Why I Read Prairie Fires
This summer my adult daughter decided to finally read the Little House books. I read Little House in the Big Woods with her when she was little, but then for some reason, she never read the rest. She found that the T.V. series is on IMBD, so we also starting watching that bit by bit; we still haven’t made it through the first season.
The television show started when I was about the same age as Laura’s character…I don’t know if the fact that the show was set literally 100 years before, but it was…so in a sense, I grew up with Laura/Melissa Gilbert.
I actually born 100 years and about 3 months after Laura Ingalls Wilder, and my mother was born 100 years less about a month than Charles Ingalls.
Now, in 2020, I am starting to wonder what mark I am going to leave on this earth when I go, and I’ll admit I was a bit depressed about it until I realized that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t even publish her first Little House book, the significant work of her life, until the early 1930’s, when she was in her sixties.
Well, that certainly got my attention, and finally led me to rereading Prairie Fires, the most recently published biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Why you should read Prairie Fires
If you are a fan of the Little House books, you will be fascinated by the story of how Ingalls shaped her actual life into the novels (and they are published as novels) and especially what she left out. This part of the story, however, has been told before. There are even books that discuss the writing of the Little House books, and most particularly the work of Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, as an editor.
What I found the most engaging, and to be fair it’s also the time of life I’m in, is Fraser’s coverage of Wilder’s adult years, from the time The First Four Years ends to 1929, when Wilder started writing the Little House books. Early research I read about Wilder implies that the story ended when the family arrived in Mansfield, Missouri, and “lived happily ever after”, but that’s not exactly what happened. The Wilders continued to struggle for decades, and really only became completely financially secure when the Little House books were published, although Laura and Almanzo had, by staying in one place, managed over the years to gradually become more secure than Laura’s family had been.
Rose Wilder Lane’s childhood was nearly as difficult as Laura’s, and it affected her more.
Are you surprised when I talk about Laura’s childhood as being difficult? When you go back and read the books, you might be surprised at some of the details you missed as a child, such as Laura and Mary attending school barefoot in On the Banks of Plum Creek, but go back and take a look.
Prairie Fires and The Little Houses
In recent years, Laura Ingalls Wilder has come under fire and even had her name removed from a prestigious reward because of her supposed racist remarks about Native Americans. This situation annoys me to no end because I think it’s based on an oversimplification of the facts. The issue is the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, where Wilder wrote: “There were no people anywhere, only Indians.” The problem with this wording was pointed out during Wilder’s lifetime. She apologized, in writing, wrote that “of course Indians are people”, and changed the word “people” to “settlers”, which is what it has been ever since.
When you read about Native Americans in her books, it’s clear to me that both Laura and Charles Ingalls, her father, respected and were interested in Native Americans as people, despite Ingalls’ stealing their land (and to be fair, he abandoned it when told to do so when others stayed and fought, and eventually kept their land). The negative comments about Native Americans came from Caroline Ingalls.
Ironically, to me, the most problematic passage in all of the Little House books has nothing to do with Native Americans…instead, it is the minstrel show depicted in Little Town on the Prairie, which is embarrassing in that Wilder (who had extensive help from her daughter), described the show, in which Charles Ingalls participated, entirely without irony and with a lot of detail. I understand that she saw it as entertainment. In Little House on the Prairie, where we see the only other depiction of African Americans, there is a Black doctor, Dr. Tan (based on a real person), who tended to the entire Ingalls family when they fell seriously ill. Because he was Black, he worked with Native Americans as a rule, but he was the only doctor available since the Ingalls were living in “Indian Territory” illegally. He didn’t decline to treat them, and they were grateful for his help.
Despite the unfortunate anachronism in Little Town, the books as a whole do stand up wonderfully well. As I read the books now, I am surprised that I never picked up on exactly how poor the family was. Obviously I knew that money was always a concern, but most people grow up with that to a certain extent, I think. As I look back, I know that my own family was not poor, in fact we might have been better off than many middle class people, but the question of “What can we afford?” was often in the air. But recent talks with a relative, who did grow up with little, showed me that people who grew up with less identified with the Ingalls’ situation in life.
What makes these books special to me, and I think to so many people, is the idea that as long as we are together, as a nuclear family, we are ok. We can make it on our own when we have to, and when we have the privilege of having a community, we can give and take of that too, regardless of our economic circumstances.
While the Ingalls family was poor financially for the span of the books, as was the Laura and Almanzo Wilder family for many years after that, what none of them were was poor in spirit. And to me that makes all the difference.
From the Little House books themselves, we know that both Charles and Caroline were literate. Caroline Ingalls had worked as a teacher, and Charles had somehow acquired the skill of playing the violin and had the talent to play the songs he heard, so the family grew up with what seems to me an amazingly literate family life for their situation in life. When you look at the Little House books, the family might be struggling to survive, but they were always reading what was available to them and singing and listening to music at home when their neighbors probably only heard it in church on Sunday.
