Sara Bhatia returns to Bacon today for a reckoning with Laura Ingalls Wilder, her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and the Little House books.
From Sara: When my son was 7 or 8, I introduced him to one of my favorite childhood books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House in the Big Woods. I was a little concerned that he would find the novel too saccharine and girly, but I needn’t have worried. He was enthralled by the vivid descriptions of hunting and trapping, skinning deer, felling trees and plowing the earth. The book presents a spare, unsentimental description of hardscrabble 19th century pioneer life as Laura and her family traveled via covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to settle on the prairies of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Along with a heap of adventure, Wilder offers up classic American themes of resilience, independence, determination, and the virtues of family and home.
Yet according to Caroline Fraser, author of the superb new biography Prairie Fires about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867 – 1957), the Little House books were – animal carcasses and “bloodthirsty Indians” notwithstanding – sanitized and burnished, carefully crafted novels serving a purpose both intensely personal and surprisingly political.
On the simplest level, Prairie Fires asks the question, what is true? Fraser describes the series’ genre as “autobiography in the third person,” creating a “gauzy scrim” through which Wilder told stories of her family’s pioneer adventures. As Fraser lines up the richly documented events from Wilder’s real life with those in her books, it is apparent – and not so surprising – that the author took liberties, simplifying the timeline, creating composite characters, and eliminating tragic storylines.
The reality of Wilder’s life was far darker and grittier, and lacked the hopeful and happy endings with which Wilder infused her stories. The Ingalls family was itinerant, deeply impoverished, profoundly unlucky, and perennially in debt. One winter the children did not attend school because there was no money for shoes or warm clothes. Wilder’s father Charles, who is described in heroic, glowing terms in the novels, failed at one enterprise after another – repeatedly unable to find success as a homesteader, he abandoned farming for work as a laborer. More than once, unable to pay the family’s debts, the Ingalls family skipped town in the middle of the night. From the time she was 12, Wilder helped support her family, leaving school for months at a time to work as a seamstress, laundress, and dishwasher.
Wilder’s own adulthood was marked more by disappointments than success. Despite not graduating from high school herself, she reluctantly became a schoolteacher at 16 to help support her family and send her sister Mary to a college for the blind. She married at 18, and was a mother by 19. Her first years of marriage were marked by a tragic sequence of events including the death of her infant son, a stroke that handicapped her young husband for life, an historic drought, plagues of crop-destroying locusts, and a calamitous fire that destroyed the young family’s home. After a few peripatetic years, the Wilders settled in Missouri.
Fraser writes, “By the age of twenty-one, she knew that everything she had ever had, no matter how hard-won, held the capacity to be lost.”
While her adulthood was more geographically stable than that of her birth family, the Wilders were only slightly more financially sound. Wilder did not trust her husband to provide for the family, so she stepped up, raising chickens, taking in boarders, and waiting tables. Her decision to turn to writing in her 40’s was prompted by financial need and mounting debts. Wilder’s only child, Rose Wilder Lane, had found early acclaim in San Francisco as a tabloid newspaper writer. She encouraged her mother to put pen to paper to help make ends meet. Wilder began by writing what she knew best – didactic articles about farming and poultry raising. Success and financial stability came remarkably late in life – Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published when she was 65 years old.
Throughout the biography, Fraser weaves a thoughtful meditation on the nature of memory and the inherent unreliability of autobiography. Wilder was remarkably self-aware of the challenges of writing an honest memoir that was nonetheless compelling for a juvenile audience.
In Wilder’s own words, “All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” Indeed.
In her twilight years, Laura Ingalls Wilder sat down to write the Little House books for reasons financial, personal, and political. Most simply, after a lifetime of barely making ends meet, of perpetual indebtedness, and financial insecurity, writing offered a way to make money.
It is not coincidental that Wilder wrote the Little House books during the Great Depression. Amidst the national financial crisis, Wilder harkened back to the scarcity and hardships of her youth, and used stories depicting pioneer ingenuity, hard work, and resilience as panaceas for the crises of the 1930s. Fraser writes, “On the brink of old age, fearing the loss of everything in the Great Depression, Wilder reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting.”
But the writing was also deeply personal. Despite the hardships of her childhood, Wilder felt a profound connection to her family of birth. Poverty made the long distances difficult to navigate, and Wilder spent her entire adult life in Missouri, far from her parents and sisters in the Dakotas. She lamented their distance, and mourned her parents’ deaths, two decades after she had last seen their faces. Fraser comments, “Exile propelled the powerful emotional undercurrent of the Little House books, an intensely felt nostalgia for people and places lost to her.” Reliving the adventures of her childhood and capturing the stories told by her parents was a way to keep their memories alive, and her romanticization of her parents restored their dignity despite a life etched in failure.
