Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie booksOne of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the YearMillions 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...

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Title:Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Author:Caroline Fraser
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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder Reviews

  • Beth Cato

    I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

    When I visited Laura Ingalls Wilder's farmhouse and museum in Mansfield, Missouri, last year, it felt like a pilgrimage to me. Seeing Pa's fiddle, walking where Laura walked, was a soul-deep experience for me. Her Little House books had a major impact on my life and making me the author I am today.

    I have read several biographies of Wilder over the past two years, including the annotated version of her original, truer-to-life m

    I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

    When I visited Laura Ingalls Wilder's farmhouse and museum in Mansfield, Missouri, last year, it felt like a pilgrimage to me. Seeing Pa's fiddle, walking where Laura walked, was a soul-deep experience for me. Her Little House books had a major impact on my life and making me the author I am today.

    I have read several biographies of Wilder over the past two years, including the annotated version of her original, truer-to-life manuscript,

    Fraser's work is the most comprehensive book by far, encompassing the lives of Laura's parents and extending after her death to the actions of her daughter and the evolution of her literary estate. The amount of research involved is staggering. It's well known that the Little House books deviated from reality in major ways, and that Rose Wilder Lane was a major collaborative force in bringing the "juveniles" to publication. Sorting through the muddled mess of half-truths could be confusing, but Fraser lays out the facts through primary source materials, manuscripts and letters. The book is quite long; the galley is over 500 pages, plus citations, but it's a fast, intriguing read for people like me who are already invested in Wilder's world.

    The only challenge in the book is not the author's fault at all, but the dominating, bipolar presence of Rose Wilder Lane. She cannot be separated from her mother's legacy; she had too great a role in developing the books, and her influence on her mother is undeniable. But my gosh, Lane is exhausting to read about. She was mentally ill, vacillating between suicidal depression and manic spending sprees, and as she grew older her extreme politics took on a sinister bent. If she were alive today, she would be an alt right troll on Twitter.

    Fraser doesn't shy away from showing how Lane's politics--and Wilder's--evolved through the ends of their lives. It's not a pretty truth; actually, it's rather infuriating to see how Wilder's celebration of the can-do American farming experience was so far from reality. Her family was persistently poor. They settled on Kansas land they had no right to. They slipped out of Burr Oak, Iowa, in the dead of night to evade debt. Wilder's sisters and mother died, still utterly stricken by poverty. Wilder was only secure at the end because of her book sales, as her Missouri farm had always hovered at the edge of failure, too, intermittently blessed and damned by Lane's financial whims.

    While this book will be enlightening for anyone who loves Wilder's work, it should be regarded as a vital read for anyone with an interest in American history from 1860 onward. It presents on honest, brutal assessment of what Native Americans endured in Minnesota and beyond, the realities of farming, the interplay of politics on local and national levels, and how the west was settled--and unsettled in our modern era of oil pipelines and fracking.

  • Julie

    Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is a 2017

    Metropolitan Books publication.

    This is an incredible biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder of

    fame.

    To say this book on Wilder's life is comprehensive would be an understatement. Caroline Fraser paints a vivid portrait of the beloved author, but still preserves the respect for her novels that have entertained ma

    Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is a 2017

    Metropolitan Books publication.

    This is an incredible biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder of

    fame.

    To say this book on Wilder's life is comprehensive would be an understatement. Caroline Fraser paints a vivid portrait of the beloved author, but still preserves the respect for her novels that have entertained many of us for generations.

    As a child, I read the ‘Little House’ books over and over again, and of course, I tuned in once a week to watch the television show. (Until it got too soapy and I started to outgrow it)

    So, naturally, when I saw this book, I knew I had to have it. As it has been pointed out, the books Wilder wrote were a fictionalized accounting of her childhood. This leaves one to wonder about Wilder’s life, beyond her childhood and marriage, and what information she may have glossed over while writing her books, which were primarily a hit among children.

    With over six hundred pages, this book was not only a very detailed, extensive look, at Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the historical evolutions that took place during her life.

    I won’t go into the details provided in the book, as you will want to read those for yourselves, but I will say I was very taken aback by some of the historical details, by some of the antics Charles Ingalls, Laura's father, got up to, and some of Wilder’s attitudes towards those in a worse situation than her own, as well as how political she and her daughter, Rose, often were.

    A great deal of time is spent on Rose Lane, Wilder’s only surviving child, and their complicated relationship. I had never heard any of this information and found myself riveted by the stark differences between the two women, and Rose's bold, selfish manipulations.

