Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

91vThlwB-sLPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

by Caroline Fraser

I was first introduced to the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was in grade school, and the books immediately became my favorite books, dearly loved.  I read the series over and over (and still have that original boxed set I got when I was eight years old), and like many girls at that time, dreamed of being Laura Ingalls.  I had intricate fantasies of growing up and leaving civilization and escaping to the frontier (believing it still existed), wearing old-fashioned long skirts, and living blissfully in a log cabin on the prairie.  I would change my identity and be Laura Ingalls.  That was my idea, at my tender, naive age, of the perfect, happy life.  IMG_2089

Laura Ingalls Wilder the author was conflated in my mind for many years with the Laura of the Little House books, and so the author became a hero to me not only for being an author (because most authors were always heroes to me) but for having lived this wonderful pioneer-girl life.  It wasn’t until many, many years later – well into adulthood – that I began to discover that although the real Laura Ingalls’s life had provided the framework for those Little House books, the stories in the books were embellished and fictionalized.

Still, Laura Ingalls Wilder has remained larger than life to me.  My fascination and even reverence for her hasn’t diminished.  I read a biography about her several years ago which opened my eyes to many facts I never knew, like the fact that she had a baby boy that died, that she had an often contentious relationship with her daughter, Rose, and that the authorship of the Little House books has long been held in question.  Although some of this news was a bit deflating, it all made Laura seem even more human and real to me, and so my fascination has not abated.

So when Prairie Fires was published, I was eager to read it.

At 640 pages, Prairie Fires is a hefty read, but it’s never boring or dry.  Exhaustively researched, the book covers the entire chronology of Laura’s life, beginning before she was born, with her parents’ backgrounds and marriage.  Always on the move chasing prosperity that was always out of his grasp, Charles Ingalls never succeeded as a farmer or a businessman, and often could not provide for his family.  The family skipped town to escape debt, took in boarders (some of them shady), and sent their young daughter to work to help support the family.  They often went hungry.

The book also delves into the social impact of the Homesteader’s Act, which allowed (white) people to claim land at the tragic expense of Native Americans.  The Ingalls family was a part of this and Charles Ingalls, in fact, was a squatter.

Despite this, the family was close and loving and found contentment in their humble existence.  Laura idolized her parents – especially her father.  The scene depicting the young married Laura saying goodbye to her family as she and Almanzo prepare to leave South Dakota for Missouri is heartwrenching.

Laura and Almanzo’s marriage endured for over sixty years, through the accumulation of debt that put them on the edge of ruin, through the death of their second child and only son, through severe illness, failed crops, house fires, and multiple moves.  Through all of it, they retained a genuine affection and loyalty to one another.

As much as this book is a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, it’s also a biography of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – a volatile, unstable, and frankly, unlikeable woman.  She reminded me of my own mother – a toxic personality, jealous, self-centered, and manipulative.  She and Laura seem to have had a very unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, and their working relationship with regard to the writing, editing, and publishing of the Little House books is covered in detail.

As it turns out, Laura Ingalls Wilder was very human and very flawed.  She was a woman of contradictions, openly criticizing federal social safety programs and portraying her family as models of self-sufficiency and independence while failing to acknowledge the federal help both Charles Ingalls and she and Almanzo received by way of the Homestead Act and federal loan programs.  She had a hot temper and could have a sharp tongue, and her role as a mother seems to be the one role that she never filled confidently, despite her own loving upbringing.

When all was said and done, I still cried when Laura’s life reached its end.  I don’t really know why she retains this hold on me – whether it’s some pull of nostalgia for my own innocence as a child, or whether on some level I still see her life as portrayed in the Little House books as an ideal – but she hasn’t fallen from her pedestal in my mind.

Prairie Fires is an excellent book, and a must-read for any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan.

A. Lincoln by Ronald C. White Jr.

8069878A. Lincoln

by Ronald C. White Jr.

For years I’ve wanted to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and I recently finally got around to it.  There are so many that have been written, it’s difficult to choose which one to read.  I ended up going with Ronald White’s biography, mainly because it was rated well, and it was the most recently written one I came across.  Having now read it, I wonder if I would have appreciated a different one more.

That is not to say this is not well-written and informative; it is.  However, what I had been hoping for was something that demystified that man, Abraham Lincoln.  And while this biography does that to an extent, it is far more an exploration and recounting of the Civil War than an analysis of Lincoln himself.  That said, it is an exhaustively researched volume, and I did come away having learned more about the Civil War than I ever knew before.

Some interesting things to note about Lincoln: according to this biography, at the outset of the Civil War – and indeed, of his political career –  he was not determined to abolish slavery.  While he was not in favor of slavery from a personal, moral perspective, his goal was only to stop the spread of slavery into territory beyond which it already existed.  He was fine with leaving slavery alone where it already existed, and at the outset of the Civil War, his focus was on keeping the Union together.  His views on slavery seem to have evolved over time (with the aid of pressure from anti-slavery factions in the North), and endeavoring to completeley abolish slavery came after a long process of rumination on Lincoln’s part.  Even when he first began to propose the abolishment of slavery, he made clear that he did not believe that Blacks were the social equals of Whites, and he proposed “emancipation and colonization,” meaning, arranging for freed slaves to be relocated to Haiti and Nigeria.

