This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose “Little House” books are sweet, yearning stories of a bygone childhood on a vanished American frontier. They are also dark tales of crushing adversity in a land gained by dispossession of others and hostile to the purposes to which it was being put. Scenes of a loving, self-sufficient family working, talking, and eating together are offset by those of starvation, sudden blizzard, frigid cold, wildfire, drought, disease, blindness, infant death, isolation, madness, plagues of locusts: loss after loss. The books, written for children but read by the world, are autobiographical, with some jiggering and embellishment. But the tribulations they describe are only a portion of those endured by their creator, as described in absorbing, if distressing, detail by Caroline Fraser in Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1867, Laura Ingalls was the second of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s eventual five children, four whom survived to adulthood. Charles began to chafe under Wisconsin’s growing population, never seeming to grasp, as Fraser observes, “that his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness.” He moved the family to Missouri, then Kansas in 1869, to territory assigned to the Osage in the 1830 Indian Removal Act; thus the Ingallses became squatters, the government’s “weapon of choice,” in Fraser’s words, for displacing Indians. Unlike most of the would-be settlers, the Ingallses did not stick it out to see white settlers legitimized by the government — as, of course, they were. After two years, the Ingalls family returned to their farm in Wisconsin and from there to Minnesota, and thence to small-town Iowa to run a hotel, where the general insalubriousness of the place and their own indebtedness caused them to vamoose in the night and return again to Minnesota. In 1879 they moved to De Smet, in the Dakota territory, land promoted by the railroads in “one of the greatest boondoggles of all.” All told, by age eighteen, Laura had lost something like a dozen homes, thanks, in part, to her father, a dreamer and master of miscalculation, but thanks, also, to some of the worst luck imaginable, including the most severe drought and most destructive swarm of locusts in recorded history, along with bruising economic conditions.
In 1885 Laura Ingalls married Almanzo Wilder in De Smet. Soon enough her trials resumed, beginning with the discovery that her husband had taken on a frightening debt to build an overelaborate house — which they then had to rent out, moving to a claim shanty where Laura gave birth to a healthy daughter, Rose, in 1886. Their troubles continued: their crops were destroyed by drought and in one case hail, for three successive years. In 1888, both Laura and Almanzo nearly died of diphtheria, and Almanzo suffered a stroke that left him partially crippled. They had a second child who died in infancy. Their house burned down. They moved to a larger town, Spring Valley, but soon sold up and moved, disastrously, to Florida, seduced by railroad propaganda, much as Laura’s own parents had been. They lasted less than a year there and returned to De Smet. They were buffeted by a “free-market” economy gone awry, spinning off panics and “price famines.” Two years later they sold up again and traveled by covered wagon across drought-blasted Nebraska and Kansas to Missouri, eventually ending up in Mansfield, Missouri, a little town in the Ozarks. It was 1894, and here they stayed, first in town and later at a farm. Times remained very hard.
Wilder’s professional writing career began in 1911 with a regular column for the Missouri Ruralist that she kept up until 1924. With its harking back to pioneer days and the concreteness and clarity of style that she gained from having served for years as the eyes of her blind sister, Mary, the column was an excellent apprenticeship for the subsequent books. Just how those works came to be obliges Fraser to lay out the story of Wilder’s daughter, Rose’s, astoundingly messy life; and in this way, the latter part of the book becomes a dual biography of mother and daughter, the latter of whom Fraser clearly despises.
There is much to say in Rose’s favor from our perspective: She was intrepid, leaving home, becoming a telegraph operator and eventually traveling the world as a freelance journalist. She married Claire Gillette Lane, a traveling man and ne’er-do-well — but dumped him, preferring her independence. She contributed her editing prowess to her mother’s work. And, indeed, in all the “Little House” books, it was, Fraser writes, “the unique combination of [Laura’s and Rose’s] skills that created a transcendent whole.”
Still, Rose Lane was a thoroughly bad egg. The reader — this one at least — begins to look forward to her next laughably awful crime against decency. Among them were the “autobiographies” of Charlie Chaplin and Jack London she fabricated, making up quotations and incidents to the horror of Chaplin — upon whom she conferred a “vicious drunk” for a father — and the deceased London’s sister. After the success of Little House in the Big Woods, her mother’s first book, Rose wrote her own, poaching the stories from her mother’s past, “competing with her . . . over her material, first in secret and then openly, trying to put her own imprimatur on the family stories before her mother could.” Though her book sold, it lacked the peculiar genius of Wilder’s vision of the West, which Fraser describes perfectly as having been drawn “from her inner life” and “a work of pure folk art.” After her mother’s death Rose claimed to have been the true author of the books, thus setting in train a controversy that lasts to this day — and which Fraser’s tireless sorting-out of the record should lay to rest. Though it probably will not.
As Fraser points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work takes an ever-changing place in our culture. The novels have always appealed to readers for the feisty girl at their center, for their absorbing material detail and scrupulous attention to the mechanics of domestic and farm life, and as celebrations of home and, indeed, of the national obsession: home ownership. But where once they were read chiefly as stories that exalted independence and hard work, we, in our time, are more likely to notice what is also there: the dispossession of Native Americans, the rape of the land, the extortionate terms of homestead claims, and, in general, the use of poor settlers by the government in league with the railroads for opening the West. Fraser discusses all this, devoting special attention to the ecological and climatological mayhem caused by plowing up the great grasslands of the prairie to plant wheat. The result was desiccating climate change, soil erosion, and the monstrous dust storms that beggared the land. (In 1935 alone, winds swept away 850 million tons of topsoil.)
Prairie Fires is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder and of how her influential books were conceived, composed, and understood over time. Beyond that, it presents a great slice of American history — cultural, economic, political, demographic, climatological — and of the role of women in the agricultural sphere. It is an extraordinary book, far richer, deeper, and more complex than anything but actually reading it can convey.