    I simply can not fathom the amount of time and work the author must have put into this book. Not only does she dig deeply into Wilder’s life, giving us one of the most in -depth studies of her struggles and opinions, thus allowing the most realistic and insightful view of who this woman really was, and the impact her daughter has on the public persona we’ve embraced up until this moment, but she also researched the historical eras Wilder lived through, providing a striking look at the harsh life many were subjected to, barely able to survive, and the complicated land agreements that displaced many Native Americans.

    The failures and disasters came around far more than the triumphs. It wasn’t until Wilder was in her fifties and sixties that her writing career took off.

    Although this book is almost encyclopedic, and may look as though it would be dry reading, and does seem daunting, with its ‘door stop’ weightiness, I found it was very absorbing and the pages seem to zoom by. Even so, it did take a while to read through it. There are lots of notes and I tend to skim over all that, but it is nice to have the information available for future reference. There are several wonderful photos of the Ingalls/Wilder family, of Laura, and of Rose, who plays a large role in this book.

    Overall, I must say this book was much more than I bargained for. It is very, very well researched, and as such, I learned a great deal from it, and despite the risk of disillusionment, I found Laura Ingalls Wilder to be quite an interesting person. She was a hard worker, often carrying the weight of her family on her shoulders, and like all of us to varying degrees, complex, difficult, and at times I didn’t care for her attitude, while at others I admired her temerity, and her ability to staunchly weather all the hardships life through onto her path. I didn’t always understand her point of view, didn’t always agree with her choices, and found Rose Lane to be a real pain, but at the end of the day, this biography is one of the best I’ve ever read.

    Even if you are not a fan of the ‘Little House’ books, the historical aspects alone are worth giving the book a try. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading history, and of course for those who would like to know the real truth about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    5 stars

  • Matt

    - Caroline Fraser,

    - Laura Ingalls Wilder, from the opening lines of

    The impressions we form in our youth are among the strongest we will ever have. That is probably why the people who were introduced to the

    books as children remain attached to them so strongly. It has been years (and years, and years, and years) since I first listened to my dad as he read the series to me. Once I learned to read myself, I went through the series again, and again. Their presence has never left me, something I can’t say about

    or

    . As soon as my first child was born, I mentally began counting down the days when I would break out my tattered edition of

    and read that fairy-tale like hook. With my oldest daughter just turning six, we have finally reached that time.

    Despite my great love for

    , I have spent precious little time wondering about its creator. I never knew of or paid attention to the lingering controversy about whether the series represented fact or fiction (today I think we can comfortably say that it’s a blend, and be okay with that). I never really attempted to place Laura or her family in a historical context, since the books themselves are remarkably ahistorical, mostly eschewing dates, times, and goings-on in the wider world.

    In other words, when I picked up Caroline Fraser’s cradle-to-grave biography of the real Laura, I did not do so with any great expectations. Rather, I had a mild interest in the woman who created the girl who taught me all about making molasses candy in the snow and churning butter and constructing a door without iron hinges. Thus, I was unprepared to be utterly blown away by this fantastic volume. Fraser’s work is rich, layered, and powerful. It is a quintessentially American tale of poverty to riches straight from the unforgiving frontier. But instead of making her wealth from the land, which Wilder’s books always assured us was possible, with just a little more sweat, a little more time, she found success in turning the failures of her own life into a sweetly packaged saga. It is a remarkable tale.

    The dominant them of

    is crushing and abject poverty. It is about failing, trying again, failing again, and trying again (and failing again). This sounds terribly depressing, but before you stop reading, let me assure you, it is not. Instead, it is honest. It gives you the hardscrabble reality of the homesteader, of the poor pioneer sold the Jeffersonian dream of a secure and happy life on a self-sustaining farm, only to be crushed by unsuitable land, years-long droughts, and creditors, always the creditors. With the exception of Laura, who achieved her lasting literary success late in life, the rest of her family died without ever discovering the elusive Eden in the west.

    Their failures, though, do not make them failures. As Fraser expertly demonstrates, through every scrap of documentary evidence she can find, these were amazing people: tough, resilient, gutsy, and undaunted. If you’ve ever read the

    series, you know that Pa – Charles Ingalls – is one of the stars. His love of Laura, and Laura’s love for him, is the most profound relationship in the novels, especially given Wilder’s tendency to highlight mechanistic processes and descriptions of nature over scenes of intimacy. Here, the real Charles Ingalls steps forward, and you see that that aspect – the love between the father and daughter – was real. I’ll be honest, I might have shed a tear when Charles died.

