Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser


I was ever so slightly nervous about reading this, because I was worried that it was going to be negative about my beloved Little House books; but, fortunately, it wasn’t.  What it did was to set them into a historical context, both in terms of when they were set and when they were published, untangle some of the myths from the realities – although not in the same detail that Pioneer Girl did – , tell us more about the Ingalls/Wilder family’s history before and after about the books (although there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose Wilder Lane), make a number of points about the unintentional but severe damage done to the environment by the homesteaders, dispel the idea that it was actually Rose, not Laura, who wrote the books, and discuss how the books not only have a significant place in American culture but have helped to create it. The irony of it all is that the American Dream of independent landownership didn’t work for Laura and her family, but that she created a different American Dream in and by becoming one of the best-selling and best-loved American authors of all time.

I first read the Little House books as a young child in the early 1980s, so I didn’t really get the effect that they might have had on readers at the time of publication, who were living through the Depression and the Second World War; and I’d never really thought about it that much. Nor did I watch the TV series. I don’t know why, when I’ve always loved the books so much, but it was more of a ‘70s thing than an ‘80s thing, although it was still being shown in the ‘80s. And the idea of the wholesomeness of the pioneer lifestyle being an antidote to the shock of Watergate wouldn’t really have applied outside the US anyway. So there was a lot in this book which, in nearly 40 years of reading the series, had never really crossed my mind before. What I have thought about a lot over the years, since I was 11 and got really into 19th century American history – thanks largely to Patrick Swayze in the mini-series of North and South – was how the books fitted into the context of the period of history during which they’re actually set.

A lot has been said about the issues of the effects of the Homestead Act on Native Americans, and how, even when so much other land had been opened up to white settlers with little regard to the fate of those people already living there, the Ingalls family and others still built houses in the few areas left as designated “Indian Territory”. I’m not going to say it all again, but obviously it does need to be mentioned (in case anyone’s reading this). I’ve said all I’ve got to say here. Caroline Fraser does address the issue, but her focus is more on the idea of the American Dream of independent landownership, the idea that went back to Jeffersonian democracy. This idea of the independent little man or woman still lingers on: there’s still the idea that the American War of Independence was won by a load of small farmers, and there’s still the idea of the romantic West. “Go West, life is peaceful there. Go West, in the open air.”

Yes, I know that the Pet Shop Boys have got nothing to do with American pioneers, but I like their lyrics! And, theoretically, “going West” was for everyone. Former slaves could put in claims on homesteads. So could single women, like Eliza Jane Wilder. So could recent immigrants who’d applied for citizenship: several Scandinavian families are mentioned in the books. It did sound like a dream. “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm,” as Pa sang.

But it all went pretty horribly wrong, especially for Laura and her family, and that’s what much of this book is about. That sounds miserable. It’s not a miserable book, but … well, they didn’t half have some bad luck. The weather didn’t help. All those droughts. The Long Winter. And the locusts. Every time I hear locusts mentioned, I think of Laura. How soul-destroying to have your crops just wiped out like that, before your very eyes, and with nothing you could do about it. Laura’s family were particularly unlucky, having to contend not only with that but with Mary losing her sight – although I always find their care for Mary, and how hard they worked to make sure that she was able to go to college, one of the greatest positives of the books – and then Almanzo, strong, super-fit Almanzo, suffering an illness which left him permanently debilitated and unable to do heavy manual labour.

I always think of Laura as “Laura”, incidentally.  The book generally refers to her as “Wilder”.  I found that vaguely irritating, even though I suppose it looked a lot more professional than using her first name.  But maybe that’s just me.  She will always be “Laura” to me.

The book devotes a lot of space to environmental issues, which are obviously very topical at the moment. The title, “Prairie Fires”, refers to a major wildfire which spread through Wisconsin in 1871 and killed around 1,500 people, and a lot of attention is paid to the long-term problems caused by farmers removing the crucial layer of topsoil across the mid-West – which, ultimately, led to the Dust Bowl nightmare of the 1930s. And it was in that context, the Depression and the Dust Bowl, that the books were written, and the point that Caroline Fraser’s making is that that’s as important in understanding the books as a knowledge of the 1870s and 1880s is. From Laura’s own point of view, there was the basic issue of needing to earn some money, after she and Almanzo lost what little savings they had following the Wall Street Crash, but the appeal of the books was rooted in those years – a nostalgia for a romanticised era of pioneering and open prairies, and the steadfastness of people who struggled through one hardship after another and kept going. Bizarrely, The Long Winter apparently became very popular in immediate post-war Japan. I find it rather odd that people in immediate post-war Japan would have wanted to read American books, but the US Army decided that a children’s book about overcoming hardship would appeal to the Japanese as they tried to rebuild their country after years of war, defeat, and two atomic bombs, and it did!

