Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Written by Caroline Fraser
Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Cottrell
Published in 2017 and winner of 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
When my daughter Sarah was a young girl, she and I both loved the Little House on the Prairie books, and while I knew they were not pure memoir, I always assumed they were more truth than fiction. After reading this book, I think that’s accurate—probably best expressed by Laura Ingalls Wilder herself in saying, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth.”
The real story of Laura Ingalls Wilder—as meticulously researched and thoroughly told by Caroline Fraser—was so laden with hardship, loss, and crushing poverty that it would never have been a best-seller if told as a straight memoir. By wrapping her true writing ability and her gift for evoking scene and emotion in an “overcoming all odds” theme, Wilder’s stories appealed not only to those who had also survived hard times but also to those who wanted to be assured there was a way to overcome them should they arise.
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is impressive in depth and scope. Author Caroline Fraser—editor of the Library of American edition of Wilder’s Little House books—pulled from diaries, letters, and transaction records as well as a wide variety of other sources to create a reliable biography of Wilder and her family, her husband’s family, and her daughter Rose, a troubled woman—later author and journalist herself—who clearly did not inherit her mother’s resilience. Fraser vividly chronicles Laura and Rose’s dysfunctional relationship.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867 in Minnesota and lived past her 90th birthday in 1957, so her story is intertwined with not only the 19th century pioneers like her parents but also the mistreatment of Native Americans, early and rocky politics of our nation, the expanding railroad, WWI, women’s suffrage, the greed and ignorance that led to the Dust Bowl, various economic bubbles that made (and ruined) millions, WWII, fears of Communism, and an America with no safety nets other than charity. Ironically, she and her daughter both railed against FDR’s attempts to provide a safety net, feeling it was counter to the spirit of independence and self-reliance Wilder’s books so fiercely embraced.
Wilder did not enjoy financial success until she was in her 60s, and the series of relentless setbacks in her life certainly made me question anyone who ever opines for “the good old days.” If you’ve ever read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, you’ll have a flavor for the story of the Ingalls and Wilder families as told in Prairie Fires.
I was particularly interested to learn that Wilder’s books—especially The Long Winter—had been translated into Japanese and inspired many Japanese who suffered during the awful post-WWII hardships of their country (famine, poverty, and disease).
Some reviewers criticized this book’s length and heaviness, calling for more judicious editing. I can’t argue with that. Just breaking it up into more sub-sections and adding pictures where they belonged throughout the book (instead of grouped together in only two places) would have helped move it along. I was also frustrated by the detailed description of many photographs of Wilder’s family that weren’t included in the book.
Overall, however, I felt both edified and enlightened—not only about the person of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also about several decades of American history I now know better.
As the book closed, Fraser did a good job of tying up loose ends and bringing the reader back to the book’s subtitle and theme:
What were Wilder’s dreams? 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.”
Prairie Fires is a remarkable story about a fascinating woman. Fans of her books will want to read “the rest of the story” and learn what became of her after she married and moved away from home. You'll learn a great deal about the 19th century westward expansion of this country, and you'll reflect on what it takes to survive when life throws you more challenges than many could bear.
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