Although a lot of the instances in which the real-life Charles Ingalls was able to find work because he was literate, in Silver Lake he is keeping the books and running the company store because he has the education to do so; he’s not out working on the rails. His strengths as a manager are also shown when he manages to suppress a potential riot when he helps the probably largely illiterate workforce understand why the payroll system works the way it does (employees having a two week delay in pay to allow for administrative tasks).
The nonfiction work connected to Wilder’s life, particularly Prairie Fires, adds even more depth to this picture by revealing what Wilder omitted from the novel. Fraser shows the many times that Charles Ingalls took on clerical work to maintain the family when farming didn’t pay (99% of the time, it seems).
I always thought the Caroline Ingalls’ constant worrying that the girls would grow up wild were unfounded, but Prairie Fires, by showing exactly what the family had to do in order to survive, reveals not only that Caroline’s worries were real, but also how amazing it was that the girls did as well as they did.
Mary thrived as a blind person, and receive a college education, at a time when many families would have shunted her off as a dependent.
Laura became a teacher, as a teenager, and later a famous writer. She also ran a government loan agency for many years and wrote for periodicals.
Carrie worked in printing and journalism.
Grace went to teacher’s college.
All of them left examples of writing that shows that they all, including Charles, had more than basic literacy and could write expressively and well. Many of them left examples of poetry and other creative writing behind.
On the other hand, Laura worked to support the family from the age of 9, and she did more than sew and teach, as depicted in the novels. The family worked under unsavory conditions in hotels and other places in Burr Oak, Iowa…a whole section of their lives that Wilder omitted from the novels (that’s what happened in the mysterious gap between Plum Creek and Silver Lake, if you ever wondered). They also likely skipped town, in the end, with their bills left unpaid.
So yes, Charles Ingalls was seduced by the “American Dream”, and also possibly by a lie told to him by the railroad companies, that promoted westward migration, and the U.S. government, which offered “free land”. Some bad science got in the middle of it that resulted in failed crops and eventually the dust storms of the 1930’s.
On a personal level, I do see his predilection for wandering rather than staying put and building a farm as a weakness, and possibly evidence that he didn’t want to farm as much as he said he did. I think he really wanted to travel and explore the world.
Lots of people are good at starting things, but they fail when they have to see it through. It’s the ones who can stick who are successful.
Prairie Fires helps me see all of these things, but the reason that this book somehow leaves me loving the Little House books all the more is that fact that none of it broke the Ingalls or the Wilders. In fact, in the end, Laura Ingalls Wilder used all of it to create books that resulted in the family’s final success, and both the families strength, their affection for letters and music, and their weakness, their attraction to what’s “just over the hill”, in the end were necessary for both.
In the 21st Century, Wilder might have written her story as a depiction of the challenges and depriviation that she overcame to get where she ended up. I would have respected her but I might not have read the books…I’ve read that story too many times. But taking a live of deprivation and showing the good in it, which still being being honest in spirit if not always factually (and then it’s mostly lying by omission): that’s an achievement.
If you love the Little House books, read Prairie Fires.
More About Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Family
Pioneer Girl is Wilder’s first stab at writing the story of her own life, but this book was written for adults. It has long been a resource for biographical information about Wilder for scholars, and it has finally been published.
Libertarians on the Prairie by Christine Woodside
It’s no secret that Rose Wilder Lane was a libertarian. She left plenty of published writing explaining her views and was also well known in her own time. Her heir, Roger MacBride, was a Libertarian presidential candidate.
Fraser analyzes the same documents that Woodside does but with slightly different conclusions about Wilder and Lane’s political beliefs and how they are represented in the finished Little House books.
Wilder’s full support of Libertarian principles would be ironic since Mary attended college under a special state grant (a point which is not mentioned in the novels) and for many years Wilder herself administered a government program to give small loans to farmers and had such a loan herself.
Lane opposed the new deal, but also worked for the WPA as an author.
So go figure.
The Ghost in the Little House by William Holz
It’s no secret that Rose Wilder Lane significantly helped her mother with the Little House books. She also frequently mine incidents from the life of her mother and grandparents in her own fiction.
Ironically, the Little House books are better than anything Lane wrote: her gifts seem to lie more with editing and mentoring than with writing herself.
I think there’s also no doubt that the Little House series would not be as good as it is without Lane’s assistance…but did she actually ghost write the books?
You be the judge.
Check back next week for Part 2 on being a Little House fan!
And for being such a super diligent reader, here is a wonderful, full length episode on Laura Ingalls Wilder from American Masters/PBS!