The point’s also made that Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, which are far more upbeat, were published during the war – and also that Oklahoma, another story about the romantic West, opened during the war years as well. Again, they were providing nostalgia, but it was a different sort of nostalgia, more suited to wartime. I don’t know how much of that was a happy coincidence, though. As the book says, Laura must have found it very difficult writing about the bad times in the middle books of the series, and she was probably very glad to get on to the days of name cards, autograph albums, Cap Garland’s party, and sleigh rides with Almanzo. I never really thought of Almanzo as a romantic hero when I first read the books, but he is, isn’t he? Going all the way to the Brewsters’ and back, every weekend, in the snow and ice, to bring Laura home, and then taking her back again? That’s impressive!

The series should really have ended there. Caroline Fraser clearly very much feels, and I agree, that writing about her family’s experiences helped Laura to lay some ghosts about the bad times, and that she wanted the series to end on a happy note, with her marriage to Almanzo. Admittedly it’s not the most cheerful of weddings – it always upsets me that Ma, Pa and Laura’s sisters weren’t there – but it’s a traditional happy ending. The First Four Years, which was only ever published so that Roger McBride, the rather unpleasant character who ended up with the copyright to the books, could make money from it, is so bleak.

It’s real, though – and, as Pioneer Girl explained, a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood were missed out of the earlier books, including the death of her brother, who isn’t even mentioned, the period that the Ingalls family spent working at a rather dodgy-sounding saloon, a man coming into her bedroom, Mrs Brewster threatening her husband with a knife, and a neighbour wanting Laura’s parents to sell her to them into what would now be termed modern slavery. A lot of that couldn’t have been included in children’s books even if Laura had wanted it in, but it doesn’t seem that she did … and that worked both for her and for America.

For Laura, it meant that she didn’t have to criticise her beloved Pa for getting them into another fine mess. OK, Pa was not to blame for the economic and environmental disasters, but he undoubtedly made some poor decisions. Even with the books as they are, the more I read them, the less sympathy I have for his “itchy feet” and the more sympathy I have for Ma. From America’s viewpoint, it meant that American children’s literature got a series of much-loved books which show a loving family of brave pioneers, heading ever westwards, overcoming disaster and reaching a happy ending.

It’s very sad that, 50 years later, the Ingalls family were still struggling … although so were most people during the Depression. It certainly hit my neck of the woods, Northern England, very hard, although at least people here didn’t have to contend with layers of dust on everything. Laura and Almanzo actually seem to have fared the best. Carrie was in such dire straits that she was reduced to writing to the Wilders to ask if they had any old clothes they could spare, and Grace and her husband went on a state aid programme which paid them to leave their land fallow. So much for the American Dream. But then that’s how it goes. Boom and bust. It’s just that the Ingalls family seemed to get precious little boom, even during the years of the Dakota Boom.

I know it’s daft, but somehow I always have it in my head that anyone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower must be living in a mansion in Beacon Hill or uptown New York. I have no idea why I think that: it’s completely illogical! I do find it fascinating that Laura had an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower, though. The book does include quite a bit about the history of the Ingalls family, although very little about Ma’s family, the Quiners. There never seems to be much information available about the Quiners. I’m sure someone would have found it if there was. And I also find it interesting that Laura was a distant relative of Franklin Roosevelt … especially as both she and her daughter Rose seem to have had it in for him.

There is a lot about Rose Wilder Lane in this book. I could have done without most of it. Rose is a very interesting character in her own right, and one who led a very interesting life, but the book was supposed to be about “the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, not the life, times and political views of Rose Wilder Lane. I never find Rose a very appealing character, and Caroline Fraser clearly can’t stand her, so I don’t know why she wanted to include so much about her. Maybe it was to reiterate the point that it was Laura, not Rose, who was primarily responsible for writing the books. Maybe she just felt that she didn’t have enough to say about Laura without including Rose too.

