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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Caroline Fraser


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One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year

The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books

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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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.

Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250182487
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 95,297
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the author of Rewilding the World and God’s Perfect Child. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt


Maiden Rock

The Legend

"I was born in a log house within ... miles of legend-haunted Lake Pepin," Laura Ingalls Wilder would write.

The lake was legendary before she was born. Where the Mississippi swallows the Chippewa, a wide tributary flowing sluggishly out of great Wisconsin pine forests to the north, the river swells at the delta, like a snake that has just devoured something. That swollen spot, widest on the Mississippi, is Lake Pepin.

Its dark waters are presided over by Maiden Rock, an immense four-hundred-foot limestone bluff so visually arresting that everyone had a story to tell about it. Like everything else, the story belonged to the Indians: Maiden Rock was a lover's leap, they said, where a Dakota girl in love with a young man leapt impetuously to her death rather than marry another. Those who passed at dusk were said to hear her sorrowful song.

Whites would tell and retell the story until it had been rubbed smooth, playing up its romanticism, painting the scene in gloomy olives and mauves. George Catlin camped for days along Lake Pepin, hauling his canoe out of the water and gathering colorful pebbles by the handful, "precious gems ... rich agates." Catlin told the story, and so did Mark Twain and the poet William Cullen Bryant, who specialized in brooding Indians.

Maiden Rock captured the imagination of Charles Ingalls, who told his daughters stories about the rock, the lake, and the Indians. On one memorable occasion, he brought them to the beach bordering the town of Pepin, just across the water from Minnesota, where they discovered the same pebbles, "pretty pebbles that had been rolled back and forth by the waves until they were polished smooth."

Like Catlin, Wilder as a tiny girl gathered them by the handful, stuffing so many in her pocket that they tore her dress. Her mother gently reproved her for being so greedy. But as Wilder chose to remember it, her father just laughed, delighted.

She loved both her parents, but her primary, overwhelming identification was with her father. Charles had brown hair and blue eyes, just as she did. Whenever she did something naughty, even as he punished her he had a glint in his eye that told her it would be all right, that he was moments away from holding her on his knee and telling her how bad he himself had been as a boy. He was charming, cheerful, and musical, playing by ear songs that would lift his family's spirits — and he was an incomparable storyteller.

All of her stories begin with him, all of her memories. Her first, she would say later, was "of my Father always," carrying her in his arms, rocking her to sleep. "The feeling, the voice and the dim light over the log wall make a picture that will never fade," she wrote.

* * *

Discovering how Charles Ingalls and his family came to find themselves a few miles from the shores of Lake Pepin, just a few years after Pepin County was first marked on a map, is a detective story tracking generations into the past. Pieces of the family portrait survive, but the whole remains elusive, obscured under the soot of time. It may never be complete.

That is always a problem, in writing about poor people. The powerful, the rich and influential, tend to have a healthy sense of their self-importance. They keep things: letters, portraits, and key documents, such as the farm record of Thomas Jefferson, which preserved the number and identity of his slaves. No matter how far they may travel, people of high status and position are likely to be rooted by their very wealth, protecting fragile ephemera in a manse or great home. They have a Mount Vernon, a Monticello, a Montpelier.

But the Ingallses were not people of power or wealth. Generation after generation, they traveled light, leaving things behind. Looking for their ancestry is like looking through a glass darkly, images flickering in obscurity. As far as we can tell, from the moment they arrived on this continent they were poor, restless, struggling, constantly moving from one place to another in an attempt to find greater security from hunger and want. And as they moved, the traces of their existence were scattered and lost. Sometimes their lives vanish from view, as if in a puff of smoke.

So as we look back across the ages, trying to find what made Laura's parents who they were, imagine that we're on a prairie in a storm. The wind is whipping past and everything is obscured. But there are the occasional bright, blinding moments that illuminate a face here and there. Sometimes we hear a voice, a song snatched out of the air.

That Poverty Beat

Charles Ingalls was born at a crossroads. As if to fulfill the prophecy in that, he would always be a wanderer, propelled by hopes of a better future farther on.

But his rootlessness was not simply the sign of a "wandering foot," as his daughter would suggest. It reflected generations of struggle, trying to break through, hoping to latch on to land. He would be among the first to make his way west, but he was not the first to know poverty. From the family's earliest beginnings in Puritan New England, that was all they would ever know. And the life of the previous generations had been even harder than Charles's own.

When Charles's father was a young boy, Charles told his daughters, he and his brothers labored for six days a week, Monday through Saturday. During the winter, they got up in the dark, did their chores by lamplight, and worked until the sun went down, going to bed directly after supper. For play, they had a few hours off on Saturday afternoons. At sundown on Saturday, the "Puritan Sabbath" would begin.

