what i'm reading: prairie fires: the american dreams of laura ingalls wilder

I read Little House on the Prairie when I was very young, and eventually went on to read the whole Little House series. I didn't know any other girls named Laura -- there were at least five in my Master's program, but it wasn't a popular name back then -- and I was infatuated with the idea that the Laura in the story grew up to write the book I was holding in my hands. Even then, I wrote stories, and fantasized that I would write a similar series that children would love.

The series was always said to be autobiographical, but it is also fiction. When I picked up Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, I was curious how much the books reflected Wilder's life -- and how that pioneer girl came to write such an enduring (if now dated) children's series.

Prairie Fires is revelatory. It's meticulously researched, and the writing is both precise and accessible. It's a fascinating read.

The elephant in the room

We can't talk about LIW and her celebrated books without addressing the racism embedded in them. There is racist language in the Little House books -- degrading comments about Indigenous people -- language that young Laura heard her father and other adults use.

"Pa" Ingalls believes "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," but young Laura is also fascinated by Indians. To her, Indians represent freedom, and the wildness of the untamed land, which she loved and revered -- another racist myth.

But focusing on these details may obscure the larger picture. LIW wrote about her settler family and community -- not "settlers" as the term is now used, but actual settlers, the first European people who made permanent habitation on land recently stolen by the United States government.

Prairie Fires addresses this immediately, with a clear-eyed view of what happened to the original inhabitants of the prairie and the woods that the Ingalls family and others like them claimed as their own. The book first offers an overview of the US's treatment of the Indigenous people during westward expansion, then focuses on the specific story that intersects with the Ingalls. The land on which they settled was stolen from the Osage people, who (as was typical) entered into an agreement with the US government, and were then betrayed -- repeatedly. By the time the Ingalls enter the picture, the Osage are desperate, facing starvation. The outcome was bloody and ugly.

Fraser tells this part of the story with obvious empathy for the Osage people, and great respect for their leaders, who behaved ethically until the end -- and also with respect for those who chose to break with those leaders, and acted out of anger and revenge. Like all contact stories, it is staggering in its outright injustice and cruelty, and heartbreaking. And although we all know the broad outlines of what happened, any time we can read about the fate of specific nations, that's a positive thing.

From bad to worse to impossible

Reading Prairie Fires, I learned a lot about US history, especially the incredible trials faced by the settlers on the great plains. They were doomed to fail in so many ways.

First, they bought into a dream, a land rush, which supposedly would lead to a prosperous life -- but the size of their claims were too small to ever be self-supporting, and the land was utterly inhospitable to farming. Although this was known by some, the message was drowned out by profiteering promoters.

This wasn't the first time that immigrants and hardscrabble city-dwellers were induced to follow an ill-conceived dream, and it wouldn't be the last. As Fraser writes, "Fundamentally, the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science of by huckster fantasy." In US history, the answer to that question is always certain.

The settlers were doomed by the arrogant and ill-conceived notion that "empty" land, as they saw the prairies, could naturally be changed into farmland. But there was simply not enough rain, and stripping the grasses from the land made that exponentially worse. The farming settlers actually changed the climate. Fraser writes, "Scientists estimate it took a thousand years for an inch of topsoil to accumulate on the arid high plains. It was the work of a moment to blow it away." In 1935, 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. Children died of "dust pneumonia". Animals died when their nostrils became stuffed with sand or else starved when their grass disappeared.

If you've read The Grapes of Wrath or perhaps seen Ken Burns' excellent documentary about the Dust Bowl era, you may know that monoculture farming and the absence of crop rotation caused untold damage.

Fraser unpacks the many forces at work, some natural but most human-caused, that led to widespread crop failure and starvation. Much of it was driven by the profit motives of the railroad companies, a predatory banking system, and an economic system rigged to benefit large-scale operators and middlemen. But it also arose from a foundational belief in "the pioneer spirit", as Fraser writes, "treasuring the fantasy that a fistful of dollars and a plow could magically produce not only a farm but a nation."
But the Dust Bowl was no act of god or freak accident of nature. It was one the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time. Farmers had done this, and they had done it to themselves. It was small farmers, in particular, who were responsible, since they were more likely to cultivate intensively and less likely to employ any form of crop rotation or erosion control. As scholars have noted, settlers had boasted of their prowess in dominating the landscape, bragging of 'busting' and 'breaking' the land. Well, now it was broken.
Then there were the locusts. I won't give you the details, out of respect for friends with entomophobia. Let's just say that it sounds like a 1950's B sci-fi movie. Months of back-breaking, penny-pinching labour would be destroyed in minutes.

The disasters just kept coming -- droughts, locusts, debt, fire, extreme deprivation, near starvation. No one would have written a children's book that gave an honest account of the Ingalls' lives. It would simply be too gruesome, easily crossing the line from adventure to inappropriate. LIW's books took this grim material and shaped it into something noble, stirring, and triumphant -- and in doing so, helped cement the romantic view of western expansion that so many Americans grew up with.

