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 life enables Fraser to explore not only the “profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation” that the novels’ creation entailed but also the environmental, social, and political forces that shaped both the myths and the realities behind them. Her biography may have been sparked by her review of The Ghost in the Little House, which demonstrated her love for Wilder’s books, even as she called for more nuanced and less politically motivated appreciation of them:
Writing through the eyes of a child freed Wilder to express the anarchic delight and fear such a landscape could inspire, without resorting to moralizing or the rhetoric of alienation.
In the intervening years, Fraser edited the Library of America edition of Wilder’s work and wrote additional articles that take issue not only with Holtz and Clyne but also with Judith Thurman’s pieces on Wilder in The New Yorker, which she believed accepted wholesale Holtz’s misrepresentations. Prairie Fires, the first full treatment of Wilder’s life since John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend (1998), endeavors to see Wilder’s upbringing and her books in the broader setting of the social and political movements of the time, and undertakes the task of illuminating the intertwined lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a successful journalist, author, and early libertarian who served as literary mentor, editor, and sometime nemesis to her mother. This new appreciation—treading as it does a delicate path between the conservative desire (chiefly of libertarians and devout Christians) to claim Wilder’s books as ideological propaganda and the contention that the politics of the literary work emanated chiefly from Wilder’s daughter Rose—seeks to acknowledge the assumptions underlying Wilder’s worldview and the emotional factors that shaped the books, including nostalgia and a desire to remember primarily the joys of an early life permeated by loss, hardship, and disappointment.
Wilder did not publish the first volume of her series, Little House in the Big Woods, until 1932, when she was sixty-five. The eighth and final volume, These Happy Golden Years, appeared just eleven years later, in 1943. Before publishing her novels, Wilder had a lengthy stint as a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist—a journalistic career begun in 1911 after the magazine’s editor admired her paper “The Small Farm Home,” delivered on her behalf at the Missouri Home Makers’ Conference. But for much of her life, though she kept a diary, Wilder was a schoolteacher or a farmer, the child of humble pioneers whose lives left few traces. Her modest origins pose challenges for a biographer: there are few letters or recorded literary encounters, no intimation of literary fertilization or influence. Fraser acknowledges the difficulty—“That is always a problem, in writing about poor people…. Looking for their ancestry is like looking through a glass darkly, images flickering in obscurity”—and surmounts it in somewhat unconventional ways.
The first two hundred pages of Prairie Fires offer as much a history of American westward expansion as of the Ingalls family. The book opens with a detailed account of the government’s usurping the territories of the Dakota tribes, in particular of the effects of the Homestead Act of 1862. The battle of New Ulm, Minnesota, and the subsequent prolonged uprising “marked the largest number of whites killed in a war with Indians…and the largest number of refugees, in the tens of thousands.” This battle took place five years before Wilder’s birth, but tensions between Native Americans and white settlers are fundamental to understanding the Ingalls family outlook (out of it came the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”).
Fraser notes the rapid rate of settlement expansion in the last third of the nineteenth century, the circumstances in which Charles Ingalls was adamant about pushing ever westward: “In 1860, around a thousand people lived in what is now South Dakota…. In 1890, nearly 329,000 people poured in, with more than three hundred towns springing up across the prairies virtually overnight.” De Smet, the town in which Laura Ingalls came of age and married Almanzo Wilder, was one such place; but the Ingalls family had traveled many miles before settling there.
Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner, then living in Wisconsin, were married in 1860, and Mary Amelia, their eldest, was born in 1865, followed by Laura Elizabeth on February 7, 1867. A year later, Charles “jumped on a Reconstruction bargain” in Missouri, and journeyed there by covered wagon with his young family. Their new property “lay well within the Osage Diminished Reserve,” which, as described in Little House on the Prairie, made it untenable. The family returned to Wisconsin in the spring of 1871. “In a brief and concentrated span of time,” Fraser notes, “the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid.” These events “shaped [Laura’s] temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.”
