Review: ‘Prairie Fires’ makes room for another aspect of American past

February 13, 2019

“Once upon a time … a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.” So begins the “Little House” series, and it begins with “the cadence of a fairy tale.”

Most of us are acquainted with Laura Ingalls Wilder. From her birthplace in Pepin, Wis., down to Spring Valley and across the state to Walnut Grove and beyond to South Dakota, her life arcs across our backyard.

Caroline Fraser has produced a richly detailed, starkly written account of that life in “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Fraser’s narrative paints a vivid picture of the hardships Laura and her parents, Charles and Caroline, and sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace faced on the frontier. Her description of a locust plague while the family lived at Walnut Grove is like something out of Exodus:

“Like a demonic visitation, it was flickering red, with silver edges and appeared to be alive, arriving racehorse speed.”

In 1885, Laura married Almonzo Wilder and, in 1894, after repeated crop failures, the couple and their daughter Rose head to the Ozarks in search of a better life. That move, Fraser writes, “is the story of their road back from ruin.”

In addition to working their farm and taking in boarders, this period saw the beginning of Wilder’s writing career. In 1930, Wilder would complete “Pioneer Girl,” a manuscript that would eventually evolve into “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first of her autobiographical novels. It was a book whose literary merit lay with “its very lack of finesse.” Fraser continues, “her direct address to the reader, and the surprising detail about a way of life already forgotten by 1930 lent it power and promise.”

In 1933, Wilder began working on “Indian Country,” a book that departed from the “agrarian domesticity and security” of her first two books and reveled in “the ecstatic wonders of wilderness and wolves and Indians.” “Indian Country” would become “Little House on the Prairie,” a book whose genius, Fraser writes, “lay in that tension between its ostensible pioneer subject … and its unmistakable appetite for the very opposite.” Wider would write six more books, the last “These Happy Golden Years,” published in 1943.

There is no disputing that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood was grittier, harsher, and much more harrowing than her novels ever let on, but if her books are not factual in the historical sense, they are perhaps true in the sense that all fiction is true. Wilder sought to memorialize her parents and the virtues — self-reliance, cheerfulness, fortitude in the face of adversity — that they inculcated in her. In doing that, she created a series of novels that model the “heroism of endurance” and the “satisfaction of simple pleasures.”

“Prairie Fires” is an unsparingly unsentimental book in its take on the mythos of the American frontier and the people who tried to survive on it.

That approach contrasts with the more gossamer reality of Wilder’s books, yet maybe there is room for both in understanding our past.

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