If you have an interest in history, even if you don't particularly care about LIW or the books she wrote, I highly recommend reading the first parts of Prairie Fires -- the introduction, "On the Frontier," and "Part I, The Pioneer". It is fascinating.

A double biography, more than I wanted

LIW's story embodies so much of American history. She was 62 years old when she wrote her first book! Then, after a lifetime of near-poverty and extreme frugality, she became wealthy and famous. She is certainly worthy of a serious and important biography.

But Prairie Fires is really a double biography -- of LIW and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

The stories of these two women are inseparable. They had what Fraser calls an "editorially incestuous" relationship. RWL edited LIW's work, and apparently many scholars, editors, and other book people have claimed that RWL was the real author and ghostwriter of the Little House series. Fraser offers evidence that this was not the case -- although I wouldn't call it definitive. But there is no doubt that the strong, working collaboration between LIW and RWL produced most of LIW's work.

RWL is a strange and fascinating figure. She traveled around the world and published widely. She is credited with being one of three women who founded libertarian politics -- taking a distant third to Ayn Rand and Isabel Mary Paterson. In general, she lived an unusual, tempestuous, and dramatic life.

To me it is clear that RWL was mentally ill. She repeatedly sabotaged her own chances for happiness and prosperity. Although she was paid very generously, earning more than LIW would ever see until her old age, RWL burned through everything she had and was always in debt. She betrayed old friends and repeatedly destroyed relationships, often ending up completely alone. She was prone to bizarre obsessions, which she indulged until she was destitute.

Fraser does mention that RWL was depressed, and had a breakdown. But mostly she seems to regard RWL as a bad person with inexplicably bad behaviour. I felt sorry for RWL, but the author seems to have little sympathy for her.

Fraser doesn't idealize LIW; she is presented as a real human, with faults and blind spots like anyone else. But the book continually contrasts the two women -- LIW as the rational, patient, frugal, hard-working adult, and LIW as an impulsive, melodramatic, exaggerating woman who acts like a wild adolescent.

RWL's story often overshadows LIW's. Perhaps it is bound to do so, as LIW's life was steady, planned, and orderly, while her daughter's life was impulsive and erratic, full of travel, strange relationships, and poor decisions. Even so, I felt that too much time was spent on RWL, and I sometimes lost the thread of LIW's story.

Desperate for help, yet refusing all offers

Another interesting aspect of this book, for me, was learning more about the social and political context of LIW's life. Although LIW's story is founded on one of the most enormous government giveaways in history -- free land -- the pioneers and the farmers were virulently anti-government.

Not all agricultural communities are conservative. The Norwegian and Swedish farmers who settled in Minnesota brought their socialist values with them. Agrarian socialism, and a less political cooperative farming, is a thread running through U.S. history.

But the culture of central Missouri, where LIW spent most of her life, was ultra conservative and (although the word was not yet coined) libertarian. Even though they faced tremendous suffering during the Great Depression, they loathed President Franklin Roosevelt and detested his New Deal. I've never understood this, and Prairie Fires gave me more insight. (I still have little respect for this thinking, and like all libertarianism, it was wildly hypocritical -- but I do understand it a bit better now!)

Overall, an excellent book

I don't want to overstate my issues with this book. Fraser's research and writing are impeccable. Prairie Fires is essential reading for anyone whose life was touched by the Little House series, or is interested in the evolution of American literature, and especially anyone interested in the myth-making of the frontier and the American west.

The media release for Prairie Fires offers a good synopsis.
Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls—the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder's biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.

The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder's real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children's books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading—and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.


impudent strumpet said...

Someone in my twitter feed read this a while back and was tweeting about it (I can't immediately find the link or remember who), and their focus was greatly on Laura Ingalls Wilder's father and not at all on Rose Wilder Lane, so it's interesting to me that different people had such different focus while reading it.

(I mean, I'm sure that happens all the time with different people reading a particular book, but I don't usually see two different people talking at some length about a book I haven't read myself)

It's also interesting to me that Laura Ingalls Wilder had such a negative life experience, and then even had the idea of turning it into a book that framed the situation positively.

Amy said...

I'm really looking forward to reading this especially after reading your blog. Laura was probably one of the earliest strong female lead characters in the books I read growing up, along with Jo in Little Women. Laura's curiosity and independence and spirit were so refreshing to me even though in many ways she was caught in the limited roles that girls and women had in those days.

laura k said...

Amy, I'm so glad! Those qualities -- strength, curiosity, independence -- were all real. I'm sure that's why I loved her, too.

Imp, I think LIW took her experiences and fashioned them into the life she wished she'd had.

Also, LIW's father is a very interesting character! The book version of Pa is made of qualities he had, it's not wholly invented, but it is highly sanitized.

deang said...

For those of you not too put off by insects, there's a good book on the locusts that plagued the Great Plains settlers, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier. The locust itself ultimately became extinct due to unwitting destruction of its larval habitat.

laura k said...

Hi Dean! Nice to see you. :)

deang said...

Hey, Laura! Always nice to read your posts.