On the Sabbath, all recreational pursuits, indeed all activities other than going to church or praying or studying a catechism, were strictly forbidden. There was no visiting, no sweeping, no gardening, no hunting, no haying, no fishing, no frivolous talk, no writing of notes or cutting of hair or kissing of children. Hot meals could not be prepared and horses could not be hitched to the wagon. To obey the Sabbath, the Ingalls family walked, reverently, to church. To break the Sabbath was a grave, even criminal offense, punishable by fines, public censure, or imprisonment.

A flash of lightning in history's darkness gives us a glimpse of one such Sunday, more than two centuries before Laura's birth. Family lore has long maintained that the very first member of the Ingalls clan on this continent, Edmund Ingalls, arrived in Salem Harbor in 1628 with the expedition of John Endecott, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We know little about the man; there isn't even a portrait of him. But we know that on April 20, 1646, he was fined for "bringing home sticks in both his arms on the Sabbath day," presumably for firewood. Even worse, the sticks were stolen from somebody else's fence.

Another moment in bright relief: Edmund's last will and testament, sworn out two years after his theft. He bestowed upon his wife a house in Lynn and the lot it sat on, as well as "ye Stock of Cattle and Corne." One daughter was left a "heifer Calf," another "two Ewes." A third, Mary, received "the heifer Calfe that formerly she enjoyed." Whatever Edmund possessed was in that livestock and small plots of land, perhaps poor plots, as in the "three acres of marsh ground" bequeathed to his son Henry. What his livestock may have been worth is hard to say. A large number of cattle were imported to the northern colonies from Virginia in the 1640s, depressing their price.

There is one final discordant glimpse of the Ingalls family in the seventeenth century. One of Edmund's granddaughters would become notorious, victim of New England's most lurid hour. Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier, born to Edmund's daughter Faith, was dubbed the "Queen of Hell" during the Salem witchcraft trials by shrieking teenage accusers. She was said to have been seen riding a broomstick, to have caused neighbors' cows to sicken and die, to have started a smallpox epidemic. Cotton Mather called her "a rampant hag." In 1692, at the age of thirty-eight, the mother of several children, she was taken to Gallows Hill and hanged, having never wavered in proclaiming her innocence. Did her fate have anything to do with the family edging away from the country's Puritan heartland? We cannot know, but the intense impoverishment of a time when farmers "fought over ever-diminishing slivers of soil," as a historian put it, spurred neighbors to attack each other.

Skip forward eighty years or so, and our most sustained flash of illumination catches Laura's great-grandfather, Samuel Ingalls, born in New Hampshire in 1770. A self-lacerating individual, Samuel became a writer, in a family that would produce many of them. Devout and patriotic, he captured the suffering of yeoman farmers in a way that undermines Thomas Jefferson's golden vision of "those who labor in the earth" as "the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people."

As a young man, Samuel spent years living in Canada, perhaps exporting crops or other goods to America. There, in 1793, he married Margaret Delano, descendant of one of the passengers on the Mayflower. Generations later, the illustrious Delanos would produce an American president.

Like Edmund Ingalls, Samuel was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was strongly associated with the Congregationalist church, a Protestant denomination devoted to the precept that every parish should be self-governing. In a land in which independence and autonomy would become bywords, Congregationalists applied those principles with a will.

Unlike his stick-pilfering forebear, though, Samuel was unwavering in his rigid religiosity. On one occasion, his young sons, after a grueling week of chopping trees in midwinter, dared to sneak away for a forbidden sled ride on Sunday afternoon. As they shot past their house, their father's stern visage appeared in the doorway. On their return, they were greeted with silence. But the minute the sun went down, they were taken to the woodshed, one by one, and whipped.

Religion suffused Samuel's politics. A vehement broadside that he published in 1809 against Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act, denouncing the president's party as a "wicked club," summoned a vision of a carriage of angels, crowned in gold and armed with burnished scepters "about six or seven feet in length."

Descending on the town of Hartford, Connecticut, the angels shake the ground as if with an earthquake, arriving to deliver a partisan message against the president who had made trade with Canadian territories a crime. Hampering free trade was not simply an inconvenience or a bad decision. To Samuel, it was a sin.

In 1825, he published his Rhymes of "The Unlearned Poet," the title humbly acknowledging his amateur status. None of the original copies are known to survive, but from transcribed verses in the family papers his voice emerges impassioned and vital. He was an uncertain prosodist, his rhymes awkward and lines galloping. But what he lacked in finesse he made up for in sheer verve.

American exceptionalism was his great theme. Visions of the country's past rose before him in celestial glory, its heroes vanquishing the British "like lions," its pioneers withstanding the "savage whoops" and "scalping knives" of Indians. The very land under their plows, he told his readers, had been purchased in blood. Other verses in the book showed Samuel transfixed by natural disasters, as later generations of the family would be. His "Lines ... On The Great Hail and Wind Storm That Passed Through the Counties of Cattarraugus and Allegany in the Spring of 1834" exclaimed over eight-inch hail stones, and depicted a tornado — a column of air "filled / With the ruins of that day" — carrying away entire houses.

