PRAIRIE FIRES

The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Caroline Fraser

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.

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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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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.

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  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • Hardcover
  • November 2017
  • 640 Pages
  • 9781627792769

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$35.00

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About Caroline Fraser

Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the author of Rewilding the World and God’s Perfect Child. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of BooksThe New YorkerThe Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in New Mexico.

Author Website

Praise

“An absorbing new biography [that] deserves recognition as an essential text…. For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading Prairie Fires will provide a lasting cure…. Meanwhile, ‘Little House’ devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth.”The New York Times Book Review (front page)

“Fraser’s meticulous biography has particular urgency today, as she unknots the threads of fact and fiction, of reality and myth, of mother and daughter…Prairie Fires is not only a work of rigorous scholarship, but it also portrays Wilder, and her daughter Rose, in ways that illuminate our society’s current crises and rifts.”—The New York Review of Books

“Important and meticulous biography… Complex and astonishing… A subtle, intelligent and quietly explosive study.”—Financial Times

Discussion Questions

1. Thanks to the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood is one of the most legendary in our literature. Discuss how the factual account of Laura Ingalls’s real childhood in Prairie Fires differs from the fiction. How does an understanding of Wilder’s life affect our perception of her work?

2. Fraser writes, “Wilder made history” (page 5). How is this true, and in what ways does the biography bear this out? Discuss how women made history in earlier eras and how female historical figures depart from traditional male spheres of politics, government, and the military. How do Wilder’s life and reputation differ, for example, from those of famous frontier icons such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett? How reluctant are we to acknowledge women as heroes and why?

3. Discuss the Dakota Boom of the late 1870s and 1880s. Why was it a bad idea for homesteaders to farm in Dakota Territory? Since the government knew about the arid nature of the Great Plains, why did it encourage settlement there?

4.  Discuss Laura and Almanzo’s courtship and early marriage. Why did they come together, and how were they compatible (or not)? How did the tensions that developed between them affect their later lives?

5. What kind of mother was Laura? How did her experience of caring for Rose compare to what we know of Caroline Ingalls’s mothering skills? How did Rose respond to the tragedies of her parents’ early married life—Almanzo’s illness and disability, their loss of a child, the house lost to fire—and how would it affect her later life and relationship to her parents?

6. In 1894, after failing to make a go of it in Dakota Territory, the Wilders joined a mass exodus out of the region, journeying to the “Land of the Big Red Apples” in the Missouri Ozarks. How would Laura’s exile from her family affect her, and why would she return to De Smet only once in the next couple of decades, for her father’s death? Why do you think she did not return to see her mother or her sister Mary?

7. Women’s clubs, farmers’ clubs, and book groups were crucial to the development of Wilder’s writing career. Does such networking still play a central role for urban and/or rural women?

8. Discuss Wilder’s development as a farm columnist—how did her writing for the Missouri Ruralist shape her ambitions and style?

9. Talk about how Rose Wilder Lane’s return to Rocky Ridge Farm in the 1920s and 1930s affected her life. Why did she build another house for her parents, after their successful completion of their own farmhouse? What do you think the Wilders thought of the Rock House?

10. Laura Ingalls Wilder worked for ten years for the National Farm Loan Association. So why did she object so vehemently to the New Deal programs designed to help farmers? Why was federal aid acceptable for her and not for others? If you were a rural farmer in the 1930s, how would you have felt about the federal government?

11. Do you see the in influence of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in Wilder’s memoir and the Little House books—and if so, how? Discuss the other, more personal events that led to her writing.

12. The way in which Wilder and Lane passed manuscripts back and forth between them has been described as a “collaboration.” It’s even been called “ghostwriting.” How would you describe it? Do you know of other daughter professional writing relationships?

13. How have perceptions of the Little House books changed over the years, or even over the course of your own life? How has Prairie Fires changed your perceptions?