After a brief stretch outside Pepin, Wisconsin, where Charles had managed to retrieve his family’s property, they sold again in 1873 and headed to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Charles, though perhaps sensitive and cultured, was drastically lacking in prudence. The biblical disasters in store included severe drought, illness, and plagues of locusts: of the swarm of June 1875, Fraser reports that it “appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half a mile in depth…. The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.” Having failed in Walnut Grove, the Ingallses moved in 1876 to “dark and dirty” Burr Oak, Iowa, to run a hotel; but the venture was disastrous (so much so that Ingalls did not include it in her novels), and they ultimately fled in the dead of night back to Walnut Grove, where they initially survived on charity and occasional work.
In the spring of 1879, when Laura was twelve, her older sister Mary was stricken by illness, followed by a stroke, and left blind: “Laura would take on the responsibility for being her sister’s eyes.” Charles, meanwhile, felt compelled to follow the “Dakota Boom” into new territory—in spite of scientific evidence available at the time that “less than 3 percent of the arid west was suitable for farming.” Briefly resident in a railroad camp, they became founding members of De Smet, in what is now South Dakota. In the winter of 1880–1881, which Wilder would recount in The Long Winter, the entire town was close to starvation. Blizzards began early, and by early January, they were snowed in, unreachable by train:
The quality of the housing was abysmal…. Coal was quickly depleted…. Kerosene ran out…. There was no meat, no butter, no fruit, no coffee or tea. Sugar ran out, and the cow went dry.
Famously, of course, Almanzo Wilder, or Manly, as Laura called him, helped to save the day.
Their courtship began a couple of years later, when Laura, aged sixteen, was teaching at the Bouchie school, six miles from town, and Almanzo drove her home to De Smet on Fridays. They were married in August 1885, and settled on Almanzo’s farm: this is the moment at which Wilder’s Little House series ends, with These Happy Golden Years, in a sort of fairy-tale glow.
But ill fortune dogged the young couple as it had the Ingalls family: although they celebrated the arrival of their daughter Rose in December 1886, they subsequently suffered crop failure and were deep in debt when both adults were felled by diphtheria. While recovering, Almanzo suffered a stroke; he remained somewhat impaired for the rest of his life. The spring of 1889 brought a dust storm that again destroyed their crops; and in the summer, their unnamed infant son died within a month of his birth. Two weeks later, their house burned down:
“Something in her seemed to break,” Wilder wrote of that moment, years later…. It was a blow from which no true recovery was possible.
Wilder did not include these crises in her Little House series: like the ill-fated sojourn in Oak Burr in her childhood, it was too painful a period (she did, however, chronicle darker recollections in her posthumously published narratives).
The next few years involved further peregrinations: to Almanzo’s parents’ home in Spring Valley, Minnesota; to Florida, which proved “an ordeal”; and in 1892, back to De Smet, where “Almanzo picked up odd jobs” and Laura “sewed for a dressmaker six days a week…making buttonholes for a dollar a day.” Fraser explains that the Wilders were mere transients in De Smet, not residents; they were too poor to escape.
Finally, in 1894, they headed for the Missouri Ozarks: this was the first step in their long road to prosperity. Rose was seven and Laura twenty-seven when the family settled in Mansfield, Missouri, building a farm they named Rocky Ridge. By then, Wilder had endured a life’s worth of hardship. In her adoptive hometown, she became, by her fifties, a pillar of the community:
Clubwoman, farm activist, member of a Masonic organization, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association, and columnist for the Ruralist.
Of the difficult early years, Rose later recalled that her parents seemed “sublimely content with their lot”: “The truth is they didn’t expect much in this world, and they just shed thankfulness around them for what they had.”
This could not be said of Rose, whose imposing and rather exhausting character swells to consume much of the biography’s latter half. If in researching Laura’s youth Fraser faced the difficulty of having little documentation or human color beyond Wilder’s own texts, her narrative challenge with Wilder’s maturity is its stability, even stolidity, set against the charismatic, eventful, and highly unstable trajectory of her daughter’s life. Fraser’s subject becomes less Laura (stoical and highly functional, she remains a cipher to the last) than Rose, and the tangled relationship between mother and daughter. Significantly, Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s lifelong companion, is all but invisible throughout: of his nature, and of the specific texture of their bond, we glean little.
