Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Prairie Fires: the American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (2017)

In The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, she writes (about The Chronicles of Narnia):  "A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of childhood."  Once upon a time, that's how Narnia was for me; that's also, at least for one long, hot summer in fourth or fifth grade, how the Little House books felt too.

 At some point, I realized that Narnia was a veiled portrait of Christianity.  Thinly veiled for some; I don't think my ten year old self was able to pick up on subtleties in literature (my 48 year old self has some trouble with that too, I must admit).   For some readers of Narnia, that fact was upsetting and destroyed the series for them.  That wasn't true for me; other than the (ghastly) The Last Battle (which I detest), the Christian allegory has always been just a side note to otherwise good books.  Whatever C.S. Lewis was trying to accomplish, he failed with me.  I did not become a Christian because of Narnia. 

Sometime in the last ten years or so, I found out that Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter Rose Lane Wilder - Laura and Almanzo's beloved baby - was one of the grandmothers of the Libertarian movement in the United States.  And that she heavily edited her mother's work (one Lane biographer said that Lane wrote all the books,  which is nonsense; there is plenty of proof that Laura was the main author). Lane and Wilder detested the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt (not unusual in their Missouri hometown though).  And that Libertarian values and anti-New Deal values wind their way through the books, particularly the later books.

Caroline Fraser's book is superb - the best, most well researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder I've ever read;  Fraser is a scholar of the Little House.  I enjoy reading books about books I love, particularly children's books.  This book made me so happy.  But I kept thinking, in the back of my mind, of Lane (and Wilder's) almost propaganda.  And their stretching the truth.  Sometimes to cover up tragedies of the past (the death of Freddie), sometimes to cover up dishonest dealings, of which there were a lot (Almanzo lying about his age; Pa and Ma skipping town to avoid paying a debt) and sometimes to push their own political agenda.  Fraser takes pains to point out several times that Pa and Ma weren't completely alone; the government was helpful to them at various times.  Fraser's Lane certainly left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.  She was dishonest throughout; she stole ideas from her mother; she wasn't particularly nice or helpful to her parents; she lied quite a bit about - well, everything.  Her journalistic standards were sub-par.  She had no qualms about making stuff up in her articles.  She had strange relationships with under-aged men.  To be honest, she sounds completely unhinged.  She did suffer from debilitating depression throughout her life; she also sounds bipolar.  Fraser never comes out and says that, but I would wonder what a modern diagnosis would say.

So Narnia's Christianity propaganda hasn't bothered me half as much as Lane's heavy hand in the Little House books.  She's there, over her mother's shoulder, constantly inserting her anti-government, Libertarian beliefs into the narrative.  It's far more subtle that Lewis's allegorical Christianization of Narnia, but it's definitely there.  To me, it's sort of taint on the Little House - mainly because Lane and Wilder claimed that they were telling a true story, when in reality they weren't.  They cherry picked some truth from Wilder's life to create a fictional series.  It was disingenuous of them to claim the books were true. 

It doesn't change my love for the Little House - I still consider these books sort of a history of my own people, some of whom made a similar journey from the upper Midwest to Kansas at about the same time.  But, even more than Narnia, I take them with a grain of salt.  A big grain of salt. 

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls WilderPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A superb book; Caroline Fraser's Little House scholarship is first-rate, and her writing is engaging. This book is perhaps for lovers of the Little House books rather than the television series, which she sort of eviscerates in the last chapter. This is not a love letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and especially not to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser does a great job of including the good, the bad and ugly of these two writers' lives and how they intertwined, for better or for worse. Neither women are particularly pleasant people, but I think it is Lane who gets more negative exposure here. And rightfully so -Fraser's careful research has revealed a woman who was at times dishonest, stole ideas from her mother for her own gain, and was a subpar journalist before becoming a sort of second-rate writer of fiction, then turning to half-baked political philosophy. Laura, sharp and mean, isn't a lovable grandmotherly writer - but then Laura from the books wasn't always very nice either, and never claimed to be otherwise. If you read the book series as a child, but nothing about it since, try re-reading the series then take a look at this book. It's very readable, not dry or boring, and will open your eyes to some of what was going on during the times of the fictional Laura Ingalls, and the real Laura Ingalls Wilder.


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