Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

There are so many threads running through Caroline Fraser's excellent Prairie Fires that I don't know  how to start my review.  I grew up on the Little House books, eventually realizing that as hard as life was for the Ingalls family, the novels were novels rather than history.  Beyond that, they were sanitized for their juvenile audience, something I slowly came to realize as I read other, less complete biographies.  None of them, even Wilder's memoir Pioneer Girl, told how unremittingly grim Laura's life actually was.  Prior books implied this, but Prairie Fires spells out how Charles Ingalls was an abject failure.  He moved the family along the frontier not because "the land was too settled" but because he was a terrible businessman who left every outpost out of desperation and a little worse off financially than when he'd arrived.  Even when he "won his bet" with the government, earning title to his claim near DeSmet, he soon sold his quarter section and moved into town, eventually dying of overwork and heart disease at 64.

Laura's adult life wasn't much easier.  She started working to support the family at age 9, as a dishwasher, companion, seamstress, and eventually a schoolteacher.  Once married, she experienced two difficult pregnancies, the death of her infant son, a near-fatal bout of diphtheria, her husband's disabling stroke, and a fire which destroyed her house.  The Wilders never proved up on their land; after brief sojourns with Almanzo's relatives in Minnesota and Florida, both took paid jobs (Laura as a seamstress, Almanzo as a day laborer and drayman) to buy property in the Ozarks.  Even there, they took odd jobs and took in borders until Almanzo's father bought their house for them.

There was also Rose.  Bright and strong willed, prone to depression (and possibly bipolar disorder - Rose called herself "manic depressive" in her diary), outgoing where her mother was reticent, extravagant where her mother was extremely frugal, they were alike and different in the most combustible pairings.  It was Rose who encouraged her mother to write her memoir; but it was also Rose who urged her parents to invest in stocks which vaporized in the Depression making the Little House books both possible and necessary.  And it was Rose whose rather bitter form of libertarianism which overlaid the myth of self-sufficiency over a life of outside help and escaped debts.

The Homestead Act, when you get down to it, was a land swindle executed by the government.  The upper plains were originally described as desert land, and the mostly wheat monoculture practiced by the small landholders depleted the soil and adversely affected weather patterns.  No one could expect more than subsistence farming on the prairie, and yet the government led thousands to believe the they could make their fortune on just 160 acres.  Fraser expands on this, pointing out that we've lived with the myth of the small farmer for much of the country's existence, but that it's not true.  Small scale farming has never been able to feed our population and provide export income, and yet we repeat the myth, perhaps hoping that we can make it true.

This myth bloomed into both women's right-wing political views.  Laura's were a bit softer but despite knowing that her sister Grace and her husband were struggling before the Depression, she never forgave them for accepting New Deal relief.  You can almost understand how Laura came to her views, though, since years of hard work and struggle left her extremely frugal.  Still, she overlooked the help she and Almanzo received from his parents or the low interest federal loans they took out.  Rose's libertarianism (and she's considered one of the movement's founders), seems a bit more...personal?  She could be generous on an individual level, informally (and mercurially) adopting young men and supporting them for years and providing friends with extravagant gifts.  She also considered taxes to be theft and when her writing career (which included "fake news" biographies and novels taken heavily from her mother's life) floundered claimed that she'd stopped writing because taxes took too much of her income.

Prairie Fires bursts the myth built up around the Little House books, but it also fleshes out the story. Novelists need to leave out anything not necessary to the story, and even with Caroline Ingalls's emphasis on education there's not much room in the books for reading.  Fraser shows that Charles Ingalls wasn't just a storyteller, but as avid of a reader as was possible on the frontier, and that Laura devoured lurid crime tales as an adolescent.  It fleshes out DeSmet as a small but bustling town, one that could have grown into a twin of Gopher Prairie.  And in the epilogue, it shows how the towns which so vehemently oppose government help rely upon it, even as they flounder.

I'm afraid that my review has done less justice to Prairie Fires than the emetically sweet and hilariously melodramatic TV series did to the Little House books.  It's an amazing blend of joint biography and historical analysis that should not be missed.

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