March 2, 2018
comprehensive…eye opening…richly researched…real life…resiliency
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Caroline Fraser
Genre/Categories: Nonfiction, American History, Biography, Frontier, Family Life
Prairie Fires is a comprehensive look at the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved (and fictionalized) “Little House on the Prairie” books that have been loved by children, teachers, and librarians for decades. Over 600 pages, Prairie Fires goes beyond biography as the author provides extensive American history material including information about westward expansion, the railroad, extreme weather, fires, the Indian Wars, rural communities, and the Dust Bowl. The author also addresses the controversy surrounding the true authorship of the “Little House” series. Prairie Fires was chosen as one of New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year.
Amazon Rating (March): 4 Stars
First, I must mention that this is a long book! It can be tedious in places if you’re not a history fanatic. However, Laura’s true story is rather fascinating in its historical context.
One question that I wanted answered while reading is this: Why did Laura Ingalls Wilder write idyllic, happy, fictionalized stories when her actual living conditions were extremely harsh?
Through extensive research, the author draws a realistic picture of the struggle, poverty, and transient life style of the Ingalls family. As the true history of Laura’s family is significantly more harsh than is portrayed in the children’s books, I pondered why Laura chose to write the books in the happy, idealized manner that she did (besides the obvious reason that she couldn’t successfully publish the reality of her life for children). As I read, I came to realize how much she adored her Pa in spite of the harsh living conditions and his financial difficulties. In Laura’s childhood her parents might have normalized the fact that their family moved around as much as they did, or concealed the fact that Pa had difficulty supporting them, or perhaps it was simply the norm that most people were poor and that every member of the family was expected to pitch in. As evidenced by Laura’s poem describing her Pa, she didn’t fault him for failing to provide financially; on the contrary, she remembered him fondly: for his music (violin, singing, dancing, entertaining), for adoring and cherishing his family, for his strength and physical endurance, for his spirited contentment despite the circumstances, for his excellent reputation exemplifying a faithful and loving husband, and for his character which was honest and upright. The person that Pa was to his family and his community greatly overshadowed his financial failures. I know I would have liked him because his children adored him (and that’s always a good recommendation!). In the epilogue, the author states that Wilder’s purpose in writing was “to save her father’s stories from being lost…and…..to promote her parents’ values which were her own: courage, self-reliance, independence, integrity, and helpfulness.” It’s understandable that in her 50s Laura began to write these stories because she adored her Pa and experienced yearning and melancholy for home, her parents and sister, and remembered and appreciated the strong moral teaching she had received. This special relationship she enjoyed with her Pa most certainly was not fictionalized, and I strongly believe that she wrote the “Little House” stories later in her life as a tribute to her dear Pa and his values.
Charles Ingalls reminds me a bit of the father in The Glass Castle as he supplied a bit of “magic” in their difficult lives and he never gave up hope for achieving his dream as he moved from place to place and provided little physical or financial stability for his family. As in Prairie Fires, the children in The Glass Castle could forgive their father of a lot because they felt loved.
Authorship of the “Little House” Series
As well as getting to know the family, the author explores the tumultuous and competitive relationship that Laura had with her own daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and attempts to clarify the controversy surrounding the true authorship of the stories. It’s true that Rose encouraged her mother to write and provided a great deal of editing assistance; however Rose also manipulated and bullied Laura. In fact, Rose was unstable and probably mentally ill. Some feel that her daughter was a ghost writer; however, the author provides strong evidence that clears this up (at least for me). I’m choosing not to include that spoiler here.
Traits of Settlers
Coming from the midwest, I’ve been accused of being self-reliant, independent, and stoic. An interesting part of the book for me was the identification of self-reliance as the highest and most held onto value among the settlers coming west. Also interesting was the conversation that Laura and Rose had about stoicism versus apathy. Rose accused the settlers of appearing apathetic in the onslaught of difficult circumstances because of their subdued reactions. Laura explained that when one is faced with difficult circumstances during one’s entire life that one doesn’t overreact to each instance…rather, one takes setbacks in stride (which may seem like apathy to a casual observer). The author is struck by the resilience that the settlers exhibit in facing years and years of difficult times, adversity, and disappointments. She indicates that they just keep on going time after time.
Because I grew up on the prairies of South Dakota as did my mother, grandmothers, and aunt, I can both embrace and am struck by the solitude of the farming lifestyle. Therefore, it affected me to read the author’s descriptions and explanations of the solitude that many women settlers in the mid west faced as they often endured a life of loneliness and isolation in the years before automobiles, radio, television, email, and the internet.
Why didn’t I give this ambitious and well written work 5 stars? First, I feel that it was a bit too long and too much time was spent on Rose. Also, the author became distracted by providing too many facts about too many historical events….in other words, it was overly comprehensive for me. Bottom line, readers need to know that this is an exhaustive biography and contains a great deal of American history.
I would recommend reading a print or electronic version as the audible version’s narrator is not optimal. I have a great deal of difficulty with audio books in general and I really struggled with this read. My husband who listens exclusively to audio books gave it a listen and assured me that it would’ve been easier with a better narrator.
My Rating: 4 stars with a tip of the hat to the amount of historical research the author did in compiling this comprehensive look at the life of Wilder.
Recommended for readers who love history, who love Laura Ingalls Wilder, and who might be looking for a nonfiction historical read.
Meet the Author, Caroline Fraser
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.
If you’d like to read more about the Dust Bowl, consider Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. It’s a beautifully written fictional account of a Oklahoma girl’s experience in the Dust Bowl. See my brief review here.
Happy Reading Bookworms!
“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke
“I love the world of words, where life and literature connect.”
~Denise J Hughes
“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.”
~Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I’m reading Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers by Sara Ackerman for next week’s review.
(…that title and cover though! ….Are you a bit curious?!)
What are you reading this week?
Sharing is Caring
I’d be honored and thrilled if you choose to enjoy and follow along, promote, and/or share my blog. Every share helps us grow.
If you’ve read Prairie Fires, what was the most surprising fact you learned?
Were you a Little House on the Prairie reader or TV fan?
Please tell me about your early reading experiences. What were your favorite childhood reads? My favorites include Nancy Drew, Heidi, The Bobbsey Twins, Penny Nichols and the Black Imp, The Triplets Take Over, etc. My first big book and book hangover was Gone With the Wind. I still have my copy of The Bobbsey Twins!
What are you reading this week?