To Puritans, every affliction — storms, pestilence, earthquakes — signaled God's judgment, and grappling with such calamities was the responsibility of the individual. The Ingallses' fixation on strict Sabbath observations would lapse as successive generations journeyed away from New England; one can even see the strictures relax over the course of Laura's memoir, as the family moves west. But one thing would never fade away: the belief in self-reliance as an absolute sacrament.

The most plaintive of Samuel's poems, "A Ditty on Poverty," acknowledged an invincible foe: hunger. "I've fought him for years in battle so strong, / But never could drive him an inch from the ground. / But many a time I had to retreat, / But scorn'd for to own that poverty beat." The poem echoed the Biblical warning against penury as a creeping evildoer waiting to strike the slothful. Americans would later slough off the personification, but need still retains a whiff of shame.

Another piece in the book speaks of the melancholy of missing lost friends and family, of lying awake at night listening to "the midnight owl," hungry wolves, and screaming panthers. Samuel, in the seventh generation of Ingallses in America, translated that sorrow into song. Unto the ninth and tenth generations, his descendants would sing it too.

* * *

By the time that Rhymes of "The Unlearned Poet" was published, Samuel and his family had returned from Canada to the United States, moving to Cuba Township in the far west of New York State. His youngest son, Lansford, born in 1812, would marry a woman named Laura. They raised a family of ten, their first, Peter, born near Cuba in 1833. A second died in infancy. The third, born January 10, 1836, was Charles Phillip Ingalls.

Cuba was a dark, dirty, and gloomy place, resting uneasily on swampy ground. Dotted with "unsightly stumps," the village hosted a tannery, an ashery producing lye, and lumber and stone mills. A railroad and canal were being constructed when Charles was a boy. As a child, he may have heard tales of the wolves and wildcats that had made life "pandemonium" for early settlers in the region. Bounties had thinned out the animals; the last wolf howl was heard around 1840, when Charles was four.

The town was a popular jumping-off point for the West, with families camping there in the winter to await spring passage. Cuba's Main Street served so many migrants wallowing across the town's primitive roads toward Lake Erie that an early history called it "one continuous mudhole ... a mirehole in the center of a swamp." Charles would have watched countless wagons heading westward. Safe to say, he yearned to join them.

Charles's childhood coincided with America's first great depression, the Panic of 1837, which lasted a Biblical seven years. A newspaper out of Albany, the Knickerbocker, reported in 1837 that "there never was a time like this," with "rumor after rumor of riot, insurrection, and tumult." Banks collapsed, and unemployment climbed to 25 percent. Factories along the eastern seaboard were shuttered, and soup kitchens opened in major cities. Two out of three New Yorkers were said to be without means of support. Eight states defaulted on loans. In his literary magazine, Horace Greeley made the first of his famous entreaties to pull up stakes: "Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here."

Two of Charles's uncles quickly heeded that appeal, embarking for the West around 1838. And when Charles was eight or nine, his family loaded up their own wagon and headed in the same direction, shaking off Cuba's mud forever.

The first railway connecting New York to Chicago lay several years in the future, so the family likely skirted below Lake Erie, picking up the Chicago Road. Formerly known to the Indians as the Great Sauk Trail, the road from Detroit and Fort Dearborn to Chicago — then a burgeoning town of a few thousand people — was traversed by thousands of pioneers during the 1830s and '40s. From there, the Ingallses headed forty miles west to Elgin, Illinois, a frontier outpost on the Fox River.

This was Charles Ingalls's first sight of the open plains. After the closed-in gloom of upstate New York, rolling western grasslands must have been a revelation. According to another settler, the Illinois prairies were still a thrilling "wolf-howling wilderness," packed with game and hopping with prairie chickens. Writing to a friend back in Kentucky, Daniel Pingree, who bought 160 acres of Kane County farmland not far from where the Ingallses settled, waxed lyrical over the rich productive soil, perfect for corn or wheat, and groves of oaks offering up raw material for cabins or fence rails: "In my opinion you could not find a better County in all the world for farming."


Excerpted from "Prairie Fires"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Caroline Fraser.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

A Note on Quotations xiii
Map . xiv

Introduction . 1
On the Frontier 9

Part I: The Pioneer
1. Maiden Rock . 27
2. Indian Summers . 44
3. Crying Hard Times . 66
4. God Hates a Coward 93
5. Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys . 133

Part II: The Exile
6. A World Made . 179
7. As a Farm ­Woman Thinks 220
8. The Absent Ones 264
9. Pioneer Girl . 302

Part III: The Dream
10. A Ruined Country 327
11. Dusty Old Dust . 370
12. We Are All ­Here 398
13. Sunshine and Shadow . 441
14. ­There Is Gold in the Farm 486

Epilogue 509
Notes 517
Acknowledgments . 603
Index . 609

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