Excerpt

Introduction

On a spring day in April of 1924, Laura Ingalls Wilder, a fifty-seven-year-old farm wife in the Missouri Ozarks, received a telegram from South Dakota. Her mother, Caroline Ingalls, had just died. Wilder hadn’t seen her for more than twenty years.

A few weeks later, still reeling, she wrote a brief note to be published in place of her regular column in a farm newspaper. Every woman in the world who has lost her mother will recognize the retrospective shadow of sorrow, regret, and crippling nostalgia that the news cast across her life. “Some of us have received such messages,” she said flatly. “Those who have not, one day will.”(1)

Then it all became too much to bear. “Memories!” she wrote. “We go thru life collecting them whether we will or not! Sometimes I wonder if they are our treasures in heaven or the consuming fires of torment when we carry them with us as we, too, pass on.”(2)

It was a startling public outburst for a woman in a small Missouri town known to her neighbors as reserved, poised, even withdrawn. She seemed anguished by her memories, willed and unwilled. The realization that she would be visited for the rest of her life by images of people and places she could never forget was dismaying to her. “They are with us forever,” she wrote, as if in disbelief.(3)

As children, we thought we knew her. She was the real-life pioneer girl who survived wildfires, tornadoes, malaria, blizzards, and near-starvation on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. She was the fierce, uncompromising tomboy who grew up to write famous books about her life: Little House in the Big WoodsFarmer BoyLittle House on the PrairieOn the Banks of Plum CreekBy the Shores of Silver LakeThe Long WinterLittle Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. She was the woman whose true-life stories went on to sell over sixty million copies in forty-five languages and were reincarnated in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the longest-running, most popular shows in television history, still in syndication.

But as adults, we have come to see that her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be fully told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts.

The third act was a long time in coming. At fifty-seven, Wilder was still far from becoming the emblematic figure of pioneer history. The woman whose life would become synonymous with the settlement of the West had spent most of her adult life living in the American South. She was not yet famous, had not yet written a book; the only writing she had published was her farm paper column. Anxious, she suffered from nerves and had a recurrent nightmare of walking down a “long, dark road” into obscure woods, the path of poverty.(4)

She prided herself on superior hen-raising skills and keeping an immaculate house. She worried about whether giving women the vote might lead to moral laxity. A product of rural life, she also stood outside it, questioning the iron drudgery of turn-of-the-century domestic expectations. She advised women to give up the exhausting ritual of spring cleaning.

She had a sharp temper and a dry humor, noting the resemblance of a yard full of swine to their owners. Judgmental of others, she could be humble, even self-excoriating. She was parsimonious to a fault, but when she went into town she dressed elegantly in full skirts, lace collars, and hats garlanded with feathers or flowers. She favored long, dangling earrings, fastening her blouses with a cameo brooch. She loved velvet.

She was not an intellectual, but she had an intellect. She had never graduated from high school, but had studied with passion and vigor the Independent Fifth Reader. She knew a song for every occasion and passages of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Tennyson, Scott, Swinburne, and the Brownings. Books took pride of place in her living room, on custom-built shelves beside a prized stone hearth.

As her fifties drew to a close, she stood at a turning point. The first act of her life was long over. Her childhood had been packed with drama and incident: Indian encounters, prairie fires, blizzards, a virtual compendium of American frontier life. Growing up, she could count her possessions on her fingers. One tin cup. One slate, for school. One hair ribbon. A doll her mother made her. Clothes and shoes were hand-me-downs: a good dress for Sundays, another for all the other days. She married at eighteen and was a mother a year later.

By the age of twenty-one, she knew that everything she had ever had, no matter how hard-won, held the capacity to be lost. After a series of disasters, she and her husband left the Dakotas to rebuild seven hundred miles south, a long climb out of poverty constituting her life’s second act. She took in boarders and waited on tables. Her husband, crippled by a stroke in his twenties, recovered enough to drive a wagon, delivering fuel and freight. Their daughter, Rose, left home when still a teenager, eventually becoming a celebrity biographer in San Francisco. As soon as she saw the easy money to be made selling inspirational life stories of men as self-made as she was—Henry Ford, Jack London, Herbert Hoover—she began urging her mother to join her in the writing trade.

