Published: 21 November 2017
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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on 7 February 1867 and was the second of four daughters born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Laura’s childhood became famous when she published the Little House in the Big Woods in 1932 which would be the first in a series of children’s books telling the story of the travails of the Ingalls family from Laura’s early childhood to her marriage. The books have never been out of print and have been marketed worldwide which is a testament to their enduring appeal. However, controversy was never far away, as there have been claims events depicted in the books were fabricated and that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, may have been the real author of the books.
Prairie Fires begins by examining the lives of Laura’s parents, Caroline Quiner and Charles Ingalls, and the events that brought them together. Caroline’s childhood was particularly bleak to the extent she and her siblings almost starved to death after the loss of their father and meals consisted of nothing more than a few breadcrumbs in warm water. The Ingalls and Quiner families were actually connected by marriage several times over as siblings married siblings which surprised me as the Ingalls family seemed to be so isolated in the novels. When Charles and Caroline married, the families were all living near to each other and it took Charles and Caroline far longer to start their family than the others. The family’s time in Wisconsin forms the basis for the Little House in the Big Woods although Wilder makes Laura’s character slightly older as she felt people would not believe she would be able to remember her childhood in such vivid detail if she had portrayed her true age.
As Charles grew increasingly restless, the family left their somewhat comfortable life in Wisconsin to start over in Kansas where Laura and her elder sister, Mary, were joined by another sister, Carrie. At this point, Caroline Fraser describes how Charles Ingalls had no legal right to the land he chose to farm on as it still belonged to the Osage Indians and she goes on to give a harrowing account of the massacres carried out by both sides as the arguments escalated. Whether Charles knew he was illegally squatting on the land is debatable but Fraser maintains he must have known. Regardless, the Ingalls family abandoned their farm to return to Wisconsin. Laura tells the story of the family’s time in Kansas in the Little House on the Prairie which was published in 1935, although she does not mention the family were on the land illegally.
After spending three years back in Wisconsin, Charles decides to move his family to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which will be familiar to those who viewed the 1970s television series. The third novel On The Banks of Plum Creek, published in 1937, tells how the family lived there for a couple of years until harvest failures forced them to move again. Caroline Fraser reveals how the Ingalls family and other farmers in the area were actually driven to breaking point when their harvests were continually destroyed by great swarms of locusts. While Charles Ingalls is idolised in his daughter’s books, Caroline Fraser depicts him as a man who ultimately fails at everything he does as he is always looking over the next horizon. Charles’s need to constantly be on the move also places his family in precarious situations that could have been avoided if he had thought things through more carefully and I have to say she has a point.
As Charles abandons farming for various other jobs, the family eventually settle in De Smet, South Dakota, which more or less becomes the permanent residence of the Ingalls family as depicted in By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), The Long Winter (1940) and Little Town on the Prairie (1941). In one of the most astounding historical facts in the novel, Caroline Fraser goes on to explain how the US government were warned not to encourage settlers to farm the prairies as it wasn’t suitable land for farming and it would have disastrous consequences on the environment. Needless to say, the government and the railroads ignored these warnings and the damage done to the eco-system resulted in periods of famine where families were reduced to boiling weeds for food. Caroline Fraser goes on to show how the damage has accumulated to affect worldwide weather patterns and how it caused the major drought during the Great Depression of the 1930s. I wouldn’t normally be interested in this type of information but it is presented in a really interesting way and Caroline Fraser really drives the point home at the end of the book when she relates how she visited the area where the Ingalls family loved in Dakota and the damage on the prairies is still visible.
As the family settle in De Smet, Laura has to take on a variety of jobs to help her family make ends meet as Mary is now blind and money has to be raised to send her to school. It is a hard time for the family as a harsh winter blights the crops and food is scarce but Laura also meets her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who turns out to be just as clueless as Charles Ingalls when it comes to financial matters. Laura and Almanzo marry on 25 August 1885 and they settle on his farm where their daughter, Rose, is born on 5 December 1886. Laura wrote about her romance with Almanzo in These Happy Golden Years (1943) which has a happily ever after feel to it, however a later manuscript The First Four Years (1971) paints a bleaker picture of illness and the ultimate loss of their farm to debt.
When Laura and Almanzo settle into their new home in Mansfield, Missouri, finances continue to be tight but the focus of the biography turns towards Rose Wilder Lane who turns out to be an extremely unpleasant woman. The next few chapters deal with Rose’s life as a journalist for the so-called yellow press who were more concerned with sensational headlines than fact and her increasingly contentious relationship with her mother. Already an established author herself, it is Rose who encourages her mother to write to make some extra money and Laura begins writing for the Missouri Ruralist. At this point, Laura also begins to pull together the bits and pieces she has written about her childhood and sends them to her daughter who polishes them for publication while happily stealing the contents for her own books. Knowing her mother is aiming her books at the children’s market, Rose takes her mother’s material and publishes Let the Hurricane Roar (1932) and Free Land (1938) which are an adult re-telling of the lives of Charles and Caroline Ingalls.
You can certainly understand why some critics have claimed the Little House books were really written by Rose Wilder Lane but Caroline Fraser examines the writing styles of the two women and maintains Laura’s work has always had more heart to it. Caroline Fraser does credit Rose as being an excellent editor though and examines how the two got into the habit of sharing stories with each other to the extent ownership often became blurred. While I completely understand why so much attention was given to Rose due to her prominent role in the publication of the books and the subsequent allegations over authorship, I found the chapters dealing with Rose increasingly tedious as she was not a nice person and she was horrible to her parents. I have no idea how Laura and Almanzo managed to produce such an thoroughly unpleasant child.
As the biography progresses, Caroline Fraser keeps us abreast of what happened to Laura’s parents and siblings and as they die one by one it makes for sad reading as they were all practically destitute. Almanzo Wilder remains an enigmatic figure as the focus is mainly on his wife and daughter so I never really felt like I got to know him all that well. The closing chapters deal with the impact the Little House books had on a global audience after the Second World War and I have to admit I had no idea Laura’s books were so popular in Japan. The people of Mansfield became extremely proud of their resident author and it is heartwarming to realise how much they loved and cared for Laura during her last years. According to the book, Laura left her literary estate to Mansfield library with her daughter gaining a percentage of the royalties, however the library lost out when Rose renewed the copyrights during her lifetime and left them to Roger MacBride, one of her numerous “adopted” sons.
Prairie Fires draws to a close with Caroline Fraser recounting her tour to the many places Laura called home and her visits to the graves of the Ingalls family which will have you reaching for a tissue. A truly remarkable read and possibly my favourite book this year.