Wilder’s revisionist storytelling allowed her to reconstruct the past for her own purposes, but more interestingly, Wilder believed that the lessons of her youth could be prescriptive for a nation suffering through the Great Depression. In her family’s hardships and suffering – through long winters without food, natural disasters destroying crops, and the the harsh conditions of the prairie and plains – she wove tales of strength, resilience, and the beauty of a simple, rural life. As the 1930s wore on, Wilder used her novels to rail against government interference and predatory bankers, the idiocy of bureaucrats, and the debilitating nature of relief assistance – she wrote of the 1870s and ‘80s, but the books found obvious parallels in FDR’s Washington. In her private life, Wilder embraced Populism, and decried Roosevelt’s presidency. She saw the values in her books as explicitly oppositional to those of the New Deal.
In addition to poking at the truth and telling the factual story of Wilder’s life, Fraser’s study is an ambitious dual psycho-biography, concerned with the lives of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and her only child Rose Wilder Lane (1886 – 1968) and their complex and intertwined familial, intellectual and financial relationship. Fraser uses a strong interpretive hand in analyzing the complex and often destructive mother-daughter relationship, but her analysis is undergirded by rich source material. What emerges are complex, multidimensional portrayals of two headstrong women hopelessly entangled with one another. Equally striking is how bland Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s husband/Rose’s father) is by comparison — Fraser depicts him as a minor character in the larger melodrama of his wife’s and daughter’s lives.
Unlike most biographers, Fraser keeps her distance from her subjects, and she’s more critical than affectionate – both are big personalities – and neither emerges as particularly likable. Wilder could be judgmental and mean, lingering on perceived slights from decades earlier (her jealousy of her older sister Mary, who famously went blind following a grave illness, was a particularly animating motivation), and Lane was unreliable, petty, and manic depressive.
As Fraser makes clear, Rose Wilder Lane was a handful. Headstrong and rebellious, she was shipped off to live with a distant cousin for the end of high school (with an implied taint of a sexual scandal). She then moved West to be a “career girl,” and took up with an itinerant salesman, with whom she had a brief and tempestuous marriage. Her lifestyle was bohemian, and she hung around with the literary crowd in 1910s and ‘20s New York City, flitting around Europe, spending money faster than she made it. Although her name is not well known today, she was a celebrated and successful author in the first half of the 20th century, the writer of best-selling novels and biographies, and scores of magazine articles and short stories.
While her lifestyle may have been bohemian, her politics were decidedly not. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Mary Paterson, Lane was dubbed “the mother of Libertarianism.” In middle age, she turned from fiction writing to philosophy and politics, turning out screeds railing against President Roosevelt and the New Deal, condemning relief programs, and allying herself with fascists and anti-semitism. The FBI compiled a fat folder on Lane, filled with her biting correspondence and texts of her rabble rousing speeches.
Fraser does an outstanding job weaving together the intricacies of the tangled mother-daughter relationship, with mutual dependence for emotional support, and also financial aid (while Lane was always the more prosperous of the two, she was invariably financially indebted to her parents, while simultaneously lavishing on them gifts including a house, jewels, and an annual stipend she could ill afford).
The most interesting interdependency involved writing. Fraser describes Wilder and Lane as “editorially incestuous,” and other biographers have questioned whether Lane in fact wrote the Little House books. Fraser vigorously denies that claim, but provides ample evidence that Lane provided a heavy editorial hand as well as critical connections to the publishing world. Her Libertarian politics infuse the texts, although it is clear that Wilder shared many of her daughter’s conservative beliefs. Most surprisingly, in the midst of her mother’s Little House success, Lane began plundering the plotlines of Wilder’s novels – and effectively her mother’s life – to write two best selling novels of her own using barely disguised characters.
Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires is a feast of a biography – overflowing with stories and history. For adults (like me!) with sentimental attachments to the books (and to the NBC TV series “Little House on the Prairie,” which offers a sunnier, more sanitized and affluent version of pioneer life), Prairie Fires offers a chance to compare the beloved stories with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life. Fraser does a masterful job of placing Wilder’s personal history within the broader context of historical events, ranging from the horrific US-Dakota War of 1862, which left 800 white settlers dead, to the disastrous mono-farming techniques on the Plains that contributed to the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. The second half of the book, which is truly a dual biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, is fascinating, and tells a less well known story of two independent literary women at the crossroads of American history.
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For those interested in delving more deeply into the political messages of the Little House books without the commitment of Fraser’s full biography, check out this 2016 article, which offers a summarized version of another recent Wilder/Lane biography, Christine Woodside’s Libertarians on the Prairie.
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Another reason to pick up Prairie Fires: The New York Times named it one of the Top 10 Books of 2017.
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