Wilder would become one of the self-made Americans her daughter so admired. In the third act of her life, in the midst of the Great Depression, she began recording, in soft pencil on tablets from the dime store, a memoir of her youth, the story of homesteaders who had unwittingly caused the Dust Bowl she was living through. Painfully casting her mind back to the previous century, she pressed on, kept awake all night by remembering her family’s misfortunes and failed crops, her sister falling ill and going blind. What had been punishing to survive was heartbreaking to relive. “It’s H—,” she wrote to her daughter, taught never to swear.(5)

Rose once jotted down a quotation she attributed to her mother: “I don’t know which is more heartbreaking, a dream un[ful]filled or a dream realized.”(6) She would help her mother realize a dream, bringing her professional connections and polish to the work, adding touches of cozy security to the hard reality. But it was her mother’s stoic vision of pioneer grit that prevailed.

Wilder’s perseverance gave rise to one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories in American letters. On the brink of old age, fearing the loss of everything in the Depression, Wilder reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting. Her gently triumphal revision of homesteading would convince generations that the American farm was a model of self-sufficiency. At the same time, it would hint at the complex realities behind homesteading, suggesting that it broke more lives than it sustained.

Living most of her life in poverty, Wilder survived long enough to become a wealthy woman, a legend in children’s literature, and a treasured incarnation of American tenacity. But fame obscures as it reveals. Swamped in pious sentimentality, dimmed and blurred by the marketing of the myth, Wilder has become a caricature, a brand, a commodity. In addition to the hit television show, the Little House series has given rise to scores of adaptations in print, on stage, and on screen—including a Japanese anime version—and a welter of songbooks, cookbooks, sequels, and chat sites. There are licensed dolls, clothes, fabrics, and, inevitably, sunbonnets.

The real woman was not a caricature. Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine. She hinted as much when she said, in a speech, “All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.”(7)

The truth comes clear when we see Wilder as part of a wider history. Her story is the story of an era, which is present in her books but gets subsumed in their charm, their immersion in a child’s world. When we set her life against epic movements—the Homestead Act, the spread of railroads, the closing of the frontier—we can see how economic depression and environmental disaster propelled settlers farther out on the Plains than they ever should have gone, how fear of massacre drove the squatters’ rationale, how debt and drought kept farmers locked in recurrent waves of boom and bust.

Wilder made history. Sealing her themes inside an unassailably innocent vessel, a novelistic Trojan horse for complex and ambiguous reactions to manifest destiny, wilderness, self-reliance, and changing views of women’s roles outside the home, her books have exercised more influence, across a wider segment of society, than the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, which held that American democracy was shaped by settlers conquering the frontier. Their place in our culture continues to evolve. Unfolding in the heartland of Indian removal, Wilder’s life and her re-creation of it became a lasting expression and subterranean critique of America’s harshest philosophies. She has become one of the national figures by which we take the measure of pioneer women.

“Often, if you want to write about women in history,” the novelist Hilary Mantel has said, “you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do.”(8) But when it comes to Wilder, we don’t have to pretend.

In the breadth of its impact, Wilder’s work—even in its bowdlerized, co-opted versions—has few parallels. It has shaped and inspired politicians across the decades. The second heir to the Little House fortune, Roger MacBride, ran for president as a Libertarian. Ronald Reagan wept over his TV tray in the White House watching his friend Michael Landon enact a blow-dried Simi Valley version of Wilder’s homespun pioneer values.9 Little House on the Prairie is the one book Sarah Palin’s family could remember her reading as a child.10 Saddam Hussein is said to have been a fan.11

Greater than any such incidental endorsement has been Wilder’s quieter influence on generations of schoolchildren. On Publishers Weekly’s list of the bestselling children’s books of all time, Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie are in the top twenty.12 John Steinbeck would become America’s lamenter of Dust Bowl destitution—and Woody Guthrie its anarchic troubadour—but Wilder staked out a place as champion of the simple life. She transformed poverty into pride, showing readers the heroism of endurance. With Shaker-like purity, she celebrated every day under shelter, every warm fire, and every mouthful of nourishment, no matter how modest. Not by accident are her books about “little” houses. They are also about making the best of little food and fewer choices.

