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the World, took on the daunting task of writing the first truly comprehensive historical biography of Wilder using unpublished manuscripts, drafts, letters, journal entries and financial records.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
Melissa Francis’ brave memoir, Dairy of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, laid bare her childhood years when she was appearing on the popular family drama, Little House on the Prairie, while dealing with a controlling and, at times, abusive mother. (See our interview.) Melissa’s book resonated with readers, many of whom remembered the series, the brainchild of Michael Landon, who not only directed the episodes, but also played the family patriarch, Charles Ingalls. Others saw in her revelations inspiration to confront and deal with their own personal demons.
Now, in Lessons from the Prairie, Melissa goes back to those early days on the set where, at a very young age, she profited from Landon’s no-nonsense approach to work, an attitude that continues to guide her today. Melissa made the decision to quit acting and left California to attend Harvard where she studied economics. Determined to craft a career in TV news, she made her own opportunities, hopping from one TV affiliate to another until she finally landed a prestigious anchor role, first at CNBC and then at the Fox Business Network.
In Boston, she met her husband, Wray, but starting a family came with enormous challenges. Diagnosed with a hereditary condition known as Factor V Leiden, Melissa nearly died each time she gave birth to her two sons, Thompson and Greyson. After being told another pregnancy might kill her, Melissa and Wray made the decision to have another child, their daughter, Gemma, via surrogacy.
Despite her enormous success, Melissa keeps everything in perspective. She can laugh at herself, sharing stories about not being recognized at her children’s school without her TV hair and makeup. She also admonishes those who pressure women to “lean in,” in order to be successful. “Don’t lean in. In fact, sit down and take a load off.”
Megyn Kelly, who recently left Fox for NBC, is one of Melissa’s friends, but perhaps because of the lessons learned long ago from Landon, the TV actress turned anchor comes across as someone we all would like to have as a friend. Here, Melissa answers questions from Charlene Giannetti about her career, family life, and her new book.
What was the reaction to your previous book, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter? Can you break it down in terms of family, friends, co-workers, and fans?
I was so touched by the outpouring of support by email, letter, tweet, you name it! I really put myself out there. I laid my soul bare and that was a huge risk. The reward though was truly overwhelming. Friends, co-workers, and fans of the show were all so supportive and empathetic, sharing their stories with me as well. The experience taught me a great lesson about sharing my whole, honest self. Not only did I feel accepted rather than rejected, I also connected with so many people who had overcome their own challenges. Open up. It’s worth it!
What was left unsaid in that book that prompted you to write this one?
I tried to spend the majority of this book making fun of myself and making the reader laugh out loud at all the times I’ve taken a pie to the face and then licked the whipped cream off for dessert. Through all those hilariously humiliating stumbles, I’ve come up with the Foolproof Four Step Plan to Turn Disaster into Golden Opportunity. I’m not kidding. It works every time! And while I’m at it, I also want to tear down the icons of fake perfection in social media and culture at large and demonstrate for everyone I’m not close to perfect and neither is anyone else! So don’t beat yourself up if your thighs are fat or your hair is frizzy or your kids are too loud! Because while you’re leaning in and berating yourself for not being Fortune 500 CEO, you might be missing the joy that’s right in front of you in your current life! I really believe this.
So much of your first book centered on your mother yet she’s only mentioned in passing in this one and in some instances portrayed in a positive light. Why the change?
In the first book, I told my whole story and left it where it was. That was largely the point. To unload my baggage and then leave it at the curb for pick up. I’ve had therapy about it, I wrote a whole book about it, I’m done with it! Now I’ve moved on to trying to parent my own herd of children, which occupies most of my mindshare when I’m not at work. I don’t have time for much else!
You were only eight when you landed the Little House role, yet your stories about the show and Michael Landon in particular are very detailed. Why are your memories do vivid?
Good question! I remember scenes from childhood vividly like they are right in front of me. For example, when I described what it looked like to stare out from inside my crib as a baby, my dad didn’t really believe me because you aren’t supposed to remember that, except my description is dead on. So I asked my therapist if this is really possible or am I kidding myself? I know there are doubters out there. He said I have a visual memory which isn’t very common but is very real, and very specific. I remember what things looked like at exactly moments in time and I’m also great at visualizing patterns rather than details… for example I can punch in an ATM code or a phone number based on the pattern but I couldn’t tell you necessarily what the numbers are, so if you moved the buttons I’d be lost. I know that’s more than you wanted to know, but that’s the deal.
