Wilder and Lane's interactions during the writing of the fiction will be especially of interest. Using an impressive array of resources, she delineates the patterns of Lane's depressions, manic phases, and other suggestions of recurring mental illness. Fraser also tracks with clarity and detail how Lane's "adopted grandson" Roger MacBride, under her aegis and with her encouragement, maneuvered himself into control of Wilder's writings and royalties.
"Prairie fires" becomes a controlling metaphor for Wilder's life and works. Literally, it refers to the fires that roiled across vast acreages throughout the Midwest during the drought of 1871. However, "prairie fires" also alludes to the sound of the voracious locusts that devoured everything, not just in southern Minnesota but across 198,000 square miles (74). It is also an apt metaphor for the state of...