Published: Nov. 20, 2017

Original article can be found at The New York Times  
Originally published on November 20, 2017 By Patty Limerick 

Stretched past its capacity by the tumultuous migrations and movements of the 19th century, that orderly term “westward expansion” is ready for a break. Rather than proceeding in a systematic march across a continent, a wild cast of characters — miners, farmers, ranchers, loggers — raced into the West, locating natural resources, extracting them and refining them into commodities to place on the market. “Westward explosion” might be the better phrase. 

As these resource rushes multiplied, thousands of Americans plunged into a parallel — and, by many measures, more rewarding and more consequential — form of extractive industry. Harvesting from the West an inestimable treasure of experiences and observations, these adventurers then refined this raw material into reminiscences, novels, diaries, letters, reports and tales of adventure, both actual and imagined. Since westward expansion coincided with the expansion of the print media, and since readers in the eastern United States had good reason to seek escape from the disturbing changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization, these exported cultural commodities found a receptive marketplace. Endowed with an improbable durability, this infrastructure of printed words retains much of its power to define the region. 

Caroline Fraser’s absorbing new biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other books about her childhood, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise. Charged by what Fraser calls a “unique ability to transform the raw material of the past into a work of art,” Wilder won for herself the status of a pre-eminent figure in the shaping of the myth of the West — that seductive collection of icons, images and articles of faith installed in millions of minds and souls worldwide. 

Western historians, even those who aspire to register as high achievers in the defiance of myth, have found their plans rearranged by the enduring Wilder legacy. In 2002, I gave a keynote speech at the White House, addressing Wilder’s work in a program on Western women writers hosted by the first lady, Laura Bush. Wilder’s books, I know from my visit to the East Room, have not been exiled to the periphery of the configurations of 21st-century United States power. 

Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder’s emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. 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. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. 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. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization. 

“Several farmers,” a Missouri newspaper noted around 1910, “and particularly those interested in poultry, have inquired who Mrs. A. J. Wilder is.” Though not a well-traveled path to literary success, writing columns for farm journals gave Wilder a source of income that would, in an arrangement still followed by many rural families, supplement the finances of the struggling farm where she lived with her husband, Almanzo, while also providing repeated opportunities to practice the craft of writing. Those little-known columns, drawn from the experience of raising chickens in Missouri, were the unlikely prelude to her books, mining the memories of a childhood of restless homesteading in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota. 

But it wasn’t until 1929 — when she was 62 years old, and the stock market crash had decimated her family’s small investments — that Wilder settled in to write “that ‘story of my life’ thing,” as her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, called it. And then, in an arrangement both she and her daughter seemed to understand and embrace, Wilder would pass these drafts on to Lane, who would tear into them, editing, adding and deleting. 

Tracking this process, Fraser puts an end to the persistent assumption that Lane was the ghostwriter of her mother’s books. Supported by the evidence she presents, Fraser declares, “Wilder’s writing was both uniquely her own and a product of collaboration with her daughter.” Wilder provided a base of plainspoken language and deeply felt storytelling; Lane embellished, shaped and “heightened the drama.” 

The first book in the “Little House” series began as a memoir that Wilder called “Pioneer Girl.” With revisions, subtractions and additions, Wilder and Lane worked through an obstacle course of reversed decisions by prospective publishers, as well as a shift in the target audience, from adults to children. “Little House in the Big Woods” crossed the finish line of publication in 1932, as “juvenile” literature. Receiving a “warm critical reception,” Fraser reports, “the book sold strongly.” 

As more books in the series appeared, the name Laura Ingalls Wilder came to acquire extraordinary cultural power. By the 1950s thousands of American children were “homesteading in their basements,” and the books had been translated into many languages. And then, in the 1970s, the actor Michael Landon and the medium of television took the name “Little House” to yet another level, commandeering Wilder’s legacy and reconfiguring her story lines and plots. 

Over the four decades after “Little House in the Big Woods” appeared, Rose Wilder Lane traveled back and forth from crippling depression to grandiosity, rage to aggressive helpfulness in a way that can’t help but suggest a hindsight diagnosis of bipolar disorder. While Wilder had anxieties of her own, they seemed tame in comparison. Fraser captures the extraordinary cycles of “blame and recrimination” from which neither “appeared willing or able to free herself.” 

Having immersed herself in the documents that reveal their wild process of literary production performed at the farthest reaches of the mental health frontier, Fraser, the author of “Rewilding the World” and “God’s Perfect Child,” would have been within her rights to reread the “Little House” books with skepticism, at a safe distance from their emotional power. 
Book Review 

But she does nothing of the sort. Rather than driving “Little House” fans to distraction by diminishing or disparaging the literature they treasure, Fraser declares her respect and affection for it. As the “most unnerving, original, and profound of all of her books,” Fraser declares, “‘Little House on the Prairie’ endures as a classic work.” “The Long Winter,” in Fraser’s judgment, was “Wilder’s hard-won, mature masterpiece, in which expertise accumulated over a long apprenticeship was paying off.” 

