Historian Caroline Fraser details the astounding – and Pulitzer Prize–winning – story of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Pioneer Redemption
Biographer and historian Caroline Fraser, editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series, explains that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie novels depict a loving 19th-century American pioneer family whose members remain stalwart and hopeful in the face of unrelenting hardship. Wilder’s books became children’s classics and an excellent television series.
Over time, Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane asserted the truthfulness of every detail, but Fraser uncovers a different story, showing how Wilder’s daughter used these tales for her own purposes.
This remarkable Pulitzer Prize–winning biography will captivate historians of the American West, lovers of the Little House series, and – as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s later life emerges – those interested in family dynamics and in Rose Wilder Lane’s contribution to libertarianism.
Americans wanted to believe that grit, spunk and the strength of their own ax-wielding arms had raised a democracy in the wilderness.Caroline Fraser
Prairie Fires won the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction. The New York Times Book Review named it one of 10 Best Books of the Year. Booklist called it, “Unforgettable…A magisterial biography, which surely must be called definitive.” The New York Times Book Review found it, “An absorbing new biography [that] deserves recognition as an essential text.”
Fraser admires the way that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series reflects the history of farmers, pioneers and families in the American West. The Ingalls family, Fraser relates, homesteaded across the west and mid-west, living in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.
Fraser makes it clear that economic failure drove the Ingalls family’s travels. In 1853, Charles Ingalls moved to Wisconsin where he married Caroline Lake Quiner. They migrated to Big Woods in Pepin County, where Laura was born. Pepin County, Fraser relates, was the setting of her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.
Laura Ingalls Wilder transformed poverty into pride, showing readers the heroism of endurance.Caroline Fraser
Fraser follows the family when, in 1879, they pursued “the Dakota Boom” to homestead on the bleak high plains. The author lays bare the myths of homesteading: Fewer than 50% of homesteading families succeeded. Fraser marvels at how hardy frontier families inspired towering writers, such as L. Frank Baum and Willa Cather.
Fraser reports that Wilder omitted many – but not all – of her family’s difficult times from her tales. The books’ increasing popularity, Fraser reveals, brought closer scrutiny from experts who disputed certain details. But – and here lies the crux of Fraser’s tale – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane insisted the stories were entirely true.
Ingalls married wheat buyer Almanzo Wilder and, as Fraser chronicles, Almanzo built the house where their daughter Rose was born. But, as with Ingalls’s parents, the land they had couldn’t support sufficient crops to make a living, and the Wilders sank into debt. Almanzo suffered what Fraser describes as a stroke that disabled him for life. Compounding the misery, Laura lost her second baby, their house burned down and circumstances forced them to live a nomadic life. When they settled in Missouri, Laura began writing short pieces in 1902. Rose, then a teenager, did the same.
In 1930, Fraser reports that Rose Lane edited Laura Wilder’s first book, Pioneer Girl, submitted it for publication and secured a contract for Little House in the Big Woods. Fraser clarifies that Lane served as Wilder’s uncredited editor.
As for Lane, as for many tabloid journalists of the time, there was little distinction between fact-based reporting and pure invention.Caroline Fraser
Fraser learned that Lane wrote her own works based on her mother’s family stories. The author stresses that the “editorial relationship” between Wilder and Lane was not public knowledge. This led to some – Fraser includes Lane’s biographer William Holtz among them – claiming that Lane wrote the Little House books. But Fraser studied Wilder’s original manuscripts and supports the authenticity of Wilder’s authorship. Fraser’s research and measured tone are impressive; they speak to her scholarship and objectivity, and make this work the definitive history of the Little House books.
Fraser presents Rose Wilder as a fantasist, writing stories for The San Francisco Call full of exaggerations and lies. Wilder also wrote highly fabricated biographies of famous men. Fraser depicts Lane’s mental instability and her nervous breakdown after the 1929 stock market crash.
The Dust Bowl was no act of God or freak accident of nature. It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time.Caroline Fraser
The author cites “Credo,” Lane’s first political essay, in which Lane praised individualism and Mussolini. With great deftness, Fraser places Lane’s growing conservatism in the political climate of her time. She paints an accessible portrait of a complex era and gives readers deep context for Lane and her work.
Lane was with Laura Ingalls Wilder when she died on February 10, 1957. Fraser underscores that Wilder willed her literary copyrights and royalties to Lane and – after Lane’s death – to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Library in Mansfield. Lane died in 1968 and was buried next to her parents. Lane’s protégé, Roger MacBride, a conservative politician, was her heir. And, as Fraser discloses, he thwarted Wilder’s wishes, assumed control over her intellectual property, and, in 1971, licensed what became a hit television show.
Fraser believes Wilder wrote the Little House books to memorialize her parents, her childhood and an early chapter in American history. Amid the ownership disputes and family turmoil, Fraser supports the value of these tenderly written, evocative stories and details the almost incredible hardships both women faced and how those tough times shaped them as writers and people. Fraser presents a compelling tale, well told. She concludes that though other people tried to mold the Little House stories to their purposes, the purity and simplicity of Wilder’s books endure.
Caroline Fraser also wrote Rewilding the World and God’s Perfect Child. Those who are drawn to Laura Ingalls Wilder might enjoy her autobiography Pioneer Girl and her book, On the Way Home, as well as the books in the Little House series.