I was a huge fan of everything Little House when I was a kid. I read the books over and over, and I watched the television series. This past year, I've been diving back into that world. I've been reading the books aloud with my daughter, but I've also been taking a more nuanced look at the world presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder. First, I read (and loved) Caroline: Little House, Revisited (Ma's fictional perspective on the Little House on the Prairie story), and then I dove into the true story with this detailed biography.
There are parts of Prairie Fires that read like a history textbook; the book is long, and it can get quite dry. It presents the broader historical context in which the Ingalls and Wilder families lived, and that included things like farm loans, railroads, crop pricing, and politics.
At the same time, when the book circles back to the families, it makes clear how these things affected their lives and decisions. As a reader of the books, it was gratifying to learn that many of the events actually happened--but also interesting as an adult to learn of the ommissions, both of events and of character flaws. Most illuminating was the incessant devastation that occurred through their lives: fires, grasshoppers, storms, illness--and ongoing poverty that resulted. While these things were present in the books, the reality of them is a contrast to the idyllic lives we remember.
The later years of Wilder's life were also fascinating--especially her relationship with her volatile daughter, Rose. Their partnership brought the books we love to life, but they would have been quite different without both Laura's measured approach and Rose's editing talent and flair for the dramatic (inserted sparingly, thanks to her mother's reserve). Rose herself is an interesting character, and there were moments when the author seemed to question her sanity. Laura's husband, Almanzo, unfortunately, is not a strong presence. The author drew heavily from the letters and writing of the women, and he was not a writer.
While I enjoyed this biography, because of the length and level of detail, I would only recommend this to other avid fans of the Little House books.
This post may include affiliate links. That means if you click and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD
ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW‘S 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books
Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls―the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser―the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series―masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder’s tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.
The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading―and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.
Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.