Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (Metropolitan Books, 2017); 625 pages.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, is one of the finest biographies I have read, and a fully deserving winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Prairie Fires is the definitive depiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957), author of the world-renowned series of eight children’s books that are collectively known as The Little House on the Prairie. The best-selling novels recount Wilder’s childhood and her family’s life on the Western frontier during the 1870s and 1880s. In simple but compelling prose, Wilder invites readers to become part of a loving family who survive through poverty, hunger, blizzards, droughts, locusts, crop-killing hailstorms, and other hardships that are almost unimaginable to modern readers. But the novels are far from depressing; they are inspiring. Wilder makes the past come alive and readers experience the heroism of perseverance, the strength of family bonds, and the sheer beauty of nature, as seen through young Laura’s eyes and Wilder’s simple eloquence.
Fraser captures it all.
The need for Prairie Fires
Wilder’s ability to evoke vivid images and feelings is part of why Fraser’s book is necessary. Millions of people around the world grew up with Wilder. They know her almost as a friend, because her novels draw them into her life vicariously. They believe the stories are accurate depictions of her childhood. Wilder encouraged this belief by repeatedly stating that the books contained unvarnished truth. The claim itself is untrue. The broad framework of her works is undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of her past, and the sincerity of her style cannot be manufactured. But some incidents depicted did not occur, while others were materially altered, omitted, or romanticized. The blurring of Wilder’s real childhood was accelerated by the extremely popular television show Little House on the Prairie, which ran from 1974 to 1982 and introduced a generation to an almost entirely false vision of Laura, her family, and pioneer life.
Fraser does a great service by introducing the genuine Wilder to the world. The encyclopedic profile runs 625 pages, each one of which shows exhaustive research. Because much of the material comes from personal papers, such as a diary and letters, the massive biography is also a page-turner. As the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House books, Fraser is uniquely qualified to interweave Wilder the writer with Wilder the woman into a seamless web. (Note: the referenced edition contains nine novels. The last one is The First Four Years, which was published after Wilder’s death. It is a point of controversy whether it belongs in the series, partly because she disliked it.)
Accessing the genuine Wilder is particularly important because she is thoroughly identified as an American icon, with the Little House books both reflecting America’s early identity and helping to define it. Certainly, the U.S. State Department thought so. After World War II, it ordered Wilder’s work to be translated into Japanese. In 1949, during the occupation of Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters chose the sixth book in the series (The Long Winter) to be among the first American works to be translated and distributed widely. The purpose was to introduce Japanese children to American values, including democratization. Wilder’s descriptions were so vivid that the book became extremely popular with children who knew nothing about the frontier West. Two other books in the series were subsequently translated, and a similar program was launched in Germany.
Does Fraser’s book destroy the image of Wilder as the epitome of the American pioneer and values? Oddly enough, it doesn’t. Prairie Fires presents the wrenching poverty and suffering endured by so many settlers, without losing sight of the dream of self-sufficiency that drove Americans West. The Ingalls family did move from farm to farm, managing to produce more creditors than crops, but they never gave up on each other. They continued to find intense pleasure in the simple things of life, such as Charles’s (Laura’s father) playing a violin or the passage of geese flying overhead. There is a deep sweetness to their resilience, persistence, and good will, which survived despite being slapped constantly by reality. Fraser does not subtract from Wilder’s stature. Quite the contrary.
So why did Wilder mischaracterize so much of her past? When writing the novels, it would be natural for Wilder to gloss over anguished memories of starving as a child or of losing her baby brother when he was nine months old. Indeed, Wilder may not have been able to write the Little House series if it meant confronting her beloved father’s repeated failures or how painful her childhood had been. When Wilder started the novels, her parents and her older sister, Mary, as well as her younger sister, Grace, were dead. Fraser observes that all but one sister were “reunited in the town they had helped found, in the wooded cemetery on a rise, with a view of the fields and prairie beyond.” Wilder’s last sister died shortly after, which meant Wilder was the only one left of the pioneer family. Perhaps she gave herself and them the memories she desperately wished could be real. No wonder one reviewer referred to the Little House series as “a prolonged memorial service.” Such longing and regret have ways of changing memories themselves.
Fraser makes the memories accurate.
The provision of history
As part of providing reality to Wilder, Fraser also offers extensive historical context and perspective on the American West. At times, Prairie Fires seems more like a biography of a place than of a person, perhaps because Wilder was the places and times about which she wrote; the two are inseparable.
