Though we tend to read the “Little House” books as autobiography, they are “heavily fictionalized in many ways,” said Caroline Fraser, author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” a fascinating new biography.
I grew up in the city, but I dreamed of covered wagons. Like countless kids, I read and reread the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder while growing up, savoring the details of homemade candy (made on snow!), hand-hewn furniture, floral-print dresses, cozy Christmases and the plaintive music of a fiddle, echoing over the emptiness of a vast prairie.
Born in 1867 Wisconsin to a father struck with wanderlust and a mother content to follow him, Wilder lived a pioneer childhood, moving from place to place with her growing family (she was the second of four sisters) across the American Midwest. The first book, “Little House on the Big Woods,” begins when she is 4 years old; the last in the series, “These Happy Golden Years,” ends with her marriage, at 18, to the young farmer Almanzo Wilder. (“The First Four Years,” documenting the early years of their marriage, was published posthumously.) Throughout the books, there’s a palpable sense that home — be it a dirt-floor dugout, a snug log cabin or a threadbare claim shanty — is made not by doors and windows and possessions, but the secure presence of those you love.
Wilder, who lived to see her 90th birthday and remarkable changes in the world, began writing the books in her 60s, urged by her daughter, Rose. (Initially Wilder wrote a memoir intended for adults, called “Pioneer Girl,” but she and Rose had better luck marketing a young reader’s version. An annotated version of the original manuscript was published in 2014.) They read like fiction — Wilder’s narrative voice is steady and almost childlike, but often beautifully artful — but they depict a real life; at least, a writer’s version of one. I didn’t think, when reading them as a child, of how Wilder might have sculpted the facts of her life, or of what it might mean to depict your beloved parents in anything but a softly shining light.
A fascinating new biography of Wilder, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (Metropolitan Books, $35), takes a close look at the author’s life — where it does, and doesn’t, match the legend she created. Though we tend to read the “Little House” books as autobiography, they are “heavily fictionalized in many ways,” said Fraser, in a telephone interview last week.
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“When it came to the ‘Little House’ books, she burnished her parents’ reputation by leaving out a lot of what happened,” Fraser elaborated. In “Pioneer Girl,” she notes, Wilder wrote of the family “experiencing periods of homelessness and aimlessness, her father Charles not being able to pull it together financially. You see his failures as a farmer. This was not due to laziness on his part — he was coming up against what every small-scale farmer in that region was facing, especially in the Dakotas, because that area was just too arid for dry land farming … Virtually all the farmers were more or less facing ruin before they even started, because they were undercapitalized. None of this really makes it into the ‘Little House’ books.”
Fraser, whose own ancestors were also Midwestern farmers, grew up on Mercer Island; she now lives in New Mexico. She loved the “Little House” books as a child, but became fascinated by Wilder’s own story about 20 years ago, when a biography of Rose Wilder Lane was published. “It essentially claimed that Rose had ghostwritten all the ‘Little House’ books,” she said. Intrigued, Fraser launched her own investigation into the manuscripts, resulting in a long piece in the New York Review of Books.
“It’s certainly true that Rose contributed greatly to the production and creation of the books, that she edited and helped review them and certainly was responsible for getting them published,” Fraser said. “But I believed then and believe now that Wilder was the author of the books published under her name.”
More recently, Fraser edited the Library of America editions of the “Little House” books, and realized that there was much rich history behind Wilder’s story, particularly what Wilder called the Minnesota Massacre. “It’s more properly referred to as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” Fraser said, calling that bloody event “quite central to her experience in Kansas. Knowing what that was and what happened, even though it happened before Laura was born, is, I think, incredibly revealing of her experience and the experience of other white settlers and their attitudes toward Native Americans.”
Fraser’s book begins with that history, and then traces the ancestry of Wilder’s parents, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, taking us to that little house where their second daughter was born. A map shows us the family’s wanderings; a few photographs let us gaze at ghosts from the past. One photo, of a preteen Laura posing with sisters Mary and Carrie, is startling: Eyes warily looking away from the camera and jaw set, young Laura is already showing the determination of a pioneer woman, resolved to survive and prosper on an inhospitable land.
And its later pages tell the story of a remarkable mother/daughter relationship. Rose, Wilder’s only child, was a former yellow journalist, war correspondent and fledgling Libertarian; her high-pitched life seems right out of a movie. “She is an incredible voice and presence,” said Fraser, who spent countless hours deciphering Rose’s voluminous letters to her mother, now housed in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. (Lane, at one point, wrote a biography of Hoover.) “She was, in some ways, quite a tortured person … always fairly melodramatic in her self-presentation.”
Rose, said Fraser, had a “pretty tumultuous” relationship with her mother. “The story of their relationship is kind of at the heart of the book, because it’s at the heart of the creation of the ‘Little House’ books.”
After reading Fraser’s book, I picked up a copy of “Little House on the Prairie” — a book I haven’t read since probably my teens. And while its attitudes toward Native Americans feel cringe-worthy today, much of the writing remains haunting. Laura, falling asleep, “began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses”; Pa’s voice, singing, “was like a part of the night and the moonlight and the stillness of the prairie.” Before quite realizing it, I had reread the entire book.
Fraser hopes that grown-up “Little House” fans will find “a richer experience of the books if you know more about where they came from.” She still finds herself often “totally absorbed” by the world Wilder created in her novels. “They still affect me quite strongly; they’re so moving. And that is the real mark of a classic, something that you can go back and read again and again and you’re still finding new things in it.”