This Little House Biography Is Wilder than Most

In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser sets the record straight about pioneer life, family feuds, and questions of authorship.

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Caroline Fraser
Nov 2017

“Laura Ingalls came to consciousness gazing through the keyhole opening in the cinched canvas covering her family’s wagon, swaying over an expanse of prairie grasses as they lurched slowly southwest from Missouri to Kansas,” Caroline Fraser writes in her recent biography of the beloved children’s author of the Little House on the Prairie books.

“It was one of her earliest specific memories and a sight she would never forget,” Fraser writes. “Late in life, she would conjure it again and again, trying to recapture the stark beauty and isolation of that vista, seen through the eye of her not-quite-three-year-old self. In her memory, the prairies represented a tabula rasa—wilderness as purity, free from human stain and experience. In her memoir, she recalled the scene: ‘I lay and looked through the opening in the wagon cover. … It was lonesome and so still with the stars shining down on the great, flat land where no one lived.”

That passage is typical of Fraser’s approach, first situating her subject in a broader context, then including facts or quotes from the many Wilder-related documents she sifted through in order to tell the story, and concluding with an analysis—all of it blending seamlessly into a richly textured narrative that’s compelling and, because of the wealth of detail and documentation, also convincing. What makes it a great read, though, are the many surprises here for fans of the series that have little knowledge of the real events behind the stories. I’ve read several of the books and have also watched the television series, but I did not know that a family the Ingalls owed money to wanted to “adopt” Laura in exchange for debt forgiveness, or that to dodge their debt to their landlord, Charles roused his family in the middle of the night, loaded the wagon with all their possessions, and left the rental property for a new start far away.

In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Fraser tries to set the record straight in this first major “adult” biography of the author, and that includes covering all aspects of the author’s life and career, starting with idealistic and often romanticized exaggerations that the author suggests may have been influenced by the tall tales Laura’s father told.

“As with her portrayal of the Big Woods as a place where ‘there were no people,’ there was a significant omission here,” she writes. “People did live in Kansas. And they fought over it, too.”

What follows that passage is a history lesson about Kansas from 1830 until “squatters” came on the scene following the Civil War, with Ingalls’ father listed among those who traveled to the state in the fall of 1869 to a land that was there for the taking … except for the fact that it belonged to the Osage, who “were not shy about defending their land or their interests”. And the “land where Charles Ingalls began building a cabin lay well within the Osage Diminished Reserve”, Fraser notes—just as she later draws connections between Charles relocating the family to Minnesota and the much earlier “battle of New Ulm” when “Indians surrounded and laid siege” to the town. Even Abraham Lincoln became involved, Fraser says. When the president’s permission was sought to execute 303 Dakota prisoners who had participated in the siege and massacre, his response was to stop the process, “recognizing that many of the convicted were guilty only of fighting against American forces: they were prisoners of war, subject to release”.

Never mind that poverty was more problematic than Indians by the time the Ingalls family settled in New Ulm. In writing Wilder’s biography, Fraser also tries (and succeeds) in telling the story of a nation driven by the doctrines of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. Along the way, she manages to shift her own sentiments effortlessly between sympathy for Native Americans and sympathy for the pioneers—no easy task. Those early chapters include descriptions of the period chronicled by the books and TV series, including a story about Wilder’s first years of marriage to Almanzo Wilder, during which she would endure crop failures, drought, debt and displacement, diphtheria, the death of an infant, her young husband’s debilitating stroke, their house burned down, and nerve damage to her eyes.Though reviewers have called Prairie Fires the “definitive” biography, you get the feeling her story could have been told in multiple volumes, like Wilder’s idealized and fictionalized accounts of growing up on the frontier with her parents, Charles and Caroline Ingalls.

Pioneer times make up only the first 176 pages of this 625-page biography. The remainder of the book is devoted to Wilder’s life during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, her move to the Missouri Ozarks (where she would spend the bulk of her adult life), the complicated personal and professional relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose, the writing and personal lives of both women, and the legal issues and controversies surrounding Wilder and her intellectual property in the years following her death in 1957 at age 90.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is that I came to feel that ‘Laura’ had almost been loved to death, sort of like a beloved doll or toy,” Fraser told an interviewer. “Between the fictional Laura of the books and the even more heavily fictionalized girl of the TV show, we’ve tended to lose sight of the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person who was complicated and intense.”

But there was another impetus driving her. In 1995, University of Missouri professor William Holtz published a biography of Wilder’s daughter, The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. In that book, Holtz made the surprising claim that Rose was the ghostwriter of her mother’s books. “I was curious and kind of skeptical about that,” Fraser says, “so I started looking at Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts. And I ended up writing a long piece about Wilder for The New York Review of Books. Eventually I edited the Library of America’s two-volume edition of the Little House books and found the history so fascinating I didn’t want to stop.”

In other words, Fraser came to this project with a Wilder pedigree and an axe to grind. Yet, just as she did with the pioneers vs. Indians, she is able to write sympathetically about both Laura and her daughter. There are even times when it feels like a biography of Rose, so much space is devoted to her life apart from Laura. But then you realize that it’s pretty difficult to separate the two. Having worked as a “yellow journalist” and having written both stories for popular magazines and unauthorized celebrity biographies (including ones on Charlie Chaplin and Herbert Hoover), Rose was already well known as a writer when she began coaxing and coaching her mother to get into the business. It’s fascinating to read of their fluid relationship, how Rose eventually “began competing with her mother over her material, first in secret and then openly, trying to put her own imprimatur on the family stories and sell them before her mother could”.

Not surprisingly, since the mother-daughter writing relationship is partly what drew her into the project in the first place, Fraser spends a great deal of time detailing their personal and professional relationship as she investigates the matter of authorship. Providing ample evidence and referencing side-by-side comparisons, she concludes that in every book “it would be the unique combination of their skills that created a transcendent whole: Wilder laying a plain, solid foundation of factual description, holding to simplicity of speech and emotion, while her daughter trimmed, honed, and heightened the drama, adding embellishment and ornamentation”. Though it was hard on both women, it proved a winning combination, and the story of their relationship emerges as the core of this biography. If anyone is slighted in the second half of the book, it’s Wilder’s husband, Almanzo. There are times when the men in Rose’s life get more space—though even that’s explainable, given that one man, Roger MacBride, would go on to have a powerful effect on Wilder’s legacy.

There are plenty of surprises and delights here for the Wilder fan and also for students of American history. It’s fair to say that many readers will not have known that Wilder wrote farm columns for the Missouri Ruralist and was active in women’s issues, presenting a paper on “The Small Farm Home” at a 1911 Missouri Homemakers’ Conference and even running for local political office at one point. Or that Rose used the same Charles and Caroline stories in her adult novel Let the Hurricane Roar, which agitated her mother, while Rose became so agitated herself over political matters that she once wrote, “I could kill Roosevelt with pleasure and satisfaction”. Or that royalties from the Little House books would help fund the presidential campaign of the Libertarian candidate in the 1976 election. There is a dizzying amount of information here, and nearly 100 pages of meticulous endnotes vouch that Fraser did her homework and wrote a biography that tells the true story behind the Little House stories . . . and then some.

“What were Wilder’s dreams?” Fraser asks. “She told us, again and again. She wanted to save her father’s stories from being lost. She wanted to promote her parents’ values, which were her own: courage, self-reliance, independence, integrity and helpfulness.”

RATING 8 / 10
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