If the fiction was gauzier than the reality, that was because it was inspired by her devotion to her parents. Every word Wilder wrote would be grounded in the satisfaction of simple pleasures she discovered through them: a song, a carpet of wildflowers, a floor swept clean. Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich. That too formed a powerful part of her mythology.

In 1856, a family came to far western Wisconsin, the edge of the frontier, in a covered wagon. As a descendant later recalled, they had heard from “friendly Indians” about an “Eden-like valley of great fertility” near the Mississippi. Their arrival was akin to something out of Genesis:

In the morning they awoke to a very beautiful sight. Surely this was the Eden-like land the Indians had told them about. It was then just a little place in the wilderness, remote from any road and without buildings. There were plenty of trees, however; one, which stood in the farm yard until a few short years ago, was the same tree under which the family continued to camp until they could erect a log house.13

Their names were Eva and August, and they were my great-great-great-grandparents. They bought land in Buffalo County, about fifty miles as the crow flies from where the Ingalls family would settle a few years later. They arrived with four children and a cattle dog, but the dog ran all the way back to Muskego. Their land patent bore the name of President Andrew Johnson.

One of their daughters was named Caroline. I have her name and her quilt: appliqued flowers on a white field, pink and yellow calico blooming from curling green stems, all secured in thousands upon thousands of tiny, even stitches. She was sewing it around 1871, when Laura Ingalls was a youngster not far away.

There is a photograph of four generations of these Wisconsin women—Eva, Caroline, Della, and Marion—clinging to each other in front of a field of corn. A sepia flash of pale and distant faces. No one ever told the rest of the story. Who were they, really? What happened to the friendly Indians, and the wilderness, and the farm, and the family? What happened to the cattle dog? What happened to Eden?

The quilt keeps its mute counsel in a closet. But Laura Ingalls Wilder saved her quilts and her stories. In a heroic effort late in life, she gave those stories to the world. With the same exasperated patience that her mother instilled in her as a child, learning to sew a nine-patch quilt, she sat down and wrote—what she remembered, what she wanted to remember. For those of us seeking to understand the settlement of the frontier, she offers a path, perhaps our best path, to the past.

1. Laura Ingalls Wilder, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” Missouri Ruralist, June 1, 1924.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. LIW to RWL, March 17, 1939. William Anderson, ed., The Selected Letters of LIW (New York: Harper, 2016), p. 194.

5. Ibid., February 5, 1937, p. 110.

6. RWL Papers, HHPL, Diaries and Notes Series, Item #6, unpaginated.

7. LIW, “Speech at the Book Fair, Detroit, Michigan, October 16, 1937,” in LIW: The Little House Books, vol. 1, Appendix, p. 588.

8. Hilary Mantel, “Royal Bodies,” London Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 4 (February 21, 2013), p. 6.

9. Michael Kramer, “When Reagan Spoke from the Heart,” New York Magazine, July 21, 1980, p. 18.

10. Monica Davey, “Little-Noticed College Student to Star Politician,” New York Times, October 23, 2008.

11. Alison Arngrim, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated(New York: HarperCollins It Books, 2010), p. xii. Arngrim heard of Hussein’s fandom from actress Jayne Meadows, wife of comedian Steve Allen; see Gayle MacDonald, “Whoa Nellie,” Globe and Mail, June 16, 2010.