Even controversial history is handled in an objective, straight-forward manner. The discussion of Indians and the attitude of pioneers toward them is an example. The American Library Association (ALA) recently and unanimously dropped Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award. Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, it was established in 1954, with the first one being presented to Wilder herself. It is now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The reason: her novels contain what are alleged to be racist and anti-Indian sentiments. The Guardian explained, “In Little Town on the Prairie, Charles takes part in a minstrel show. Caroline [Laura’s mother] expressed a distinct dislike of Native Americans: ‘She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them, too.’” Her 1935 story, “Going West,” has garnered particular criticism. In it, the head of a migrating family says of their destination, “There were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Wilder later changed the passage to read, say, “There were no settlers there. Only Indians lived there.” Critics were not satisfied.
By contrast, Fraser documents the outrageously unjust treatment of the Dakota Indians without erasing the reasons that pioneers feared and sometimes hated them. The history of the displacement of Indians and its backlash, however, occasions a criticism of Prairie Fires; sometimes the setting of context interferes with the main goal of the biography, which is the life of Wilder. For example, after the introduction and before the first chapter, there is a section entitled “On the Frontier” that runs 16 pages. The section chronicles the history of the Dakota Indians, on whose land the Ingalls family squatted — a point Wilder’s books never mention. As fascinating as the history may be, however, the reader begins to wonder when the main characters will appear. The interweaving could have been more skillfully done.
A brief nod to politics
In December 5, 1886, Rose Wilder Lane (1886–1968) was born to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo. Rose was their first child, and she was the only one to survive into adulthood. Lane is recognized, in general and by Fraser, as one the founding mothers of the modern libertarian movement.
In 1943, Lane published The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle against Authority, which deeply affected 20th-century libertarianism. 1943 was also the year in which the last book in the Little House series appeared. The two endeavors had much in common politically. Both celebrated individualism, for example, and they displayed a corresponding suspicion of authority.
In real life, Wilder and Lane came to share a deep political connection through their mutual rejection of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. In her book Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books, Christine Woodside explained, “They both hated the New Deal. They thought the government was interfering in people’s lives, that individuals during the Depression were becoming very whiny and weren’t grabbing hold of their courage. The climate of America was really irritating them. The New Deal, for a lot of farmers and definitely the Wilders, made them change their politics.” Many farmers were outraged by government agents who visited farms, like the one Wilder then lived on, and forced them to document how many acres they had planted in case they were over the government-enforced maximum. A lifelong Democrat, Wilder changed her affiliation and infused her book with libertarian political views, albeit ones that were expressed indirectly.
Woodstein wrote, “With their simple, cheerful tales of self-sufficiency, the Little House stories advance ideals of maximum personal freedom and the limited need for the government. In their essence they illustrate libertarian ideals, and in this they reflect the attitudes of both women at the time they were writing the books.”
An old question resolved
Prairie Fires devotes a great deal of space to the relationship between mother and daughter, which was complex, dysfunctional, and often resembled a love-hate dynamic. The portrait painted of Lane is especially unflattering.
Nevertheless, Wilder and Lane had a close writing association, which created a long-standing question that Fraser finally answers. Did Wilder actually write the books on which her name appears or was Lane the main hand at work?
Historians have struggled with how to divide credit for the Little House books, with some points being clear. It was Lane’s urging that prompted Wilder, then in her early 60s, to start recording the stories of her youth. Her advanced age has raised the question of whether Wilder was a “natural” novelist, or whether Lane, who had a career history of ghostwriting, did the yeoman’s share of creation. On the other hand, Wilder had two decades of experience as an essayist and columnist for farm journals before launching into the Little House series.
There is no doubt that Lane actively guided her mother’s career and writing, especially in the early years, providing literary contacts and aggressively editing manuscripts. Sometimes the two women blended. Wilder’s autobiographical On the Way Home (1962), for example, was published posthumously only after Lane had edited it and supplied additional material. Did the editing cross over into a collaboration or even into ghostwriting?
Lane denied the allegation, but it persisted and grew.
Roger Lea MacBride, who ran for president in 1976 on the Libertarian Party ticket, unintentionally contributed to the “evidence” of ghostwriting. He was unofficially adopted as a grandson by an elderly and childless Lane. He inherited her entire estate in 1968, which included rights to Wilder’s books. It is of some interest that MacBride ignored the desire stated in Wilder’s will for the copyrights to revert to the library in Wilder’s hometown after her daughter’s death. MacBride retained them. The television show Little House on the Prairie was reported to be his idea and he licensed the series to NBC.