Rose, however, flamboyant and articulate, a writer, a traveler, and later a libertarian ideologue, led a rackety life replete with fantastic stories. Discontented with her lot as a child and ashamed of her parents’ poverty, she skipped town as early as she could, first to finish high school while living with her father’s sister Eliza Jane in Louisiana, and then to Kansas City in 1904 to work as a telegrapher. By 1908 she was in San Francisco, where she briefly married a man named Claire Gillette Lane (“The marriage would be unhappy almost from the start”) and suffered a stillbirth. She had no other children of her own.
She made her name as a sensationalist journalist whose work, in Fraser’s words, “straddled a line between fact and fiction, bearing no resemblance to contemporary journalism in terms of accuracy and identification of sources,” and went on to write biographies of celebrities like Charlie Chaplin (who threatened legal action), Jack London, and Herbert Hoover. According to Fraser, Rose Lane had little conscience or moral sense, and cared nothing for others’ feelings.
It was Lane who encouraged her mother to write, and in 1917, she placed a piece by Wilder in McCall’s. From this moment onward, she served as her mother’s rigorous, even invasive, editor, making substantial changes to Wilder’s work. The exact nature of Lane’s editorial assistance has long been a subject of discussion; William Holtz contends that Lane was the primary author of the Little House books. Fraser adamantly refutes this:
Wilder’s drafts demonstrate that nothing could be farther from the truth. The manuscripts exhibit not only her powers of recollection, but her unique ability to transform the raw material of her past into a work of art.
That said, Fraser calls their literary relationship a “collaboration,” and reminds us that it involved a tension between opposing approaches—Wilder’s plain, unornamented empirical descriptions and Lane’s slick, dramatic, and crowd-pleasing sensationalism. Ultimately, says Fraser, “Wilder saw writing as a cottage industry: books were the work of many hands, like quilts at a sewing bee.”
Even as she became increasingly involved in her mother’s writing career, Lane was chiefly preoccupied with her own worldly life. Acquainted with Sherwood Anderson and other contemporary luminaries, she traveled to Europe in 1920, where she fell in love with Albania, and unofficially adopted a teenaged Albanian, Rexh Meta, setting a pattern to be repeated in later years. In 1921, she quixotically committed to giving her parents $500 per year, a decision that proved complicated all around. She returned to Rocky Ridge in 1923 and again in 1925, struggling with severe depression; then in 1926 reembarked for Europe, on a spending spree that ended only when the stock market crashed in 1929. Fraser’s account of Lane’s mad extravagance is highly entertaining; considerably less so are her newly formed “anti-Semitic and racist views.”
Lane returned yet again to Rocky Ridge in 1928, determined to build her parents a new house they didn’t want. Rock House was completed late that year, vastly over budget, and it apparently brought neither parents nor child the joy Lane would have wished. Broke, with no home of her own, she fell again into profound depression: “Having something like [a] nervous breakdown,” she wrote.
At this moment, Wilder, who had relinquished her Ruralist column several years previously, decided to write a memoir. Her beloved father had died in 1902, her mother in 1924, and her sister Mary in 1928. The family—including Lane—needed money. Wilder’s initial manuscript, “Pioneer Girl,” was deemed unsellable by Lane’s agent, so Wilder revised it and turned it into a children’s book. Marion Fiery at Knopf asked for further revisions, and when she was uncertain that she could publish it due to Depression cutbacks, passed the book to Virginia Kirkus of Harper and Brothers, who gave the book its final title: Little House in the Big Woods. It was published in 1932.
While Wilder struggled with her second volume, Farmer Boy (about Almanzo’s childhood), Lane secretly plundered her mother’s recollections to write a novel entitled Let the Hurricane Roar. She did not even change the characters’ names. It sold extremely well and was reprinted four times within six weeks. Wilder was profoundly upset by her daughter’s theft, and by the book. (Lane wrote a similarly appropriative narrative entitled “Free Land” a few years later, compounding the insult.) The unspoken rift was surely a factor in Lane’s ultimate departure from Rocky Ridge in 1935. She settled in Connecticut, and “in future years…would refuse to visit”; although her father lived fifteen more years, he never saw her again.
