How much do you know about Laura Ingalls Wilder? If you’ve only read her Little House books and/or watched Little House on the Prairie on television, you probably don’t know as much as you think you do. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder explores the life of the beloved author (as well as that of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane). Shedding light on little-known facts about the Ingalls and Wilder families—as well as the history of the times they lived in—will allow Little House fans to understand Laura in ways they never imagined.
What I Liked
At 640 pages, Prairie Fires is a BIG book—a tome, if you will—and I was as excited about that as I was about the subject matter. It’s been a while since I indulged myself in a lengthy read, so I was looking forward to spending some quality time with this book. It needed every single one of those 640 pages, because there was a lot of fascinating material covered in this book. It isn’t a book solely about Laura—in order to get a better understanding of her life, Fraser included bits of history throughout that allows the reader to have a complete picture of what things were like during a particular time. The amateur history buff in me adored reading those portions, because I love learning about history.
I loved learning things about Laura I never knew, such as finding out she was a descendant of Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier—hanged as a “witch” during the Salem Witch Trials. Another fascinating tidbit was about her uncle, Tom Quiner, who in 1874 ventured into the Black Hills—part of the Great Sioux Reservation established by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868—inciting the gold rush that would ultimately culminate in the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
It’s simply not possible for me to write about everything I liked about this book, because there are far too many things to list. Suffice to say that I was thoroughly engrossed as I read, and finished reading with a greater knowledge of who Laura Ingalls Wilder truly was—flaws and all.
What I Didn’t Like
Hmm. Well, I can tell you one thing: I definitely do NOT like the fact that I don’t have a hardcover edition of this book sitting in a place of prominence on my shelves! I shall have to give myself a stern talking-to about it, and hang my head in shame for failing to acquire it, because—obviously—my shelves demand to be adorned by a copy of this wonderful book!
What do you mean it doesn’t count?! It’s all I’ve got!
Okay. FINE. There is nothing I didn’t like about this book. Now, go engage the Borg or something, will ya, Captain? I hear they want Locutus back…
(I have no idea where all that came from, but it amuses me, so I’m going to leave it in the review. Ha!)
Fraser’s impressive research is evident throughout, and makes for a captivating read. Relevant historical information is seamlessly blended in with the biographical aspects of the book, and that information serves to enrich the reading experience and provides clarity for matters that the modern reader may not fully grasp without that lens into the past.
I feel this is a book every Wilder fan would enjoy reading, and I highly recommend it not only to them, but to any reader who has an avid interest in the history of homesteading pioneers in America.
A word of caution, however, for Little House fans—Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote beautiful stories that we all treasure, but she was only human, and had her share of foibles and flaws, as we all do. Like anyone, if she’s been put on a pedestal, she will tumble to the ground… so don’t be surprised if you find she had certain attitudes about things that you find disagreeable.
About the Book
The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books
One of The New York Times Book Review‘s 10 Best Books of the Year
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.
About the Author
CAROLINE FRASER was born in Seattle and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American literature. Formerly on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, she is the author of two nonfiction books, God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church and Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, both published by Henry Holt’s Metropolitan Books.
She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine, and The London Review of Books, among other publications. She has received a PEN Award for Best Young Writer and was a past recipient of the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writer’s Residency, awarded by PEN Northwest. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Hal Espen.