Book Review: Prairie Fires

Title: Prairie Fires
Author: Caroline Fraser
Genre: Biography, Non-Fiction
ISBN: 9781627792769

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser is a new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, writer of the Little House on the Prairie novels. The book pieces together the Ingalls’ family history and walks readers through Laura’s childhood experiences as her family moved around the midwest. With the birth of Laura’s own child, Rose, the book broadens its biographical scope to include a complete picture of Rose and her own set of challenges. Quite a bit of the biography covers the inception and plentiful revisions to the Little House books.

 

Take Aways

The Folly of Expectation
The Little House books have a special place in my heart. As a little girl, I remember receiving the complete box set for Christmas one year and how much I enjoyed the stories of the great American West. The story telling style, the sense of adventure and far off places, inspired me in a way that few books have. Going into Prairie Fires, I was geared up for tales that echoed Little House and even more heartwarming insight into life as it was. My folly was having an expectation. The Little House books ARE novels. And Laura was a real and fallible person. Fraser does a great job piecing together Laura’s early life (even tracing back some of her ancestors to Puritan times). But with well researched work comes reality. Laura’s family went through some really hard times and lived in some rather seedy places, none of which makes it into her books. And Laura herself sometimes appears lacking, settling when choosing a husband, being emotionally disconnected at times from her daughter, and having some odd political leanings. Gripping writing, but Fraser’s depiction brought Wilder down a notch in my overall esteem.

Personal History and the Passage of Time
One of the things that drew me to the Little House books, and kept drawing me back, was the sense that these tales were pulled from true life events. That extra touch of validity made the stories go further. And when they were marketed to readers, the books were positioned as a portrayal of real life out in the American West. But through Fraser’s great work in this biography, we see that the novels are really just that. Wilder contributed stories and embellished them, or omitted parts, to make the books more appealing to readers. Much of what happens in her books is not how events occurred in real life, and as Wilder reflected on her journey, she intentionally wrote a revisionist history into her novels. Over time, she came to realize that some aspects of growing up were better left out of or altered in her books. Additionally, her daughter served as her editor (albeit unofficially) and rewrote or reworked much of the texts. I found the level of influence that Rose had over the texts staggering, with her often rewriting entire sections, or telling her mother to add new stories based on stories she heard as a child. Rose was a writer herself, but short on her own ideas, borrowing her mother’s tales for her own work. Essentially, the two women plagiarized each other, repurposing content, rewriting each other’s items, and even getting mad when one beat the other to the publication of a particular topic. I found this insightful but discouraging. No one wants to imagine that the words of a beloved book may not all belong to the attributed author. But in the case of the Little House series, the line between Laura’s and Rose’s writing is almost indecipherably blurred.

Just the Facts
Prairie Fires relies heavily on research – historical archives, preserved letters, journals, town meeting notes. Fraser’s attempt to provide a comprehensive view of the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder was clearly successful. I appreciated the context that she gives many of the section of the book, pausing the tale to explain the economic or political impact of a drought or cicada infestation in a broader scope. In the places where facts are simply not available, Fraser explains the absence of records and why. What we end up with is an incredibly informative picture of not only Wilder but the American West and what it was like to live through an intense period of world change. Spanning the American Civil War through World War II, the effect that these events had on Wilder and her daughter are demonstrated in biographical context as well as the impact these events had on the development of Little House. Even in spaces where I wished the truth was different, so that my impossible version of Wilder could remain intact, I appreciated how Fraser handled the facts.

 

Recommendation
Prairie Fires is a well researched book that does a fabulous job painting a true picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you treasure the Little House books, be cautioned that some of your memories and optimism about their author might be dashed. This book is great for American history lovers, since it does side track a little to give historical context, explain the political climate of the times, and set Wilders experience in the context of other writers. There is also some great insight into what went into publishing a book series back in the early 1900s. What this book may not do is inspire you to reread the Little House series. I thought that I might, but now I think I will just hold onto the pleasant memory of being a young girl enjoying the story of another little girl experiencing adventure on the wide open prairie.

 

Star Rating
3 out of 5

An interesting story told with new insights, but missing some of the extra detail one would expect in a rather specifically focused biography.

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