Wilder was not a historian…Her depiction of the West was drawn less from newspapers or encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folk art.
As a child I adored the Little House books and even into adulthood, I’ve continually re-read them over and over. I am not unique in this regard. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, have been adored by generations of children all over the world. The books and the TV series starring Michael Landon have become cultural touchstones, informing our understanding of the prairie and frontier life. We think we know Laura’s story as well as those of the pioneers. But do we?
Caroline Fraser, author of God’s Perfect Child and Rewilding the World, took on the daunting task of writing the first truly comprehensive historical biography of Wilder using unpublished manuscripts, drafts, letters, journal entries and financial records. The result is a sprawling epic tale spanning centuries that tells a far more complicated, grittier, and darker tale than what we’ve heard before.
Laura’s childhood was characterized by dire poverty, malnutrition, instability, and tragedy, including the loss of her infant brother, Freddy, and her sister Mary’s blindness. Charles Ingalls or Pa was just as charming as the books made him out to be; he was also an utterly impractical dreamer who kept hopping on one railroad scam after the next. On one occasion, time the Ingalls were forced to move in the dead of the night to escape his debtors. The famous Little House in Indian Territory that the Ingalls family had to abandon was, in fact, a completely illegal homestead. It was neither the first nor the last time Charles tried to wriggle around the law.
There was a sordid period, left completely out of the books, when Charles operated as a saloon keeper in a tough town and Laura was nearly molested by a drunk. Understandably, Wilder later cut out a lot of these horrors as being inappropriate for a children’s series, but there was a deeper psychological impetus to her edits as well. She felt ashamed of her hardscrabble childhood, which continued through the early years of her marriage, and wanted to protect her father from suspicions of being a less than ideal provider.
As Fraser exhaustively documents in this more than 500 page book, there was a political dimension to the stories as well. Contrary to the books’ repeated sermons on the importance of self-reliance, the family often depended upon charity and government assistance to survive. They never really it made it as homesteaders. Almost nobody did, and Fraser makes a compelling case for why economic factors and environmental issues made the whole notion of small scale farming in the Midwest a failed concept.
Laura’s only child, Rose Wilder Lane (with whom she had a stormy relationship), was her chief editor and a devout Libertarian who hated the New Deal. (It was under the influence of Rose and her adopted son that the books became the paen to Rugged Self Reliance we now know them to be. Rose becomes the second dominant figure in Prairie Fires alongside her mother. Rose sympathized with Nazis, ran up unsustainable debts, was a classist snob, plagiarized as a reporter, wrote unauthorized biographies, had no journalistic scruples whatsoever, and in letters described herself as being devoid of a conscience. There’s almost pleasure to be had in her sheer awfulness. But as her mother’s chief editor, her influence is deeply felt throughout the Little House series.
Prairie Fires is not always easy reading, but Fraser’s analysis of how fact and fiction overlapped in Little House and the making of an American mythos is a powerful and necessary cultural corrective that shines new light on history.
Top photo: Bigstock