Perhaps his views on the social equality of Blacks also evolved, however, as indicated by his (final) encounter with Frederick Douglass at the White House for Lincoln’s second inaugural reception, where Lincoln warmly received Douglass, saying, “Here comes my friend Douglass …. there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”  It is impossible, however, to know how far this would translate, practically speaking, had Lincoln not soon thereafter been assasinated.  Would he have championed Black suffrage?  Equal pay for Blacks?  Blacks holding political office?  Interracial relations and marriages?  It’s impossible to know this, but given the widely-held views of that time period, it’s unlikely that Lincoln would have been enthusiatic to that extend, no matter how progressive he was for the times.

It’s worth knowing, too, that the lines that divided the North and the South did not dilineate sentiments about racial equality to the extent I think we would like to believe.  Most Northerners at that time were deeply prejudice, and although many were against the institution of slavery, they still viewed black people as an inferior race, and wanted little or nothing to do with them.

I also found it interesting to learn of Lincoln’s supposed spiritual oddyssey.  As a young man, and even by the time he first assumes the office of the President, he seemed to be verging on agnostic.  Over the course of his presidency, however, he apparently underwent some kind of spiritual transformation and became almost pious in his views on god and providence.

In any case, White’s biography of Lincoln does offer a lot of fascinating information about Lincoln’s life, as well as the Civil War, and the generals and other important figures of the time.  A bit on the dry side, and with a little too much comparative analysis with the bible for my taste, it’s nonetheless an informative volume.  I’m not sure, however, that I feel that I understand Lincoln the man much better than I did before reading this book.  But maybe Lincoln will always remain somewhat of an enigma, and understanding the workings of his mind is an impossiblity.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne

519QdZq5fjL Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
by S.C. Gwynne


This book, which I’ve been reading over the past week or so and just finished about thirty minutes ago with tears in my eyes, kind of blew me away.

My husband bought this book for me on a whim a while back (sweet man – he knows that the way to my heart is through books), and it sat on my to-read shelf gathering dust with a lot of other books until I recently read One Thousand White Women for my book club.  I found that book to be a pretty romanticized and often cheesy depiction of life with Indians in the untamed American west, and it left me very curious about what life was really like in that time and place.  Empire of the Summer Moon delivers.

Told in meticulous and beautiful detail, this historical account of the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most fierce and powerful Indian tribe America ever saw, is absolutely riveting – and in some ways turned my ideas about “how the west was won” upside down.  Despite the sanitized version of history I grew up with in school, there has always been the knowledge that the Indians were here first, and the white people came along and spread disease, enslaved Indians, and stole their land.  The truth, apparently, is more complicated than that.  While it is true that the white people did those things, it’s also true that long before white people came to America, the Indians were fighting each other, as well as Spaniards and Mexicans over land, and murdering and enslaving each other.  America has a bloody, bloody history dating back to the very beginning.

Central to this historical account of the Comanches are the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah.  In the 1830s whites began settling in Texas – at the time, a desolate land isolated from civilization.  The land was virtually free for the taking, but whites venturing there were takingimages their lives into their own hands, as the Indian presence was a grave menace.  The Parker family was one such family that, despite terrible danger, decided to settle in the southern part of Texas.  They built a fort to protect themselves against enemy Indians – a collection of log cabins to house the extensive family, a main fort, all fenced in by razor-sharp cedar posts and a reinforced, bullet-proof gate.  On a fateful day in 1836, however, the gate was left open, and the fort was raided by Indians.  Many Parker family members were killed, and a handful taken prisoner by the Comanches – among them, nine-year old, blonde, blue-eyed Cynthia Ann.  While the other prisoners were eventually killed or ransomed back to their white kinsfolk, Cynthia Ann was adopted by the Comanches and fully assimilated into the tribe – so much so that future attempts by whites to buy her back from the Comanches failed – she flat out refused to leave her Indian family.  She married and had three children and spent twenty-five years as a full-fledged Comanche Indian squaw.  Eventually, she was captured by whites and returned, against her will, to her white relatives, where she spent several miserable, despondent years until her death.  Cynthia Ann’s story is heart-wrenching, and raises ethical and humanitarian questions that are impossible to answer.

smallOne of her children was Quanah, twelve years old at the time of his mother’s re-capture by white men.  Quanah went on to become a great Comanche warrior and war chief, and was one of the last hold-outs of the Comanche nation against the whites.  Eventually the Comanches numbers dwindled thanks to buffalo hunters that virtually wiped out the Indians’ food supply over a period of years, to white man’s diseases, and actual combat between whites and Indians, and the last of the Comanches, led by Quanah, surrendered and began the demoralization of reservation life.  Somehow Quanah assimilated well into the white man’s world, refusing to look back, and he became a highly respected and prosperous man.  Quanah never forgot his mother, Cynthia Ann, and his search for her grave and insistence on being buried next to her were extremely moving.

This frank history is not for the faint of heart; it is filled with graphic accounts of horrific, almost unimaginable atrocities Indians perpetrated on whites, on other Indians, and which whites committed against Indians.  There were parts that actually gave me bad dreams.  Nonetheless, it’s a necessary read, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the true history of America – or at least an integral portion of that history.

Despite the heinous, bloody crimes of the Comanches, I was left at the end feeling a great sense of loss for the majestic days when the Indians roamed free and wild.

A truly breathtaking book.