    Fraser’s telling of the Ingalls true-life adventures, here given in unexpurgated fashion, with all the thorny little details (such as the Ingalls family squatting illegally on Osage land) is reason enough to read

    . Things only get better, though, with the introduction of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s only child, and a literary dervish, unforgettable in her own right. Rose is like something out of fiction: a world traveler; an outspoken journalist; a financial sieve who made and spent fortunes; a political hardliner who ended up outflanking the John Birch society; and a self-taught genius as an editor and storyteller. She also probably suffered from a mental illness, as shown by the many suicidal musings in her journal. Here, Rose proves a perfect foil to her reserved and polite mother.

    One of the best sections in this thoroughly entertaining biography details the working relationship between Rose and Laura. For as long as the

    books have existed, Laura has been dogged by allegations that Rose was the true author. As Fraser persistently shows, through examination of letters and manuscripts and Rose’s own oeuvre, those charges are false. Certainly, Rose helped mold the clay, adding in various fictions, and softening rough edges. But this is hardly tantamount to ghostwriting. If anything, Rose pilfered Laura’s life for her own novels, which Rose used to advance her increasingly strident libertarian politics.

    The only flaw in this book is a flaw within myself. It broke the

    spell that Laura wove for me so many years ago. It will be hard, going forward, to fully embrace the warm and cozy cabin, knowing it was at times nothing but a drafty tar paper shack; and those delectable meals she lovingly described were often the menu spun by her own imagination.

    Moreover, the canvas that she paints of the American West is riddled with holes and colored by nostalgia. The frontier she describes only really existed in the mind and memory. The land she described as empty was actually peopled by Indian tribes; when she saw an absence, it was because they had been pacified, either killed or removed. The self-sustaining farms she talks about were seldom self-sustaining. They were dead ends of debt and ecological disaster. The distortion of the western historiography matters, because we base so much of our national character on that experience.

    But I don’t think Laura Ingalls Wilder ever set out to bolster a national fable. I think, to the contrary, that her self-mythologizing helped her cope. She tamed her own past by writing these stories.

    And there are still good lessons to be learned. Chief among them, the ability to find joy in the everyday things:

    Forget the paeans to doing-it-yourself, to enduring, and making do. The real heart of

    is the pleasure one takes in a peppermint stick at Christmas; in the way that sunlight dances across the ripples of a creek; in the deep contentment of being surrounded by those you love, and who love you back.

  • Jennifer

    Y'all Rose Wilder Lane was THE WORST.

  • Brina

    Spring is my favorite season. It is a time of rebirth, the new baseball season, and the Pulitzer announcement. While not a fan of awards shows that drag for hours, I giddily await the Pulitzer Prize reveal each year with anticipation. It is an ongoing, open ended goal of mine to read as many Pulitzer winners as possible over the course of my lifetime. Whether I enjoy the content or not, the books are usually well written and a joy to read. This year, I was delighted to find out that the winner f

    Spring is my favorite season. It is a time of rebirth, the new baseball season, and the Pulitzer announcement. While not a fan of awards shows that drag for hours, I giddily await the Pulitzer Prize reveal each year with anticipation. It is an ongoing, open ended goal of mine to read as many Pulitzer winners as possible over the course of my lifetime. Whether I enjoy the content or not, the books are usually well written and a joy to read. This year, I was delighted to find out that the winner for biography was Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Like many Americans, I had grown up reading her Little House books and thoroughly enjoyed following the coming of age saga of Laura and her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Fraser, the current editor of Little House Books of America, had researched the real life Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family from a historical lens and placed her in the context of American history. The result is this award winning biography that I knew I could not pass up.

    As a child it is easy to get swept away by the lives of characters in epic book series like Little House. One roots for them through their ups and downs and overlooks any faults. Little House not only avoided presenting the character Laura with many faults, but it also omits the often times depressing history of the Ingalls family. Fraser presents her adult readers with a more accurate yet less rosy picture of the Ingalls and Quiner families. The first Ingalls in America came over on the Mayflower and settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Samuel Ingalls had been a proponent of the Puritan ideals of hard work and self-sufficiency that so characterized his descendants Charles and later Laura. The family worked the land over the generations, always seeking out better opportunities, and eventually made their way west to what is now Kane County, Illinois and eventually Wisconsin. This is where the family lived during the outbreak of the Civil War where many siblings married their Quiner neighbors. Listing among their relatives the Delanos, who would later produce an American president, the Quiners shared similar characteristics with the Ingalls', especially their adherence to hard work and self-dependency. One of the resulting Quiner-Ingalls matches was Caroline Quiner to Charles Ingalls.

