Prairie Fires

Prairie Fires

I am one of the millions of women who grew up with the Little House Books, the ethics of which likely had a larger impact on me than my mother’s strictures. So that, right there, suggests the best advice I have for young parents everywhere: look for the books that your child will love and when they are grown they will not depart from them.

In my case, that meant following Laura Ingalls Wilder’s instructions for making maple syrup during the years that I lived on a farm with a maple woods. My husband and I tramped out on snowshoes in early March to set the taps, and he built a tripod for the old iron kettle we found in the abandoned log house and I tended that fire religiously, at least four years in a row, discovering for myself how long it took sap to evaporate into thick syrup. Ours had a slight taste of iron to it, and likely theirs did too, but overall it was sweet and dark and tasted great on pancakes.

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser, traces the life of the real Laura Ingalls Wilder from her birth in 1867 to her death in 1957, teasing out the realities of life on the frontier that Laura only hinted at in her books: the constant crop failures, the infant deaths, the near-starvation. The realities of grasshoppers and blizzards and prairie fires, all of which are bravely faced in the books but which inflict real and lasting pain and suffering on those who lived through them.

Fraser also chronicles the history of the Native Americans who had populated Laura’s childhood homes, particularly the massacre by the Dakota at New Ulm, Minnesota, in 1862. She details the provisions of the Homestead Act and the machinations of the railroads that enticed thousands of homesteaders to settle the west, ventures which ended too often in bankruptcy when the land failed them. The tale we have told ourselves of the brave men and women who settled these lands have more than a grain of truth to them, but they are short sentences inserted into paragraphs of fear and want, greed and deception.

Fraser quotes Henry Adams, writing at the beginning of the Panic of 1893:

If you owe money, pay it; if you are owed money, get it; if you can economise, do it; and if anyone can be induced to buy anything, sell it. Everyone is in a blue fit of terror, and each individual thinks himself more ruined than his neighbor.

And he was writing of the privileged class on the east coast. How much worse was it then on the newly settled prairies?

The first half of the book chronicles Laura’s life as a girl and young woman and fills in the blanks in the Little House Books in a way that illumines rather than diminishes them for me. The second half primarily tells the story of Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and the writing of the Little House Books themselves. It is a tale of literary effort, process, steps and missteps, interesting in itself. It is also a tale of a mother and daughter who continue to love each other fiercely through their stark differences and occasional betrayals.

Prairie Fires won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2018, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the history of the homesteaders but not least of all to those of us who still remember the Little House Books, who still read them to our daughters. Laura Ingalls Wilder remains, for me, even more of a heroine in her real life than she was as a little girl in the Big Woods.