Review: Prairie Fires

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

Metropolitan Books, 2017. Hardcover, 640 pages.Cover: Prairie Fires

Laura Ingalls Wilder has been popularized through her autobiographical novels, a television show, and a miniseries.  In the last few years, the publication of her posthumous annotated memoir and other books that came about due to that project have added to the mythology.  This biography is the first of its genre to debut in recent history and is billed as the first truly comprehensive one.  That it is, and it goes beyond being simply a biography of one woman.

The book first sets the context for Wilder’s life and then begins her story.  In the next 150 or so pages, readers learn the true story behind the events in the Little House novels, which is not as sunny as the novels depict.  This is followed with a more in-depth story behind the Wilder marriage, including Almanzo‘s financial troubles and other places the couple lived, including Florida.  These two sections are pretty straightforward.

The majority of the biography takes place once the Wilders move the final time from De Smet, South Dakota, to Mansfield, Missouri.  Though they secured the Rocky Ridge Farm soon after the move, finances meant they did not live there full-time after the purchase, as they also lived in town.  There was also the sojourn where an adult Rose Wilder Lane lived in the farmhouse and built her parents an English cottage style home elsewhere on the property.  The reasons for this are detailed.  An in-depth look is also given to Lane’s marriage, travels, writings, and mental state.

Int he book’s final section, the trend towards a focus on Lane continues.  Wilder’s story is mostly told through the lens of her interactions with her daughter and in regards to her writing the novels, an act encouraged by her daughter.  Lane also acted as Wilder’s editor, so this section is strongly based on letters between the two.  Many have argued in  the past that Lane ghostwrote her mother’s famous books, but Fraser soundly and factually debunks this myth, thanks to access to the original manuscripts and the aforementioned letters.  In fact, she goes one step further and shows how Lane’s works plagiarized her mothers!  If you have not read it, Lane’s Let the Hurricane Roar is basically the story of her grandparents without children on the banks of Plum Creek, and Wilder was not happy to see its publication.  This is but one example; Lane’s political work and charitable unofficial adoptions are also explored in great detail.  In short, Lane was her era’s equivalent of today’s Rush Limbaugh III, but for the Libertarians instead of the Republicans.  Many, but not all, political views are shared between mother and daughter.

Billed as a biography of Wilder, I felt that is should have been correctly advertised (and subtitled as) a dual biography of Wilder and Lane.  I felt readers learned quite a bit more about Lane than Wilder, starting once the family arrived in Missouri and continuing through the end (Personally, I would have liked to learn more about Almanzo, but he is a sideshow once Rose takes center stage).  In addition, Fraser did a great job of placing both women in the context of their times by providing appropriate historical overview and context.  Fraser even set the scene by providing historical background for the geographical areas before Wilder’s birth and of Wilder’s ancestors from their arrival in America up until her birth.  Sprinkled throughout are excerpts from letters, journals, and the Little House book manuscripts.

Prairie Fires has been out about a month now.  Have you read it yet?  If so, what are your thoughts?  If not, do you think you will and why?

My review is based on an advanced reader copy provided by the publisher.


2 thoughts on “Review: Prairie Fires

    • It was! In their early marriage, due to financial difficulties, the Wilders originally left South Dakota for Minnesota, then departed for Florida, returned to SD, and then left for the final move to Missouri. This all occurred before Rose was even school-aged.

      Let me know what you think once you read the bio!

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