Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books remain for many a formative literary experience of our childhoods: we retain, as if they were our own memories, vivid fragments of little Laura’s adventures with her older sister Mary, her younger sisters Carrie and Grace, and their parents Caroline and Charles, the former calmly capable, the latter bringing joy with his fiddle and songs. Part of the books’ appeal lies in Laura’s perspective: the plainer, naughtier sister, with a temper and selfish impulses—a child with whom any reader can identify. Then, too, Wilder records her experiences with attractive Chekhovian simplicity, patiently explaining the material details of pioneers’ daily lives, including how Pa oiled bear traps, how the women prepared for a dance, how to build a log cabin and make a latched door with no nails, hinges, or lock, and how to protect the house from a prairie fire.
As Caroline Fraser wrote in these pages in 1994, reviewing William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane,
Each task, as it is carried out by Pa or Ma, is lovingly, calmly described…the attention to detail is also an emotional refuge, and it captures a child’s ability to ease anxiety by losing herself in the contemplation of the orderly and ordinary.
She deems this “sense of safety” a counterbalance to the “family tensions and…terrifying natural disasters” that the Ingalls and Wilder families repeatedly face over the course of eight volumes.*
Not only children but adult readers worldwide have taken inspiration from these narratives: after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur had the books translated into Japanese to bolster the struggling populace. They proved very popular. According to Fraser, Wilder’s books have sold “over sixty million copies in forty-five languages and were reincarnated in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the longest-running, most popular shows in television history, still in syndication.”
But perhaps few of us know to what degree the books have been part of the culture wars. As Fraser wrote some years ago in the Los Angeles Review of Books, responding to Meghan Clyne’s essay “Lessons in Liberty from Laura Ingalls Wilder” in the conservative journal National Affairs, “Wilder’s life and work have long been appropriated by the improving and pious, eager to seize on her faith or patriotism to promote their own agendas.” The byzantine and unlikely story of how this came about is at the heart of Fraser’s Prairie Fires.
Although her academic background is in American literature, Fraser has published books on Christian Science (God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church) and on animal conservation (Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution). Prairie Fires might at first appear to be a departure. Yet the confluence of themes raised by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s…
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