12. See, for example, “All-Time Bestselling Children’s Books,” ed. Diane Roback, compiled by Debbie Hochman, Publishers Weekly, December 17, 2001. All nine of Wilder’s titles appear on the paperback list, seven within the top fifty. The top seller, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935), appeared as number 12, with sales of 6,172,525; Little House in the Big Woods as number 13, with 6,140,525. According to PW’s 2001 calculations, Wilder’s total sales, in paperback, amounted to 37,615,483. Hardcover sales were dominated by illustrated books, such as those by Dr. Seuss, as well as the works of J. K. Rowling.

13. Mrs. Dean Helwig, “The Helwigs’ First Hundred Years in Buffalo County,” Mondovi Herald News, undated.

Copyright © 2017 by Caroline Fraser.

Interviews

Q. The Little House books are so ubiquitous in pop culture, many people feel like they know Laura Ingalls Wilder. How is her real life different than the one she portrayed in the books?

A. One of the reasons why I wanted to write this book is that I came to feel that “Laura” had almost been loved to death, sort of like a beloved doll or toy. Between the fictional “Laura” of the books and the even more heavily fictionalized girl of the TV show, we’ve tended to lose sight of the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person who was complicated and intense. She’s also someone whose life opens a window on everything from frontier history and the Plains Indian wars to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Her real life is even more remarkable than the story in her books, in some ways, which ended at age 18 with her marriage.

Q. When and why did you become interested in Wilder’s story?

A. I was a fan as a kid and read the books over and over. They were some of my favorites, especially The Long Winter, which I just loved. They’re so absorbing—a world unto themselves—and comforting. That isn’t true for all readers, of course, but that was my experience.

They meant a lot to me because my family came from immigrant farmers and covered wagon people—Swedes and Norwegians on my mother’s side, who farmed in Minnesota and North Dakota—and Germans on my father’s side, who farmed about 50 miles from Pepin, Wisconsin, where Laura was born. So Laura’s story felt like my story, somehow—and I know that generations of other readers felt the same way.

I started writing about Wilder in the early 1990s, when a biography of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was published—it claimed that Rose was the ghost writer of the Little House books. I was curious and kind of skeptical about that, so I started looking at Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts. And I ended up writing a long piece about Wilder for The New York Review of Books. Eventually I edited the Library of America’s two-volume edition of the Little House books and found the history so fascinating I didn’t want to stop.

Q. Are the Little House books children’s literature? Are they under appreciated?

A. Of course they’re children’s literature, but there’s a wide adult readership too, from the kind of fans who go to “LauraPalooza”—a conference about all things Laura—to literary scholars, feminists, and historians. Whether you find them an inspiration or a provocation, they’re a part of our history. So I think they inhabit a place in our culture that’s similar to the place occupied by Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. They may have been written for kids originally, but they’ve transcended the audience they were intended for.

Q. What was the most surprising discovery you made during your research for Prairie Fires?

A. There were a lot of surprises, including pretty basic things, such as the realization of the fact that Wilder—who is so strongly associated with the West—spent most of her adult life in the American South. That became very clear to me when I went to the Ozarks and Mansfield, Missouri for the first  time. I don’t think the South influenced her work, per se, but I do believe that her long exile from her family in the Dakotas helped to inspire the nostalgia for her past in the Little House books. And that was huge.

Another startling discovery was the fact that Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a notorious yellow journalist, who taught her mother the tricks of the trade. Lane learned at the foot of a master, Fremont Older, who was the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin and a friend of William Randolph Hearst’s. Lane wrote the invented “autobiography” of Charlie Chaplin—he threatened to sue her when she tried to publish it as a book—as well as dubious biographies of Henry Ford, Jack London, and Herbert Hoover. The fact that Wilder was influenced by this is shown by one of the very tall tales she told in her famous 1937 Detroit book fair speech, in which she claimed that her father was involved in hunting and executing the “Bloody Benders,” who were serial killers on the Great Plains. The Benders were real, but her father’s exploits weren’t. It’s interesting because Wilder would insist—in that speech and elsewhere—that her books (although published as novels!) were “all true.”