MacBride’s unintentional contribution to the ghostwriting claim came when he cooperated with a University of Missouri professor named William Holtz, who was writing a biography of Lane. The cooperation ended when MacBride realized that Holtz intended to argue for the ghostwriting theory of the Little House series. Holtz’s book was entitled The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane.
Holtz published an article in Liberty magazine (March 1992) entitled “The Ghost in the Little House Books,” in which he stated, “Rose Wilder Lane was more than a pioneer of libertarian thinking. She was the novelist who turned her mother’s stories into the hugely successful Little House novels. And along the way, she infused them with libertarian thinking.…”
The impact of Holtz’s book was evidenced by a Washington Post article (July 11, 1993) entitled “Little Fraud on the Prairie,” in which the author explained how the book made her lose her lifetime passion for the Little House series because she felt betrayed and disillusioned.
Those who believe in Wilder’s authorship offered a series of defenses. For example, manuscripts held by a museum in Mansfield — Wilder’s last hometown — seemed to prove she had written the books. Defenders observed that Holtz’s claim rested largely on an analysis of the drafts of only one novel —Little Town on the Prairie — and on the one-sided evidence of Lane’s diary. MacBride even tried to limit the sales of the Holtz book. But accusations of fraud continued.
Some biographies are vehicles of justice. They fill the void of historical oversight; they correct misstatements, and say “thank you” to the unacknowledged. Prairie Fires is an act of justice. It rectifies a situation that should have never existed: a game of “Who is the liar? Who is the fraud?” that pitted the legacies of mother and daughter against each other in a manner that would have appalled them both.
Through an examination of letters, diaries, unpublished manuscripts, and other documents, Fraser chronicles a dynamic that should be celebrated, rather than used as literary gossip: namely, the remarkable collaboration between Wilder and Lane, which produced remarkable results. Lane began to write her mother page after page of editorial advice circa 1910–1911, when Wilder started publishing articles in a rural magazine. She paid close attention to that advice, even though the editorial liberties taken by her daughter sometimes distressed her. Fraser notes, “These early letters establish the new basis of the relationship between Rose Lane and Laura Wilder: the daughter becoming the often domineering partner, while the once strict matriarch was forced to acknowledge her own uncertainties as she launched herself into a new realm, holding tight to her daughter’s hand. This would be their relationship for the next four decades.” Lane’s domineering role was apparent in the early years but it was less so after Wilder had graduated from what could be called an apprenticeship
Bottom line: Wilder and Lane created the Little House phenomenon together in a partnership. The series would not have been possible without the remarkable abilities of both women. They were self-taught geniuses; Wilder wrote; Lane advised, edited constantly, and added her own embellishments. Lane’s immensely significant role should be acknowledged and applauded, but they do not constitute ghostwriting.
In fact, Lane poached material and memories from her mother to use in her own writing, perhaps because she resented Wilder’s great success; certainly, that is the motive Fraser ascribes. The most egregious example of poaching may be Let the Hurricane Roar, which was first serialized and then published as a novel. The book appeared in 1933, shortly after the first book in the Little House series was published to acclaim. Lane’s novel had an identical plot as Wilder’s novel On the Banks of Plum Creek; Wilder’s book appeared later but Lane must have been familiar with the family story on which the plots were based. Moreover, Lane’s story used the names “Charles” and “Caroline,” despite the fact that Wilder used them in the Little House series, and it would have been trivial for Lane to choose different ones. At first, Lane kept the serialized book secret from her mother, undoubtedly anticipating her reaction. When Wilder found out, she felt betrayed and violated. A schism formed between the two women, but it did not keep them from collaborating.
Wilder herself provides the best conclusion to any review of Prairie Fires because she sums up the message of her books and of her life in one sentence. Despite enduring great pain and several near-death experiences, the last words of her last book in the Little House series are typically inspiring. Fraser comments on These Happy Golden Years, “Her final novel was her last opportunity to spend time with parents long gone, her last word on a marriage that began with such joy and promise. Secure in the eternal present tense, the last thing Laura says to the reader is, ‘It is a beautiful world.’”
This article was originally published in the January 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.