Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017), by Caroline Fraser

Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (whose Little House Books occur out of Missouri but who lived most of her life in Mansfield) won the Pulitzer this year. It’s a masterful portrait. You should read it, or at least listen to it on a long trip. Fraser is a lyrical writer with a full command of the history that Wilder lived through. If you have any interest in Wilder, the Midwest, or the tough lives of pioneers, this is the book for you.

Since Prairie Fires has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, I don’t see any merit in my reviewing the book house by house. However, a few things jumped out at me:

One is how much of the “truth” is represented in these short novels (or one long, episodic novel) aimed at children. There was debate as Wilder published how much was true, how much fabricated to fit the story, and most of the time Wilder does tell the “truth.” She insisted that she did, though “the truth” was also a marketing scheme.

Plain woman that she was, Wilder was also a good, natural writer, and could embroider scenes in search of a larger truth about childhood, family, poverty, farm life, and bad behavior. She also edited the truth when it began to seem unsavory for young children, but she didn’t lie. Every writer has a sense of that larger truth, but you don’t allow little lies to weaken it. Wilder, for the most part, didn’t.

Of course, you can’t tell the whole truth. Try it some time. What Wilder wrote was fiction.

Wilder’s somewhat infamous daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was inherently untruthful. To take just one example, she tried to work the Bloody Benders (in Kansas lore, innkeepers who lured in travelers, then robbed and killed them) into Little House on the Prairie, on the thin evidence that Pa may have visited there. Thankfully, in this instance, she wasn’t successful.

But on the subject of Lane, Fraser spends a lot of time speculating how much of the Little House books were written by Wilder, how much by Lane. Certainly, all of the recollections are Wilder’s. But Lane was much the superior writer in commercial terms, having produced a number of bestsellers. These were dishonest or at least sensational books designed to sell, and they have rightfully been forgotten. At the same time, Lane was a fine editor, and correspondence between mother and daughter reveals a solid partnership. We probably wouldn’t have the Little House books without Lane.

A second thing: Wilder was a Midwestern farm wife and very much belonged to the small town of Mansfield. She and her beloved husband, Almanzo, struggled mightily to pay the bills. Income from their hillfarm was never enough. They were hard hit by the Depression, and initially Wilder wrote to make a little money. She cut her teeth in farm magazines such as the Missouri Ruralist, and that series of small successes led to her authentic, fictional memoirs of childhood.

She didn’t write these until she was in her sixties! Those of us who grew up thinking the Little House stories were timeless classics, such as Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, probably didn’t realize that Wilder’s books were relatively new. They became over-night classics, really, in the 1940s and 1950s.

A last oddity, which Fraser diligently, delightfully records: Wilder was a rock-ribbed Republican, and like many rural folks she hated Franklin Roosevelt with all of his socialist schemes. Rose Wilder Lane was a leading adherent of the America First movement that boasted luminaries such as Charles Lindbergh and Ayn Rand. America Firsters—of which Wilder was not one, but with whom she sympathized—did not believe in foreign entanglements or in government programs to resuscitate the economy. If you failed in life, it was your fault; you should have worked harder. People on the dole were simply lazy. Lane was an isolationist, a nativist, and so, less fervently, was her mother. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Wilder and Lane would have been Trump people.

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