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.

Review: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At the beginning of summer break this year, I decided to endeavor to read the Little House series to my three daughters.  I have such fond memories of reading these books when I was growing up, and I’ve been waiting for a while, actually, for my girls to get to an age where I thought they could appreciate the adventures of a frontier girl that I so loved as a girl.

This undertaking, it turns out, is taking quite a bit longer than I had anticipated – given that it took us me from June until the end of October to get through the first two books.  Two of my three girls lost interest quite a while back; it’s possible they’re still too young to appreciate Laura Ingalls Wilder, I suppose.  Or maybe its’ not their age, but their general interests; maybe girls nowadays, in the age of all things technologically advanced, are just not interested in the quaintness of frontier living.  I don’t know.  In any event, only one of my daughters (age 7) has stuck with me on this.

So we curl up in a cozy chair and I read aloud to her, a chapter at a time.  But not every night, because life is full and busy and I often just fail to make the time for simple pleasures like this.  Which is the main reason it’s taking so long to get through these books.

Anyway, Farmer Boy is the second of nine books in the series, and the only one devoted to telling of Almanzo Wilder’s (Laura’s future husband) childhood.  Growing up on a well-to-do farm in upstate New York, young Almanzo pines for a colt of his own, but Father doesn’t think he’s old enough or responsible enough.  Throughout the book Almanzo tries to prove himself, and along the way we get a window into his life: going to school part of the year, helping plant and harvest crops, hauling timber, and caring for livestock.  Even for a well-to-do family, there is much manual labor to be done, and everyone must pitch in.

I have to say that the thing that probably intrigues me the most are the frank descriptions about discipline and how children were expected to behave back then.  Such a departure from what is expected of kids nowadays!  Imagine a child knowing they must behave and not whine or complain for fear of getting their hide tanned!  I kind of think tanning of hides needs to make a comeback!

A lot of it was tedious reading, I’m sad to say.  Some of it reads almost like an instruction manual; I swear I could build my own bobsled from the ground up with the detailed descriptions outlined in Farmer Boy.  This made it feel like somewhat of a chore to read.

Still, at the end when Almanzo finally gets his colt, I had trouble reading aloud because of the hitch in my throat.

We’re moving on to the next book now, Little House on the Prairie, and hoping for a little more excitement.