Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Book Review: Prairie Fires: The Life and Times of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I am a HUGE Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. So much so that I have visited both THE Little House on the Prairie, and also Laura and Almanzo's home in Mansfield, Missouri where Laura wrote all of her novels. I have read the annotated Pioneer Girl. I have read a lot of random Laura Ingalls Wilder books that most people haven't. I have even taken an online course about her.

When I found out that a publisher at my new company had the first straightforward trade biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder in 40 years coming out, I bugged the crap out of the editor until she sent me the manuscript (which she wasn't even done editing—I had to wait on the last three chapters for several weeks.) The last mainstream trade biography was Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Donald Zochert in 1977, which had cover art inspired by the TV, not reality, and which is fairly dated, particularly from a feminist point of view. (Yes, of course I've read that, too.)

So yay, this new biography of one of American's greatest authors has been long overdue. Ms. Fraser starts out with discussing The Dakota War in 1862, which directly impacted Caroline Ingalls' opinion of Native Americans which to a twenty-first century eye, casts a pall over the series. She gives background and perspective to explain why her point of view might have been founded in fact (massacres of white pioneers by Native Americans in retaliation for the U.S. Government starving the Native Americans) and not in blind racism. (An excellent book on that topic is 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End by Scott W. Berg if you want to know more.) And from there is a normal, linear biography, taking us through Caroline and Charles's early marriage, trials in their pioneering days, matching up facts from the Little House books to the facts of Laura's real life, and through Laura's marriage to Almanzo.

Once the biography takes off from the well-known part of Laura's life, we get a whole lot more about Rose, her and Almanzo's only child, and sadly a bit of a nutcase. She acknowledges the supposed controversy surrounding Rose's editing of her mother's manuscripts, and easily dismisses the theory that Rose did most of the writing herself. (Have you read either of Rose's novels which she completely ripped off from her parents' lives and her mother's manuscripts? I have. They're at best, pulpy, soap-opera-y, and not very good.)  Undoubtedly she helped immensely, particularly with navigating the publishing world, where Rose was already a resounding success. Laura and Rose had a very difficult relationship, at times co-dependent, and at other times barely speaking to each other for stretches. Rose could not have been an easy child, even as an adult with her spendthrift ways and cockamamie political views.

I do wish we'd seen more of Almanzo in those later years. It seems that we largely don't because  he was a quiet, hardworking, but not overly interesting man, but I still wish he'd been more of a character. and frankly I could have done with a little less Rose, but that's mostly because Rose is a real pain in the neck and a kook. But she was Laura's kook. And without her, her mother's stories likely never would have seen the light of day.

I really appreciated the context we got, showing how these stories of resilience, pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, and the rewards of hardworking frugality, really hit a note in the 1930s. In retrospect, it makes sense that I return to Laura's stories in difficult times myself. In her fictionalized version of her family's story, thrift and hard work are always rewarded, even if there are years of bad luck and bad timing. In the end, things work out. And that was true also in her non-fictionalized life, even if it was more her writing, rather than farmwork, that paid off in the end. Every Laura Ingalls Wilder fan should read this book!

This book is published by Henry Holt, which is a part of Macmillan, my employer.

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