The good girl/bad girl interaction between your character and Nancy, the adopted daughter of the Oleson’s played by Allison Balson, sounded intense. How did the two of you relate off the set? Looking back, do you see that relationship placed bullying front and center within a TV show? Landon’s instincts?
Off the set we were friends, which was probably bad for our acting. We should have gone more method. Bullying wasn’t a trigger word like it is now, they just needed drama on the show and besides the elements which were always threatening Walnut Grove, this was another way to go. The Nancy character was written in such a vicious way though, I’m shocked by the actions she took even now.
Balson is now a singer and Jason Bateman, of course, a very busy actor. Do you keep in touch with either of them? If so, do you ever trade stories about those days?
No! I wish! Melissa Gilbert [who played the Laura Ingalls Wilder] was wonderful when my last book came out and we’ve been in touch. She’s a very generous person. Alison Arngrim [who played Nellie Oleson] as well. They were both so supportive of the first book. I was really touched.
Balson went to Princeton; you to Harvard. And the other child actors on the show have all led remarkably successful lives. You talk about Landon’s influence. What can parents do to find Landons for their own children, mentors and adult role models who can have a positive impact on a young person’s life?
Melissa Gilbert and I talked about the fact that none of our co-stars ended up in jail or rehab, and we both had identical memories of the way Michael ran the set, concluding his approach held the key. He was such a workhorse – the first great Hollywood entrepreneur in my mind. He made a mint in his own cottage industry, writing, producing, directing, and starring in the show. He watched every dime that came in and every one that went out. He ran the production like well oiled, highly efficient machine. He wasn’t a diva and didn’t suffer any divas either. He led by example and we all followed suit. But he was also a beaming ray of sunshine, a positive force of energy, and when you worked hard and did a good job he shown his bright light in your direction, inspiring you to do more. He wasn’t abusive, wasteful, or ungrateful. He expected us to work like adults since we made adult paychecks, but he always took a moment to make us laugh until we cried. His approach was so effective and infectious, it had a huge impact on the way I look at work, take pride in a job well done, and strive to always be a part of a happy, productive team.
Melissa with her co-anchor Davis Asman on “After The Bell” on Fox Business
You made it clear that many people are responsible for how you look on Fox once the cameras are running. Why did you feel it was so important to stress that fact?
Because women beat themselves up for their physical faults (and so do men, actually). We all do. I would hate for anyone to think my hair cooperates on its own. It doesn’t. And my skin is usually bright red. I want to thwack Giselle [Büchen] with the brush she supposedly doesn’t need. Women don’t need pressure to look perfect.
You mention your friendship with Megyn Kelly in the book. She was one of many women at Fox who complained about being sexually harassed by Roger Ailes. Did you ever talk with her about her experience with Ailes? Did you ever feel the atmosphere at Fox was hostile to women?
I did talk to her, but I’ll leave it at that. I can only talk about my own experience, and I guess the best way to describe it is that I was so wrapped in myself, my day, my worries, my kids, my errands, my to do list, you name it… that I wasn’t aware of what was going on around me. In retrospect, yes, all the signs were there. But initially I was as shocked as anyone.
Your descriptions of your child-bearing experiences were harrowing. Was it painful to relive those moments? How do you think your children will react years from now reading these sections of the book?
Thompson tried to read it and the description was too much for him. He’s not ready. When they are ready I will talk to all of them about it. There’s quite the happy ending, and all’s well that ends well.
Parental leave is a big topic now in our nation. What will it take for the U.S. to catch up to other nations in this area that is so important for families?
I’m a small government person. I don’t like people in Washington dictating anything. They seem to barely be capable of making decisions for themselves, much less for my family. So I reject the premise of this question. Companies should create the policies that result in the best outcome for the workers they want to attract.
I found myself wanting to read more about your experiences in TV news. Any plans for another book where you could flesh out those stories?
Amen sister! My editor thought I went heavy on the news stories, so emphasis is in the eye of beholder I guess!! I will write much more. Next up for me though is a TV pilot.
Top photo credit: Heidi Green
Top photo: Wray, Greyson, Melissa, Gemma, and Thompson
All photos courtesy of Melissa Francis
Lessons from the Prairie