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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Review

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Confession time: I was once one of those kids who was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books. I never really got into the television show, but I read and reread the eight books in the series until their bindings were falling apart. I had a sunbonnet, and my family, like many others, made pilgrimages to the various Little House sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Missouri. I’ve also read other biographies of Wilder, as well as her published letters and diaries. So you’d think that I --- and the countless other Little House fans like me --- wouldn’t have much left to learn about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Well, it turns out that’s not the case. PRAIRIE FIRES, the new biography of Wilder by Caroline Fraser (also the editor of the Library of America editions of Wilder’s novels), will absolutely offer new perspectives and information for even the most diehard Little House fan. Comprehensive and incredibly well-researched, Fraser’s biography traces Wilder’s life from before her birth to her ongoing literary legacy, consistently placing Wilder’s life and work in its historical and political contexts.

"Fraser’s outstanding biography invites readers into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder --- and I suspect more than a few of her readers will be inspired to crack open their own well-worn copies of the Little House books to read with fresh eyes."

Fraser opens her book with a riveting and harrowing account of the 1862 Dakota War in Minnesota. This war took place a few years before Wilder’s birth, but it --- and the accompanying ways white settlers viewed and approached their Native neighbors --- set the stage for the stories she herself would tell decades later. This kind of background information and research is what Fraser’s biography does especially well. It’s easy, especially when reading as a child or with a child, to gloss over the historic framework of Wilder’s very intimate family stories, but Fraser consistently and painstakingly illustrates the relationship between Wilder’s literary interpretation of her upbringing and the very real events that informed it.

Fraser also addresses head-on the allegations that Wilder’s daughter, the journalist and novelist Rose Wilder Lane, is the real author of the Little House books. She compiles compelling evidence, including Wilder’s memoir as well as manuscripts and letters between mother and daughter, to trace their collaborative, at times contentious, relationship. Wilder and Lane were at odds much of the time --- failing to agree on financial matters as well as literary ones --- but Fraser convincingly argues that Wilder owned the stories she told, while acknowledging Lane’s more artful embellishments.

Modern-day readers of Fraser’s biography might be surprised to learn how much Wilder shared politically and philosophically with her anti-government daughter, who was famously a vocal critic of Roosevelt and the New Deal and was a fervent admirer of Ayn Rand. As with the rest of the biography, however, Fraser traces Wilder’s own criticism of government assistance and other New Deal–era programs to her upbringing and the lessons about self-sufficiency and independence hard-won during her childhood. Granted, much of the suffering Wilder experienced during her childhood and in the early years of her marriage could have been alleviated by a more robust social safety net, but one can see, based on Fraser’s account, how Wilder arrived at her values.

Perhaps most surprising --- and, in many ways, satisfying --- is the realization of how full and varied a life Wilder led after the childhood and youth she chronicles (and fictionalizes) in her novels. Even readers who have visited her home in Mansfield, Missouri, will be interested to learn about her contributions to civic life, journalism and politics in her eventual hometown. After a childhood spent traveling ever westward, Wilder seemed to come into her own when she finally had a permanent home of her own. Fraser’s outstanding biography invites readers into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder --- and I suspect more than a few of her readers will be inspired to crack open their own well-worn copies of the Little House books to read with fresh eyes.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 1, 2017

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

  • Publication Date: November 21, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books
  • ISBN-10: 1627792767
  • ISBN-13: 9781627792769