Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder" by Caroline Fraser

I was happy to finally get my hands on a copy of "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder" by Caroline Fraser -- one of the best-reviewed books of 2017. Like many of you, I grew up reading Wilder's Little House books (over & over again), and I watched the sugarcoated TV adaptation in the 1970s (although I was not as rabid a fan of that as some -- I preferred the books).  My own ancestors came to the prairies of northwestern Minnesota around the same time that Wilder and her family moved from southern Minnesota to the plains of South Dakota, and it thrilled me as a child to realize that my family too had been homesteading pioneers like Laura Ingalls and her clan. In later years, one of the happiest memories I have from my pregnancy is sitting up in bed & reading "Little House in the Big Woods" aloud to my growing belly, as dh watched from the bedroom doorway, a huge smile on his face.

As an adult, I've enjoyed learning more about Wilder and her family, and have read several relevant books about her life and influence, including "Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography" which I reviewed here. That book included both the manuscript of "Pioneer Girl," Wilder's handwritten memoir, which formed the foundation of the Little House books, as well as the story of how Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, worked together to shape the manuscript, plus extensive footnotes verifying the historical accuracy of the people, places and events referenced.

Like "Pioneer Girl," "Prairie Fires" is a multifaceted book.  It's not just a biography of Laura but also the story of her family -- her family of origin, including her parents' families and roots, and also that of her husband, Almanzo Wilder. It's also the story of Laura & Almanzo's headstrong daughter, author/journalist Rose Wilder Lane, whose relationship with her parents, and especially her mother, was highly complex and even dysfunctional. The two women collaborated closely on the writing and editing of the Little House books (and Lane borrowed freely from her mother's stories for her own writing projects), and we learn more about how they worked together and how the books took shape.  Finally, the book places Laura & her family in the context of the times in which they lived -- with some themes that continue to resonate today, 150+ years after Laura was born.

Prior to reading "Pioneer Girl," I hadn't known very much about Rose Wilder Lane, and I learned much, much more from this book. She does not emerge as a very likeable or sympathetic figure. She was a harsh critic of her mother's writing, even as she plagiarized it for her own purposes & projects. She held extreme right-wing views (Ayn Rand was an acquaintance) and preached the virtues of self-reliance and independence -- even as her life became inextricably entwined with her parents'.  (She promised to support her parents for the rest of their lives, and built them a new house they never asked for -- while, at the same time, she borrowed money from them to pay down her own debts.)  She lived with them on their farm near Mansfield, Missouri, on & off throughout her life, until 1936 (eventually settling in Danbury, Connecticut).  Her father never saw her again:  she did not return home to visit (despite his offers to send her train fare) until his funeral in 1949.

However, I will admit I am inclined to give Rose at least a little slack: like both her mother Laura and grandmother Caroline, she lost a baby -- a boy, stillborn in 1909 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (The child's death certificate only surfaced recently.) 
For a young woman, such a painful and chaotic experience must have been made even more traumatic by the fact that she was miles from home, family, and friends. She may have known her husband for only a year or so. She had probably never seen the inside of a hospital before.  
After that loss, under circumstances never explained, Lane underwent a surgical procedure in Kansas City sometime during the winter of 1909-1910. Recovery after a stillbirth can be difficult, and in this case there were apparently complications -- perhaps bleeding, infection, or retention of part of the placenta in the uterus, which often results in blood poisoning and can be fatal. Rose would never write about the experience in detail but would later describe her state of mind as "a kind of delirium." She was not physically "normal" between 1909 and 1911, she would say, or mentally fit until 1914. The surgery may have left her unable to have children. (pp.213-214)
Eventually, Lane experienced a nervous breakdown, and plunged into a deep depression that was to plague her, on & off, throughout her life, until her death in 1968. She never had another child or remarried after her divorce (in fact, she became bitterly anti-marriage) -- although she "adopted" several young (mostly male) proteges throughout her lifetime, most notably her eventual heir, Roger Lea MacBride, who ran for President on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1976. (He was endorsed by none other than Charles Koch -- yes, THAT Charles Koch.) None of Laura's sisters -- Mary, Carrie and Grace -- had children either -- so the Charles Ingalls family tree ended with Laura's daughter -- just as the branch of the family I grew up in will end with me and my childfree-by-choice sister.

I would like to say that if you are a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is an absolute must-read book. A cautionary note, however. Several reviewers on Goodreads -- while acknowledging the impressive quality of the research and writing -- admitted they could not finish the book, or found it a difficult book to read. The reality of Laura's life was much more harsh, dark and complex than the one portrayed in the books -- or, perhaps more accurately, the warm & fuzzy memories they conjure up. Caveat emptor.

Personally, I found this book fascinating and hard to put down (although it did take me a whole month to wade through it). :)  (Long and detailed, but utterly absorbing.) I will admit to reaching for the Kleenex box at several points. :) 

This was book #3 that I've read so far in 2018, bringing me to 13% of my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am -- so far! ;)  -- on track to meet my goal.  :)  

1 comment:

  1. This is the book of choice for a book club I have been thinking of officially participating in. Thanks for the review. Interesting note that none of the sisters had children except Laura, and that her daughter did not have living children.