Laura Ingalls Wilder deserves a tome like the one Caroline Fraser has written about her. But Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is about much more than one women. And I found both pros and cons in the book for just that reason. While it never veered “off course,” the path Prairie Fires took was as wide as those fires themselves. It is ambitious in its content, which made it sometimes fascinating and other times tedious.
Fraser begins Prairie Fires with the story of Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father. Every choice he made ultimately affected his daughter, so it’s a logical approach. But gosh, it was hard for me to picture the real Charles Ingalls instead of Michel Landon. Obviously I’m a child of the 1970s. My issues aside, Fraser tells the unvarnished tale of a family that moved from place to place and failure to failure. The real Ingalls family was significantly different from the fictional one.
Laura herself faced more difficulty in life than I realized. Fraser lays all the details out in a clear and cogent manner. She researched the times Wilder lives in extensively. Having the detailed background made the book more interesting. And yet, I’ve got to say that the political aspects of Wilder’s life were a surprise to me. Who knew that “Half Pint” was such an activist?
Another aspect of Prairie Fires was Fraser’s research into the conflicting previous accounts of Wilder’s life and career. Fraser explains how various scholars had their own gains in mind when telling Wilder’s story. This isn’t a large percentage of the book, but it elucidates how one’s legacy is affected by those telling the story.
Chief among those people focused on themselves is Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. The more I read about her, the more I despised Rose. The mother-daughter relationship was fraught with conflict and dysfunction. From my perspective, much of that was Lane’s fault. She wasn’t a stable person, as Fraser tells it. Lane also seems to have been born with a domineering streak, which may in fact have benefitted Wilder’s readers over the years. But it also clearly made Laura’s life more complicated. As tiresome as Rose and her antics were, they played a large part in her mother’s life and writing career.
Prairie Fires is a long and detailed biography, worthy of its 2018 Pulitzer Prize win in that category. It took me forever to read, but I came away with a new appreciation for Laura Ingalls Wilder and the times she lived in. Both her fictional books and the television series see her world through rose-colored glasses (pun intended). Fraser gives us nothing but reality, including the many hard truths of Wilder’s world.