Q. Why was Wilder’s relationship with her daughter Rose so fraught?

A. Rose is just a fascinating character in her own right—colorful, driven, immensely talented and also kind of tortured. For many years, she was more well known as a writer than her mother— she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and a lot of national magazines. She almost bullied her mother to write the Little House books, and it’s clear that they would not have been published without Rose, her professional connections, her editing, and her guidance. I think one of the stories within a story of Prairie Fires is the drama of the relationship between these two women. It’s kind of unprecedented: I can’t think of another mother/daughter literary collaboration like it. It was kind of a battle between the two of them over whose vision and voice was going to prevail. Rose even went so far as to write two novels based on her mother’s material (which Laura did not appreciate). But it was Laura whose voice won out, because she was so authentic. And it was her story.

Their relationship suffered due to their collaboration, I think. Rose, who had lived on her parents’ farm for years, ended up moving east, and didn’t see her father for years before he died. There was a lot of tension there, never resolved. It’s kind of ironic that the Little House books, which are so wonderful in portraying this close-knit, loving family, came from such a dysfunctional relationship.

Q. What did Wilder think about the expansion of the world of the Little House books into popular culture (movies, TV, toys, etc.)?

A. Virtually all of the adaptations for lm and TV happened after Wilder died, in 1957. Wilder never owned a television, and she told a friend that she didn’t like the one adaptation she saw, of The Long Winter.

The famous long-running TV show starring (and produced and directed by) Michael Landon didn’t come along until after Wilder and her daughter were both gone. Rose’s heir, Roger MacBride, optioned the TV rights several years before he ran for president, in 1976. MacBride, of course, never met and was not related to Wilder, and I have to think she would have been horrified at the liberties that were taken on that show. She fictionalized her life to some extent, but always tried to be true to her memories. Wilder wasn’t completely opposed to products being developed from the books—there was a plan she approved, at one point, for a clothing line tied to the books. But it never happened.

Q. Could you please talk about Laura’s feelings about the land of the Great Plains and what it meant to her?

A. Laura loved wilderness, open space, solitude, and above all the prairies. And that feeling lifts the Little House books beyond mere storytelling or adventure and gives them a lot of their resonance. I’ve written before about the relationship between Wilder’s descriptions of wildlife and wilderness and the classic American treatment of those topics in Emerson and Thoreau and Willa Cather—she’s a classic part of that tradition.

Q. What was Wilder’s experience with the Native Americans who shared the land with her family as she was growing up? Did this differ from conventional views of other white settlers on the plains at that time?

A. As a child, Laura clearly feared Indians and was also deeply fascinated by them. And it has to be said that she knew nothing about Indian history or culture or even much about the specific role her family played in displacing the Osage. Her adult view is made up of racist and romantic stereotypes. The Indians in Little House on the Prairie are caricatures, not characters. That’s regrettable. But it also tells us a lot about white settlers and the prevailing attitudes. In Prairie Fires, I tried to bring out some of the historical context for white women’s fear of Indians, much of which had to be related to what Wilder called “the Minnesota massacre.” Now known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, it happened a few years before she was born but clearly influenced how whites saw Indians at that time. I think Wilder’s attitude did differ from the standard white view in one key respect, which is that she saw the similarity between Indians and white settlers. They both had to cope with the elements, which tended to foster a peculiar kind of stoicism, which she very much admired. She admired Indians’ ability to deal with whatever nature threw at you without whining or complaining or quitting. And she once said of a beautiful river on the Dakota Plains, “If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it.” Which was kind of extraordinary for a woman of her time.

Q. How did Wilder’s political views evolve over time?

A. Her father, Charles Ingalls, seems to have been a Populist, a political party that championed farmers and lobbied for changes they wanted. For much of her life, she and her husband were Democrats, but when the New Deal came along, all of that changed. In Prairie Fires, I describe her visceral loathing of FDR and the New Deal, which called for farmers to take land out of production and leave it fallow, and even to destroy existing crops and livestock, in order to stabilize the prices of commodities. I think most people now recognize that this had to be done, in order to do something about the economic emergency of the Great Depression. But rural farmers hated the whole thing. I have a lot of empathy for why Wilder felt the way she did, even though I might not agree with it. As a result of her reaction to the New Deal, she became quite conservative, along with her daughter Rose, who would adopt a far-right position that we’d now call Libertarian. Rose is often identified as one of several women who created the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. Wilder would remain a conservative for the rest of her life.