During the Depression, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt, and in the years leading up to the war, Lane’s politics became ever more strident, her letters “hectic and unhinged.” (Fraser notes that Wilder’s own political views, meanwhile, “were more casual, of a piece with rural, conservative, small-town life.”) Lane behaved as if government interference in her life posed an existential threat. She eventually wrote a quasi-philosophical book, The Discovery of Freedom, which was derivative and poorly reviewed. She also found a fourth and final adoptive son upon whom to dote: Roger MacBride, the child of a senior editor at Reader’s Digest.
In the story of the appropriation of Wilder’s Little House books by the American right, MacBride is a major figure. A willing sponge for Lane’s political opinions, he quickly became a prominent libertarian agitator. In 1962, he won a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives on that platform, and campaigned unsuccessfully for governor in 1964. He ultimately became a libertarian presidential candidate in 1976, backed by the billionaire conservative funder Charles Koch.
Through sleight of hand, MacBride came to control the rights to Wilder’s work: Lane inherited those rights from her mother upon her death in 1957, three days after her ninetieth birthday. As Lane was childless, the rights should have passed after her death in 1968 “to the Mansfield branch library, which bore Wilder’s name”; but MacBride, acting as executor, transferred the copyrights to himself. By 1974, “he had registered in his own name the copyrights to her posthumously published work as well. His literary takeover of the Wilder estate was complete.”
MacBride then decided to license the Little House series for television, and entered into an agreement with Ed Friendly, whose family company still retains the film, television, and theme park rights. Friendly in turn negotiated a deal with Michael Landon, a star of Bonanza, and ultimately most famous for his role as Pa Ingalls. The series, “ahistorical” and “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin-off,” was wildly successful—Ronald Reagan cited it as a favorite—and ran from 1974 to 1983. Friendly joked that the series should be renamed “How Affluent Is My Prairie?” Fraser contends that the show was political, whether or not Landon conceded the fact, not least in creating an untruthfully sunny portrait of small-scale farming, but also in that it served, in the eyes of Native American scholars and activists, as “little more than a justification for American colonialism.”
The Friendly franchise remains active: in 2014, it embarked on what Publishers Weekly called “a new Little House on the Prairie lifestyle brand,” and its most recent film, The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder, hosted by Dean Butler (who played Almanzo on the television show), was released in 2015. Relentless in its boosterism of cheerful self-reliance, it endorses a treacly myth of American pioneer life that Rose Wilder Lane would heartily support, but that Laura Ingalls Wilder might have trouble recognizing. Between stretches of sentimental music, we learn that “In Laura’s eyes Charles [her father] was a quintessential American individualist, a self-reliant pioneer who loved open space and the backbreaking challenge of coaxing a living off the stubborn land,” and that her “legacy of a simple time when hard work was a virtue to be celebrated, when hope and optimism triumphed over despair still lives in our hearts today.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have been eagerly deployed in simplified American mythmaking since their first publication. The reality was, of course, much more complex. Fraser’s meticulous biography has particular urgency today, as she unknots the threads of fact and fiction, of reality and myth, of mother and daughter. She takes on, very occasionally, a moralizing tone that surprises. But these rare lapses (often pertaining to environmental destruction or racist or colonialist attitudes toward Native Americans) have a logic in the broader culture wars of which this book may be seen—at least by avid partisans in the fight for Wilder’s legacy—to be part.
Prairie Fires is not only a work of rigorous scholarship, but it also portrays Wilder, and her daughter Rose, in ways that illuminate our society’s current crises and rifts. It’s unlike any other biography I know, in that after reading it, I feel no closer to Laura’s private spirit. But as Fraser is at pains to point out, that spirit lives on most vibrantly in the novels themselves. In this sense all Laura’s readers know her:
Her voice speaks…not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.