ABOUT THE BOOK:
One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year
Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls—the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.
The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading—and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.
Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.
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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is a 2017
Metropolitan Books publication.
‘All that I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth’
This is an incredible biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder of ‘The Little House on Prairie’ fame.
To say this book on Wilder's life is comprehensive would be an understatement. Caroline Fraser paints a vivid portrait of the beloved author, but still preserves the respect for her novels that have entertained many of us for generations.
As a child, I read the ‘Little House’ books over and over again, and of course, I tuned in once a week to watch the television show. (Until it got too soapy and I started to outgrow it)
So, naturally, when I saw this book, I knew I had to have it. As it has been pointed out, the books Wilder wrote were a fictionalized accounting of her childhood. This leaves one to wonder about Wilder’s life, beyond her childhood and marriage, and what information she may have glossed over while writing her books, which were primarily a hit among children.
With over six hundred pages, this book was not only a very detailed, extensive look, at Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the historical evolutions that took place during her life.
I won’t go into the details provided in the book, as you will want to read those for yourselves, but I will say I was very taken aback by some of the historical details, by some of the antics Charles Ingalls, Laura's father, got up to, and some of Wilder’s attitudes towards those in a worse situation than her own, as well as how political she and her daughter, Rose, often were.
A great deal of time is spent on Rose Lane, Wilder’s only surviving child, and their complicated relationship. I had never heard any of this information and found myself riveted by the stark differences between the two women, and Rose's bold, selfish manipulations.
LAURA INGALLS WILDER
I simply can not fathom the amount of time and work the author must have put into this book. Not only does she dig deeply into Wilder’s life, giving us one of the most in -depth studies of her struggles and opinions, thus allowing the most realistic and insightful view of who this woman really was, and the impact her daughter has on the public persona we’ve embraced up until this moment, but she also researched the historical eras Wilder lived through, providing a striking look at the harsh life many were subjected to, barely able to survive, and the complicated land agreements that displaced many Native Americans.
The failures and disasters came around far more than the triumphs. It wasn’t until Wilder was in her fifties and sixties that her writing career took off.
Although this book is almost encyclopedic, and may look as though it would be dry reading, and does seem daunting, with its ‘door stop’ weightiness, I found it was very absorbing and the pages seem to zoom by. Even so, it did take a while to read through it. There are lots of notes and I tend to skim over all that, but it is nice to have the information available for future reference. There are several wonderful photos of the Ingalls/Wilder family, of Laura, and of Rose, who plays a large role in this book.
Overall, I must say this book was much more than I bargained for. It is very, very well researched, and as such, I learned a great deal from it, and despite the risk of disillusionment, I found Laura Ingalls Wilder to be quite an interesting person. She was a hard worker, often carrying the weight of her family on her shoulders, and like all of us to varying degrees, complex, difficult, and at times I didn’t care for her attitude, while at others I admired her temerity, and her ability to staunchly weather all the hardships life through onto her path. I didn’t always understand her point of view, didn’t always agree with her choices, and found Rose Lane to be a real pain, but at the end of the day, this biography is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Even if you are not a fan of the ‘Little House’ books, the historical aspects alone are worth giving the book a try. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading history, and of course for those who would like to know the real truth about Laura Ingalls Wilder.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Caroline Fraser is the author of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (Metropolitan, 2009) and God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (Metropolitan, 1999), which was selected as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Review Best Book. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, and Outside magazine, among others. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.