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prairie fires

8 september 2019

Last year, I was driving from Lawrence, Kansas to Dallas/Fort Worth when I saw a sign beckoning me away from the highway. "Little House on the Prairie," it read – did they mean that Little House on the Prairie?

The Little House I discovered there forms part of a cluster of buildings (inevitably including a museum of some sort, which was inevitably closed when I arrived) off US 75 near Wayside, Kansas. The milieu is very much one where you expect to see a cropduster materialize and start strafing Cary Grant. But on the day I arrived, there was only a dusting of March snow on the ground and an irrepressibly wholesome atmosphere echoing that of Laura Ingalls Wilder's fiction.

I was soon to learn, via interpretive posters, that the buildings near Wayside weren't built by Charles Ingalls. The Wayside site is one of many where the family briefly lived in their peripatetic days, the evocative structures being recreations. But I was later to learn, via Caroline Fraser's amazing book Prairie Fires, that this Kansas acreage was in fact the setting for Little House on the Prairie itself, the most famous of all Wilder's novels. So I was there and I wasn't; I was in some limbo between fact and fabulation. Exactly where Wilder's contribution to American culture resides, according to Caroline Fraser.

I never read any of the Little House books till I was an adult, and a scholar of children's literature at that. I've never written about them here, because it's been difficult to organize my thoughts about them – and Fraser's Prairie Fires doesn't make it any easier. Fraser's Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography stresses the contradictions of the Little House books, their elisions and their repressions, their cutting racism and their deep identification with the rural working class. They are tough texts to love and unnerving texts to think about.

My mother, I assume, had some sort of deep connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder's fiction. My mother kept a complete set of the Little House books in her "project room," high up in a bookcase, behind glass. But I say "I assume" she loved the books, because I never saw her take one down. As opposed to John O'Hara, whose books she collected with equal fervor and read insistently, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a notional presence in my mother's cultural world. Maybe they were books she had once loved but lost interest in; maybe they were books that her relatively conservative predilections led her to approve of but not to enjoy very much. Maybe somebody had kickstarted a family story once of how much my mother loved Little House on the Prairie and the fiction became a fact she could not escape. All I really know is that, growing up, I was not allowed to read John O'Hara and not encouraged to read Laura Ingalls Wilder.

When I did get to the first couple of Little House books a few years ago, I found them in equal parts saccharine and objectionable. Caroline Fraser doesn't downplay the objectionable qualities of Wilder's books. She concludes, all the same, that "Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them" (508).

Although … I always feel a bit "What you mean we, Kemo Sabe?" when I am asked to think of sodbusting pioneers as "we." I have no Native ancestry that I know of, but neither do I identify with homesteaders and covered wagons. My white, immigrant ancestors liked to move to well-established cities, rent apartments, and find jobs with large companies or the government. I've always known that those ambitions don't count, rhetorically, as "American." Homesteading was, demographically, an important part of U.S. history, and reading Prairie Fires gave me new insights into how the occupation of land, the possession of guns, a wary attitude toward neighbors, and an (often illusory) ethic of self-reliance, remain central to many American lives. But there are other Americas and other Americans among "us."

Laura Ingalls Wilder does not start her fiction-writing career till about page 315 of this biography's 515, and wraps it up by page 445. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, so much the focus of Fraser's attention that Prairie Fires is practically a joint biography, was a successful writer well before her mother was. So improbable was Wilder's success that a substantial school of thought argues that Lane simply wrote the books for her, and slapped Wilder's name on them. Fraser does not agree. Lane certainly edited Wilder's drafts, but their styles and concerns (Fraser establishes) were quite different: Lane more rhetorical, more ideological; Wilder evocative, yet restrained. If the mother's writing benefited from an editor, she would would hardly be alone in the annals of American literature; it doesn't matter all that much that the editor was her own daughter.

In any case, Laura Ingalls Wilder had worked for a decent spell as a columnist for local periodicals in the Ozarks before turning to fiction, and if she couldn't match her daughter's renown as a Saturday Evening Post regular, she had become a professional writer on subjects of interest to farm families (and with far greater discipline, Fraser argues, than the mercurial Lane). Whatever the creative balance, the Little House books were distinctive, and soon found their niche: just in time for the Wilders and their daughter, who were barely afloat financially during the Depression and Dust Bowl, just as the Ingallses before them had barely floated through various post-Civil-War panics and natural disasters.

Like their writing styles, Wilder's money issues were distinct from her daughter's. Wilder and her husband Almanzo were small-scale farmers who took town jobs when necessary, and Rose Lane was a well-paid writer who lived chronically beyond her means, and co-dependently dragged her parents into her problems. Fraser paints a complex picture of Lane putting her parents on a generous $500 annual stipend – and then borrowing much more than that annually from them, to keep herself in spending money.

In Wilder's fictional America, any paterfamilias with a few acres of land, a shotgun, and some carpenter's tools can become a sovereign citizen. In reality, and even implicitly in the books themselves (with their rhythm of continual relocation), pioneer life on the "Middle Border" in the post-Civil-War era was heavily managed (and mis-managed) by the federal government, which provided the ultimate safety net when a high percentage of pioneer ventures failed. Rose Wilder Lane would become a vehement libertarian; her mother, not so philosophically minded, preferred to extoll self-sufficiency in children's stories that have achieved the archetypal quality of American fables. Neither, you can imagine, had much time for Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt. The New Deal kept a lot of farmers solvent, but at the price of regulation and surveillance. The libertarian warrant is that untrammeled capitalism would have ended the Depression much sooner, allowing those farmers scope to build lasting wealth and independence. And for all we know, it might have.

But the Dust Bowl was a thing, too, and it's unclear how steely individualism can cope with events like Dust Bowls. It's arguable that it causes such events. Prairie Fires at times becomes as much an ecological manifesto, with strong attention to climate change, as it is a literary biography. Topsoil-skimming homesteaders thought that rain would follow the plow; too often dust, locusts, and famine followed the plow instead.

Meanwhile, the Native Americans who had long ago struck their own ecological balance in plains habitats found themselves usurped. Little House on the Prairie avoids getting into the details, but that scrap of Kansas prairie I stopped on last year was, when the Ingalls family got there, clearly the property of Osage people who were away on their seasonal rounds of their territory. In Little House, the Indians who infringe so disturbingly on the Ingalls homestead are presented as part of the vast disorder of a wild continent, to be tidied up and cleared away by white energies. In Prairie Fires, they're presented as people continually bullied and shouldered out of their homes. And yet for many white Americans even today, stylized "pioneers" (where I live, they call them "heroes of Texas") are celebrated for being such highly successful bullies.

Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Metropolitan [Holt], 2017. PS 3545 .I342Z6455