    Charles Ingalls was determined to make himself as a successful farmer. In the era following the Civil War, the federal government offered land grants to homesteaders to take the American west from the Native Americans once and for all. The history of the reconstruction era west is filled with bloody battles in the race to win the land. Fraser details some of these often lost battles in western Wisconsin and Minnesota as the Ingalls family journeyed from one state to another seeking out the perfect homestead. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born near Lake Pepin, Wisconsin on February 7, 1867. Her treasured Little House in the Big Woods begins in Wisconsin when Laura had just celebrated her fifth birthday. The fictional family never lacked food or entertainment even in lean times, and Pa always told stories and played his fiddle. The real life Ingalls family had left Wisconsin on the Chicago and Northwestern railroad prior to Laura's fifth birthday. They were impoverished, never outright owning a home of their own, and moved from Wisconsin to Kansas back to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota again, following family members in search of the perfect piece of land to call home. Yet, Charles for all his good character traits, found it difficult to make ends meet as a farmer, and as Laura wrote her family history into children's stories, she created a truthful tale that wasn't all true.

    In the end, the family settled on a homestead on Silver Lake near De Smet, South Dakota, where they would remain as settlers moved west. The Ingalls' had endured poverty, swarms of locusts, the first great depression of the 1870s, and multiple mortgages on attempts to homestead. Charles and Caroline Ingalls finally found this life in De Smet, even if the farming life continued to be challenging. They became pillars of their church and masons in the Eastern Star organization and endured a real life long winter. Mary went blind, and Laura did indeed take up teaching so that Mary could go to the college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. In this time between the winter and teaching, Laura became acquainted with Almanzo Wilder, who she married in 1885 at the age of eighteen. The Wilders had moved west from the town of Malone, New York, and enjoyed a similar history as the Ingalls'. Almanzo, or Manly as Laura called him, had attempted to homestead, but found it difficult to make ends meet among droughts, locusts, and the boom or bust farming cycle. By Christmas of 1886 the couple had a daughter named Rose and Almanzo struggled to make ends meet as a farmer. The Ingalls family had moved to town, abandoning attempts at farming, and Laura and Almanzo eventually left De Smet in 1894, for the land of red apples, Mansfield, Missouri.

    The second half of the book details Laura's and an adult Rose's writing careers. The two clashed over life in rural Missouri, Laura and Almanzo enjoying fulfilling lives as farmers on Rocky Ridge Farm, while Rose always had an eye on the future and a way out of dodge. As soon a she could, she left her parents while working as a stenographer and made her way to San Francisco. An independent woman before it was popular, it was Rose who took up writing as career before her more famous mother. Whereas Laura penned an occasional memoir in order to preserve her father's stories and tunes played on the fiddle, Rose worked for income, ghost writing autobiographies of prominent Americans as Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, and President Herbert Hoover. Alienating her subjects and embracing the role of an isolationist American, Rose was a polarizing figure. Yet, she played a prominent role in encouraging her mother to write and later publish her family's history in the form of children's books, working in the key role of copy editor.

    Whereas Laura and Rose did not see eye to eye in a loving mother-daughter relationship, Rose's expertise as an editor as well as her contacts in the publishing industry got her mother an initial contract with Harper and Company. During the depression era, the Wilders were again in a cycle of poverty and distrusted the federal government programs of President Roosevelt, ironically a distant relative. People always read books, especially for escapism purposes, and the Little House series became an instant hit. Americans enjoyed reading about a wholesome farming family on the prairie, calling to a calmer time in America. There were few to no mentions of Native Americans, locusts, poverty, or other hardships aside from the long winter, and people from all walks of life found themselves relating to the hard working Ingalls family. Neither Laura nor Rose envisioned the books becoming what they are today, yet the royalties from the books allowed Laura and Almanzo to finally lift themselves out of poverty and enjoy their twilight years comfortably. Even though neither Charles Ingalls nor Almanzo Wilder fulfilled their dreams of becoming successful homestead farmers, their American dreams played out to the children around the world in the form of now classic children's books.

    Caroline Fraser completed extensive research while placing the Ingalls family into a historical context as homesteaders struggling to achieve the American dream during the late 19th and early 20th century. She places Laura, Almanzo, and Rose and their personal history alongside historical events unfolding around them, showing their family and personal growth as the country matured from an agrarian to industrial society. The anecdote depicting Laura and Almanzo learning to drive was especially light hearted. Yet, most intriguing was the argument as to who played the lead role in writing Little House books, Laura or Rose, and how much of the books were fact or fiction. Leaving out the hardships facing the Ingalls and Wilder families in order to create a more wholesome story for children, the Little House books, despite this shortcoming, have persevered for generations. As I enjoyed reading the series as a child and now passing this down to my daughters, I was captivated by the real life story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. Prairie Fires is deserving of its Pulitzer, and I look forward with giddy anticipation to see which biography merits the award next year.

    4.5 stars

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