Q. What was Wilder’s relationship with her father like?

A. Wilder adored her father, and the feeling was clearly mutual. Laura’s sister Mary seems to have taken after her mother—she was quiet, patient, even pious. But Laura was more rambunctious, hot-tempered, and I think she identified with her father because they were so alike. They both loved solitude and adventure and wilderness. Charles Ingalls was fun-loving and musical and a great storyteller. He had an incredible gift for playing the fiddle, and though Laura never learned a musical instrument, she had an amazing recall for the songs he used to play. She was one of those people who had a song for every occasion. And they were both gifted writers—we don’t have a lot of letters written by Charles Ingalls, but the few things we do have are so moving and funny. There was one letter he wrote to his future son-in-law, Almanzo, and his brother Royal, when Almanzo and Laura were engaged—and he talks about the prairie winds and the blizzards, and how the wind makes his hair stand on end, just like in the Little House books.

Q. Was the depiction of life on the frontier in the Little House books accurate?

A. It seems to have been very accurate, up to a point. Wilder left a lot of things out, sometimes because she felt they weren’t appropriate for children. In the books published during her lifetime, she never even hinted at anything having to do with bodily functions or sexuality. She would have found that distasteful. But in the long unpublished manuscript she wrote about the first four years of her marriage, she wrote about childbirth in such vivid language that the editors cut some of it before the book came out. But she also left things out to burnish her story. She could describe vividly and memorably how her father built a log cabin or made bullets or cleaned his gun, but she ruthlessly cut entire chapters of their life that did not reflect well on her parents. When you look at Charles Ingalls’s actual life, there were a lot of struggles, debts, even a kind of aimless quality—and she glossed over all of that out. She wrote the Little House books as a memorial to her parents, and she didn’t want anything to take away from that. The result, of course, is that the Little House books promote this wonderful, successful image of settlement and homesteading. Much of it’s accurate. But the real story is way more complicated.

Essay

“That was such a happy supper that Laura never wanted it to end.”
–Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter

Incorporate snacks or a meal into your book club event with these ideas from Caroline Fraser, taken from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing!

For a winter meal, recreate the menu from Ben Woodworth’s 1882 birthday party—this was a real party and Wilder always kept the invitation, which is on display in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mans eld, Missouri. The party is described in Little Town on the Prairie and in Prairie Fires (p. 120):

an orange peeled to look like a flower (very exotic & rare on the prairie in late 1800s) at every place setting

Oyster soup with oyster crackers (obviously made with canned oysters & milk or cream)

Potato patties (mashed potatoes formed by hand into patties & fried “golden brown”)

“Hot, creamy, brown cod sh balls”

Tiny hot biscuits with butter

A whole frosted cake (eaten with sections of orange) & hot coffee

For a more summery menu, go with the foods Wilder wrote about serving to her guests when she took in boarders at their town house in Mans eld. This is described in Prairie Fires (p. 209), drawn from Wilder’s own essay “Summer Boarders,” in A Little House Reader, ed. by William Anderson (and quoted below):

Fresh salads made with “tender lettuce” from the garden, “arranged on pretty plates with a hard boiled egg cut in half to show the golden center and a little ball of cottage cheese” (which was doubtless homemade)

“The dressing for the salads I made myself of homemade cider vinegar, mustard, sugar, an egg, with pepper and salt”

Fried chicken

Corn bread or white or brown bread with dishes of butter

Pickles

“Fresh berries, peaches or other fruit with sugar and cream”

Since Almanzo was so fond of pie, it would be fun to include one, particularly on a summer menu!