For all their conflicts, mother and daughter were of one mind about the imperative of making as much money as possible — Wilder to use it with care, Lane to spend it improvidently. Writing under her own name, Lane was a vigorous entrepreneur, authoring controversial, largely fraudulent biographies of noted figures (Charlie Chaplin, Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover) and embracing a style of journalism untroubled by concern for truth or accuracy. In midlife, she became a master practitioner of a genre undergoing a renaissance in our own time: the bitter political screed. Rose achieved fame with fevered attacks on the intrusion of federal power into the lives of citizens. “I could kill Roosevelt,” she wrote of the president to a friend in 1935, “with pleasure and satisfaction. If living got too much for me so that I really wanted to die, I would go to Washington first and kill that traitor.” 

Although there is no evidence that Wilder knew of her daughter’s dreams of life (followed by instant death!) as an assassin, Fraser tells us that she was “neither perturbed nor alarmed” by her daughter’s political expressions and “in fact supported her beliefs wholeheartedly.” 

Both Wilder and Lane lived their lives deeply preoccupied by the effort to make sense of their heritage: the story of a pioneer family who worked very hard, sacrificed a great deal, and still remained trapped in failure. Like many homesteaders on the plains in the late 19th century, Charles Ingalls tried repeatedly to acquire land and create a profitable farm that would provide a home for his family. Each effort led straight to the loss of the land. His daughter and granddaughter confronted a question that occupies center stage in our times: When people embrace, trust, and act on the proposition that the United States is a land of opportunity, how are they to make sense of failure? 

What destroyed Charles Ingalls’s dream? Did the market steal rewards from farmers with falling crop prices? Was it simply that rainfall would rarely suffice for their farming methods, with seasons of adequate rain giving rise to hopes that droughts then knocked for a loop? Did the federal government make false promises? Were American cultural ideals — particularly the sanctification of self-sufficient yeoman farmers — at fault? Or did individuals simply make ill-considered choices and cause their own troubles? 

“There was blame to go around,” Fraser writes of the troubled relationship between Wilder and Lane. The same assessment surely applies to the conundrum of pioneer failure. In some of the book’s most thought-provoking reflections, Fraser lays out the choice the two women faced. Could the descendants of fiddle-playing, spirit-lifting, steady and kind Charles Ingalls write a forthright appraisal of his poor judgment in betting his family’s fortunes on risky prospects? Letting Pa off the hook and blaming the government was unmistakably the preferable option. 

Placing the Ingalls family’s homesteading mishaps in a bigger picture of national enterprise is one of many demonstrations of Fraser’s admirable commitment to presenting her research in a broader historical context. But sometimes this causes the literary gears to grind. The book has a 16-page prelude, for example, which recounts the defeat and displacement of the tribal people who lived in the area of Minnesota where the Ingalls family arrived in 1863. The prelude arises from a principled choice, making it very clear that Native Americans had long been a significant presence in the locales that homesteaders would describe as uninhabited. Still, some readers will wonder why Wilder is taking so long to appear in a book that has her name on its cover. On several other occasions, the main characters vanish, yielding their place to long expository passages of American history. 

And yet there is far more to admire than to criticize in Fraser’s determination to provide everything needed for a responsible and thorough history of Wilder’s life and legacy. Indeed, several stories recounted in “Prairie Fires” reveal an often-overlooked reason it can be so difficult to prevail in disputes over fact: Truth is often shifty, and even stories unmistakably supported by extensive research in primary sources can sometimes be easily mistaken for the work of a novelist. 

Consider Rose Wilder Lane’s distinctive manner of helping her parents financially. In 1920, without any request on their part, “Lane made a commitment to her parents to furnish them with five hundred dollars a year.” Given that she was a calamity in financial management, that proved difficult. And so she fell into a “bewildering pattern” of borrowing from her parents “even as she helped to support them.” 

Then there’s the fate of Wilder’s literary estate. Her will was simple, leaving all her “copyrighted literary property and the income from same” to her daughter, who was childless. After Lane’s death, the intellectual property was to move to the library in Wilder’s hometown of Mansfield, Mo. But on several occasions, Lane had gone all-in for the practice of creating fictive kin, recruiting young men as surrogate sons without legally adopting them. The last was Roger MacBride, an ardent young conservative who would run in 1976 as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president. Having found common cause with her protégé in “promoting a conservative antigovernment agenda” Lane designated MacBride, when he was 27, as her sole beneficiary. After Lane’s death in 1968, MacBride ignored the terms of Wilder’s will and transferred her copyrights to himself — locking in place a tie between the “Little House” books and an immoderate conservative ideology. 

When Laura sat down with her Big Chief writing tablets and picked up her pencil, she was performing, in Fraser’s well-chosen words, “an extraordinary exercise in memory, nostalgia and yearning for the past.” In the enterprise of extracting and exporting experience from the 19th-century West, nostalgia more than any other emotion served as the mechanism for turning experience into literature, endowing the romanticizing of that history with the qualities of a prolonged memorial service. 

Wilder began writing her books after the deaths of her parents and beloved older sister, Mary. Four years after the series was completed, her last surviving sister, Carrie, died, and as Fraser observes, her relatives were now “reunited in the town they had helped found, in the wooded cemetery on a rise, with a view of the fields and prairie beyond. She was the only one left.” When a writer thinks of a locale where she was a child, and her mind comes to rest on a graveyard, nostalgia is the sensation most easily in reach, and truth comes to mean something far more mystifying and confounding than just the facts. The truth of the books she and her daughter created was the truth of their mortality, and ours.