If you want to read all about Rose and her political views, you will find plenty to read about in here. She apparently said that the Second Amendment gave people the right to take up arms to overthrow their own government. And that wartime rationing was economic slavery and that she wanted no truck with it … whilst busily stockpiling food, presumably with no thought for the fact that other people might also have wished to be able to eat.

And that is another big theme of the book – “small government”. Rose was very into “libertarianism”, and so, to some extent, was Laura. They were not impressed with the New Deal and the idea of government intervention. So, how, and to what extent, does this tie in with the idea of the American Dream of being an independent small-scale landowner?

OK. I love the United States. I love American history. But I do not get the frontier theory. I do not get the idea of uniqueness. No offence, but I don’t. Even Rose’s ranting about overthrowing the government is basically Hobbes and Locke and the idea of the social contract. That’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s not something that started in the 1770s, and it’s certainly not about the 1930s. And Laura’s freedom epiphany thing in Little Town on the Prairie, when she talks about there being no king above Pa. Well, no, but there was a president. And it’s not as if Queen Victoria or the Kaiser or the Tsar were breathing down the necks of small farmers. And laissez-faire – well, without writing an essay on Manchester economics or the Anti Corn Law League, or the rows in Victorian British politics over whether or not to make education compulsory, that’s hardly a uniquely American thing or anything to do with the frontier. So I’m afraid I just don’t get the “uniqueness” theory.  I love America.  I just don’t get that particular theory.

Moving on from the idea of uniqueness, what about the idea of freedom and small government generally? Well … what Laura says, in her freedom epiphany moment, is that it’s about the freedom to be good. Well, yes, but, unfortunately, the theory doesn’t work. Take the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Very little in the way of Factory Acts/what would now be called health and safety legislation in the US in 1911. Doors to the stairwells and the exits were locked, to stop workers, mostly female immigrants with no-one in high places to speak up for them, from getting out even for “comfort breaks”. 146 people were killed. Take the appalling accommodation in which most of them had probably been living. What use was the “freedom to be good” to them? Their landlords and their employers had the freedom to be good, but they also had the freedom to exploit. I know all the theories about how society, left to it, will work towards the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but, unfortunately, they don’t work. I certainly can’t be doing with nanny states telling me what to eat and what to drink, but things in the 1930s were so bad that I think Roosevelt had to act. Anyway, that’s my two penn’orth!

Incidentally, one of the first things that Roosevelt did was to take steps to try to conserve soil in the prairie states.  Nothing had been done about it until then.

Did libertarianism have a big impact on the Laura’s books? I’m not entirely convinced that it did.  They’re not really political, apart from that one Fourth of July celebration – which, incidentally, convinced my very young self that all American schoolchildren knew the Declaration of Independence off by heart!   No-one sits around discussing whether or not the government should help those affected by the locust swarms, or whether someone from outside should be trying to get food supplies to the residents of De Smet during the Long Winter.  The subject just doesn’t arise.

Of course, without the Homestead Act, and without the railways, they wouldn’t have been Going West anyway …

The Homestead Act was meant to offer an American Dream, but, for the Ingalls family and many others, it was just one long struggle. They may very well have done better to have stayed in Wisconsin. And yet, because of Laura, there’s this idea that the pioneering lifestyle was something truly wonderful. How did she do it? She may have glossed over a lot of things, but the books are hardly sanitised and romanticised: the Ingalls family goes through some very hard times. And they’re not profound, either: the early ones, in particular, are written in very simplistic language, for very young children. You don’t study them for school exams. They haven’t been re-interpreted over and over again, and made into umpteen different films, like Little Women has. And yet they’re so important in American culture, they’re popular worldwide, and they have helped to shape the popular view of a time and a place. Whatever the current debates over the books, that’s an immense achievement. It wasn’t the American Dream that the Ingalls family set out to live, but it’s an amazing one.

Gosh, that was a lot of waffle, wasn’t it?  If anyone’s actually read all that, thank you so much, and please let me know!  And the fact that I have written all that just says how much I enjoyed this book.  It’s not always easy to read a scholarly book about childhood favourite books and authors, but, even if there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose, I’m very glad to have read this one.