I've read a number of biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder over the years, and more often than not I find myself a bit disappointed by them in the end.And yet every time I encounter a new one I still hope that it will be better than the ones which came before it.
Thankfully, Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, actually gave me what I've been searching for all this time.
What makes this book different?
Many of the other LIW biographies I've read follow the same basic pattern. They use the Little House books as the framework upon which they build the larger story of Wilder's life, filling in a few gaps and clarifying the real timeline where the historical fiction novels take liberties. They go into Wilder's adult life in Missouri, then often skip over a lot until they can address when Wilder began to write the books that would make her an American icon. By and large, the biggest difference between them is the biographer's writing style.
But Fraser's biography takes a different tactic, and one that I very much appreciate. Instead of starting with a young Laura, she starts with Laura's family, telling a bit of their history and motivations behind what led them to settle in Kansas in the first place. More than that, Fraser does wonders with setting the scene of American and its politics at the time, social influences that -- for good or ill -- guided people and led them to make certain decisions. Wilder's writings heavily romanticized the times and places about which she wrote, leading to something that may feel timeless to many readers, a testament to the American spirit, but are in fact deeply rooted in what was happening in America at the time.
The characters within the Little House novels, to whatever degree they have been fictionalized, are not untouched by the world around them, and Fraser takes the time to help readers actually understand the political and environmental climate, with extensive research into historical documents. Prairie Fires is not merely the story of Wilder's life, but the story of the world in which Wilder lived that life, and I've found that many biographers don't bother to dig into that aspect very much, if at all. We are, after all, the people we are because of the world around us. Nobody is free from the influence of the culture in which they live.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Plenty of controversy.
Understandably, there are many people who read Prairie Fires and reacted rather negatively to it. Fraser did not seek to glorify and already-glorified historical figure, but to offer as complete a story of her as possible, the good and the bad. Rather than simply fill in the blanks of Wilder's life as other biographers had done, Fraser didn't flinch from turning her from the Laura we know in the books, to a very real and complex person, filled with qualities worthy of both praise and condemnation. You know, as you see in every person who ever lived.
But therein lies some of the controversy. Wilder wrote some of the most beloved children's fiction in American history, fiction with has found appeal on a global scale, and it can be hard to separate the character from the author on which the character is based. There are people out there who dislike seeing prying eyes shed light upon someone they, in a sense, grew up with and helped shape them into the people they now are. And I understand that. Wilder was a complex woman with vice and virtue, and she did and said some things I profoundly disagree with. At the same time, I still love the books she wrote and they have had great influence on me. It's hard to balance those two things.
It's said sometimes that modern sensibilities should not be applied to history, since our views now are different than the prevailing views back then. On one hand, I agree. I don't read historical fiction or historical fact expecting to see modern ideas of liberty and justice, for instance. One simply can't expect that. But there's nothing wrong with examining old biases and outdated beliefs with a modern eye, being critical about the past that brought us to the present. Fraser does not condemn Wilder, for instance, for any expressed racism that was common opinion during Wilder's life. Fraser does, however, point out that such things were racist. That racism was more socially acceptable then than it is now does not mean things were less racist.
But as I said, it's hard sometimes to see a beloved historical figure be reduced to a common human status, subject to the same criticisms as anyone else. We put our heroes on a pedestal, we admire them from afar, we aspire to be like them, but that's not the same thing as thinking they could do no wrong.
Laura and Almanzo Wilder
Contribution to climate change?
Another complaint I see of Fraser's work is the supposedly ridiculous belief that the farmers who pushed the boundaries on the American Frontier contributed to climate change. In this... I'm sorry, people, but Fraser's science is pretty sound. When you tear up virgin ground to plant crops that are not typically grown there and have never been grown there before, there will be changes to the ecosystem. Some crops do not grow well in some areas, and attempting to force that issue can have detrimental effects both to the crops one is trying to grow and the ground in which one is trying to grow them. And those effects can't always be fixed by just backing away for a couple of years. Farmers did a lot of damage in their attempts to farm.
No, they didn't cause the polar ice caps to melt. No, they didn't create thick smog over the prairies. No, they didn't poison the land in a singe growing season. They didn't cause climate change as we know it today. And what they did change wasn't really felt on a global scale. But that doesn't mean they didn't do some damage to the climate. We have documents and scientific studies to back that up.
Each individual farmer may have done no more damage to the climate of the American prairies than we damage our city's climate by littering, for instance. One person will not tip the balance that way. But when hundreds of people are doing that, thousands of them, then the effect grows and each one bears some culpability, however knowing they were and however small that individual's contribution was. The problem wasn't one farmer with a horse-drawn plow. The problem was thousands of farmers with horse-drawn plows, digging up land to plant things that were not native to that land.
Rose Wilder Lane
Unfair to Rose, or unflattering?
While aspects of Prairie Fires do cast Wilder as less than the paragon most of us want her to be, I was particularly struck by Fraser's presentation of Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. There's been plenty of controversy surrounding Lane over the decades, everything from her own lack of journalistic integrity (even by the standards of time period in which she worked) to accusations that she did more than merely edit the Little House books but in fact wrote them all. Lane is no stranger to controversy.
I had a few people ask me if I thought Fraser's treatment of Lane was unfair, and honestly, I don't think it was. I do think it was unflattering, but given what I already knew of Lane, I think Fraser's treatment of her was as fair and decent as any other person she wrote about in Prairie Fire. Rose Lane was an unhappy woman, prone to anxiety and fits of depression, taking on more responsibility than necessary and then blaming others for accepting what she insisted they take. While I can recognize those traits as being typical of somebody who grew up impoverished, that doesn't negate many of her actions in later life. It explains them, but it doesn't excuse them.
An uncommonly complex portrayal of real people.
Whole undeniably a controversial book filled with controversial material, I still believe that Prairie Fires is the best biography of not only Laura Ingalls Wilder's life, but also the world that created her, and the world she went on to help create. Her desire to collect the stories of her youth and fictionalize her life's experiences have influenced people for the better part of a century, resonating with people all over the world and connecting us to lives that we may never get to do more than merely imagine. But I think it's important to not forget that although the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the books is based upon the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the books, the two are not the same, and the real person is a more startlingly complex person than she ever portrayed herself to be in fiction. Fraser does impressive work to convey that to people.
This is not a book for people who want to read another mere retelling of Wilder's life. If that's what you seek, there are already plenty of such books out there, told time and again by fans and scholars. This is, though, a down to earth telling, with context and darkness and a gritty reality that other biographies lack. This is a book for people who don't merely want to enjoy Wilder, but who want to understand her, and the world she grew up in, in such an unflinching way that readers cannot so easily escape into comfortable fictions.