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Prairie Fires:
The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by caroline fraser
metropolitan, 640 pages, $35

The Little House Books
by laura ingalls wilder
edited by caroline fraser
library of america,
1,490 pages, $75

In 1937, during one of the few public appearances of her career, a seventy-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder described the Little House series she had launched five years earlier. Her fourth book was rolling off the presses, and she had come to Detroit to recount her journey from brown, barefoot pioneer child to celebrated American authoress. Attempting to articulate how she viewed her newfound role as chronicler of the frontier, Wilder ended her speech with an assurance of her books’ factual accuracy: “Every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true,” she promised her audience. “All I have told is true.”

It was a dubious claim, but one Wilder would maintain until her death in 1957: that her beloved children’s tales of pioneer life in the Wisconsin Big Woods, on the Kansas plains, and in South Dakota prairie towns were fiction-free. But it’s common knowledge that Wilder’s books have a false chronology (the events in her first volume, Little House in the Big Woods, occurred after those in Little House on the Prairie, the third in the series) and that her characters (including the infamous Nellie Oleson) were combinations of several real-life personalities. Embellishments, alterations, and inventions lurk throughout Wilder’s storytelling. And yet she insisted her tales were truthful. 

Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Prairie Fires seems dedicated to unraveling Wilder’s yarns. The term she prefers for the Little House series—of which Fraser edited a magnificent, boxed set in 2012 for the Library of America—is “myth.” “As adults,” she declares, “we have come to see that her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation.” When we were children, Fraser implies, we could find solace and inspiration in Laura’s creations, but now that we are grown up, we must assess the novels as the fictions they are, separating fact from falsehood to admit once and for all that “the Little House books are not history.”

But myths can be histories, too, and Laura’s is one for adults as well as for children. More than the quaint bildungsroman of a pioneer lass, the Little House series is a tribute to the frontier—the poetry to accompany Turner’s thesis. Wilder said her life had “represented a whole period of American history”: the era of westward expansion and the cultivation of the Great Plains, to which her marriage with a farmer provided a symbolic end. As she put it to her Detroit audience,

What a wonderful childhood I had had. . . . I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns.

Wilder’s stories are not saccharine. In straightforward, matter-of-fact prose, she captures a lost era, an America in which wilderness and civilization still writhed in tension. Whether racing ponies through tall Dakota prairie grass, rolling with baby sister Grace in a violet-lined buffalo wallow, or gazing wonderstruck at a stream of Osage warriors departing for the hunt, Laura mingles awe at the untrammeled majesty of the Great Plains and its peoples with joy at the blessings of home, family, and civilization. 

Beginning with the publication of Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, Wilder’s books became staples of juvenile literature almost overnight. The release was timely: Her memories of making do with very little on frontier homesteads throughout the late 1800s provided much-needed motivation for famine-stricken Americans during the Depression. Wilder’s life was an odyssey marked by misfortune and constant risk of poverty. Throughout her childhood, her wanderlust-afflicted “Pa” had dragged little Laura, her persevering mother, Caroline, and her three sisters between shanties and dugouts in Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota before finally staking a permanent claim in De Smet, South Dakota. Laura’s trials persisted as she married homesteader Almanzo Wilder and gave birth to Rose, their only child who survived infancy. Almanzo’s ailing health took them as far as the Florida panhandle before they finally settled down in Mansfield, Missouri, on Rocky Ridge Farm.

But there were painful memories Wilder could not bear to tell us, and so Fraser takes it upon herself to uncover the dark details. Wielding a scythe, she plows through the fields of the Little House saga, stripping away Wilder’s “fictionalized” romance to reveal the hard facts: The kindly Rev. Alden the Ingallses so esteemed was an embezzler and scoundrel; Laura had a brother, Freddy, never mentioned in the books, who died in infancy; and Jack the brindle bulldog, who purportedly ran beneath the Ingallses’ covered wagon throughout their travels, had been bartered away when Laura was only four.

Fraser concludes, “Wilder was not a historian.” But her debunking has another agenda: rescuing Laura from a cruel death on the altar of conservative politics. Laura’s example of resourcefulness and self-sufficiency has often been upheld as a critique of big government and New Deal policies, but Fraser dismisses such claims. Laura was no mascot for either libertarian ideology or the Republican party. Although she did oppose the New Deal, she only did so from shock that Roosevelt’s government bureaucrats ordered crops destroyed and cattle slaughtered. At other times in her life, she favored so-called “big government” positions. Regardless of Wilder’s political stances, Fraser is adamant: The Little House series is no political treatise. It remains “stranger, deeper, and darker than any ideology.”

But Fraser’s biography has its own political aims. Before we so much as glimpse little Laura in her Wisconsin birthplace, Fraser devotes fifteen pages to the white man’s dispossession of the Dakota—from which Charles Ingalls benefited—and the Native American travails wrought by Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act. The stage for Laura’s life is thus set with the suggestion that she and her family were interlopers, part of a mass migration of white settlers who wandered “farther out on the Plains than they ever should have gone” and polluted the soil with ill-conceived agricultural schemes. In Fraser’s telling, before the homesteaders arrived, with unjust expectations that the Dakota should “give up hunting, settle down to farm, and become Christians,” the Dakota lived “tied to the seasons” in an almost paradisal existence. Crucial considerations, to be sure, but while demolishing the myth of the heroic pioneer, Fraser strays dangerously close to a Rousseauian one: The wilderness and its people were best left pure and uncivilized, with settlement bringing only destruction to the environment and its natives.

Elsewhere, Fraser’s fears of libertarian editorializing result in a biography that reads more like a profile of Rose Wilder Lane than one of Wilder herself. Rose was her mother’s chief editor (though not the actual author—a rumor Fraser discredits) and a friend of Ayn Rand known for radical anti-government views. She slipped passages of propaganda into several of her mother’s books, and Fraser does us a service by recording this shameless “editing.” But Fraser devotes more space to discrediting Rose than she does to examining Laura’s own views.

Laura’s philosophy was less libertarian, more communal, than her daughter’s. As Wilder put it, “Running through all the stories, like a golden thread, is the same thought of the values of life. They were courage, self-reliance, independence, integrity and helpfulness.” A childhood spent in the tender love of God-fearing parents and sisters, a youth of dutiful self-sacrifice for family, a faithful marriage of sixty-four years: These are the elements of what Fraser calls the Little House “myth.” But even Fraser concludes that for those seeking to understand the settlement of the frontier, Laura “offers a path, perhaps our best path, to the past.” The Little House books have such power because they are myths that are true.

Ramona Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.