Book Review: Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

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There seems to be a wealth of new publications being released about my favorite author and her life. From the re-release of “Pioneer Girl”, Laura’s autobiography, to “Caroline”, a historical fictional account of Laura’s sainted mother, to “Laura Ingalls is Ruining my Life”, a humorous book for the angst-y tween set, Laura is coming again to the forefront of popular culture.

When I heard that a new historical analysis of Laura’s life was recently released, I just knew I was going to have to read it, despite having reservations about what I was going to discover inside. I’m sure many of you out there have a hero that you’ve put on a pedestal, either from childhood or adulthood, who is your ideal human being, somebody who can really do no wrong. Laura is kind of that for me, although having already read her autobiography (which is excellent) I had an idea of what to expect.

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Laura at the start of her writing career, age 50.

In “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser,  Laura’s “truth” about the tales she spun in her Little House books is minutely and thoughtfully examined. What is wonderful about this particular book is that it gives a detailed historical look into what was going on in the United States at the time of Laura’s life. It wasn’t just that the Ingalls family decided to up and move every few years based on Charles Ingalls’ wandering spirit fueled by fresh American optimism. The Industrial Revolution, Washington politics, economic policies, racism, sexism and environmental disasters all played a huge part in the migration of the Ingalls and Wilder families from East to West.

Together with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the two writers forged a new reality for young readers, carefully sifting through the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood to create a book series that would focus almost exclusively on the family’s successes while leaving the most devastating failures out.

“All I have told is the truth, but not the whole truth,” Laura later said.  The real truth, as it happened, was too painful to record.  The Ingalls family hit some pretty low points between Charles Ingalls’ inability to successfully provide for his family, to the untimely death of a baby brother and a rather bleak period when the family had to work at a hotel to pay off their debts.   These episodes, Laura felt, were too difficult for young readers to understand and destroyed the idealized family picture she was trying to create.

The biggest bombshell of the entire book for me was the exploration of the dispositions and relationships of Rose, co-author/editor of the Little House series.

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Rose testifying in 1939 before a Congressional subcommittee
as a self-identified “revolutionist”.  

PSYCHO HOSE BEAST.  Every page I read that included Rose I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

Deeply ashamed and angry about her parents’ poverty, the resentment she felt in childhood spilled over into her adulthood, forcing her to make some very, very bad and unethical decisions in her career and personal life.   As she grew older, Rose blamed those same bad decisions on her parents, especially her mother.  In fact, Rose thought nothing of plagiarizing her mother’s stories for her own benefit and was said one day to  have looked on while her mother fell on the ground and refused help, according to a long time Mansfield resident. Suffering from life-long depression and relationship failures, it seems hard to believe that Rose could have helped her mother shape such tender family vignettes in the Little House books.  Perhaps Rose was better at her chosen vocation, shaping make-believe characters and story lines rather than dealing with the emotions and trials of real life.

The life that inspired the Little House series was “filled with light and shadow,” as Laura called it and “Prairie Fires” is a reflection of that.  Rarely are people and their circumstances solely black and white.  Human beings are complicated, multifaceted beings and “Prairie Fires” manages to shed light on the fact that Laura was no exception.  Laura believed in self-reliance and publicly disavowed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, but never acknowledged the fact that she and her family were recipients of government aid when resources hit rock bottom.  She was a strong and independent individual but she actively campaigned against women’s right to vote in the early part of the 20th century.  Laura endorsed a simple, quiet life but was known to have a quick temper and would nag her husband mercilessly in order to get what she wanted.

“Prairie Fires” is a must-read for anyone interested in a grittier, complicated, and deeply emotional look into the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Until next time, read on!

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