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Tagged with " American history"
9 Jul
2018
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Book Review: “Prairie Fires – The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser, book review by Bev Scott Author

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Reading and preparing this summary and review of Prairie Fires has been a long-term endeavor. Caroline Fraser has done a brilliant work describing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in the historical context of the time. She won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Award. She begins the historical detail before Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and describes the nine decades of Wilder’s life. Wilder died in 1957 but Fraser also gives us a postscript, describing the controversies which surrounded her estate. Fraser draws on letters, diaries, land and financial records filling in gaps in Wilder’s biography. As an amateur historian especially interested in American history, I was engrossed with the setting and the detail Fraser provided; and it took time for me to absorb it all.

Laura Ingalls was born after the US Army had devastated the Dakota Indians. The Homestead Act gave white settlers official permission to take the land in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Dakota Territory once occupied by Native Americans. She and her family lived through the natural disasters of drought, extreme heat, locust swarms and blizzards. Her father was unable to make a living for his family as a farmer. The family lost everything and literally skipped out of town to escape debts. Often overwhelmed with responsibilities and anxiety, Laura worked to help support her family, running errands, serving as a companion and seamstress, turning all her earnings over to her parents. At fifteen, she passed the exam to become a teacher of small children at a little school a few miles from home.

Almanzo Wilder came each weekend to pick her up in his wagon. She agreed to marry him in 1885 when she was 17. Although their first year of marriage was a magical one, Laura worried about money and the debt that Almanzo had accumulated to provide her a handsome house. In 1886 a baby girl, Rose was born adding another worry. Fraser points out that the economics were impossible. After expenses and setting aside seed for the next year, there was a little more than $40 to live on for another year. Even imagining that living on $40 was possible, disasters seem to stalk the Wilders: drought, cyclones, failing crops, fire, diphtheria, Almanzo’s crippling stroke. The title of the book, Prairie Fires refers to one of the disasters they confronted. They ultimately decided to leave.

Ingalls Family photograph

The Ingalls Family

Chicago and North Western Railway Company poster c 1870 encouraging immigrants to move to Dakota using their railroad

When they finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, Laura would “step by cautious step, sieze control of their circumstances” proving herself adept to find ingenious ways to earn income, live frugally and manage their meager assets.  Fraser paints a picture of the grit and determination of Wilder’s struggle to survive. This was the beginning of their journey back from the brink of ruin. As Fraser describes, Laura Wilder’s life was a “titanic struggle to tame yet another wilderness alone with her crippled husband and a seven-year-old.” Because he was disabled by his stroke, Almanzo could not work a full day on the farm. They moved into town and he began a business making deliveries and hauling passengers. Laura worked keeping books for the oil company.

When her father died, Laura wrote an essay about her earliest memories of him. She described his greatest gift was his contentment with what he had. It was a powerful essay, remembering all of the songs he played, passionately describing everything about him. It was a beginning of her writing.

Her daughter, Rose, also began writing. At twenty-two after following a beau to San Francisco in 1908, she began writing newspaper stories. She shed her sense of inferiority and feelings of being unwanted and adopted a “belief in her superiority, a self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it.” She endeavored for the rest of Laura Wilder’s life to be her writing instructor and guide. The former strict matriarch, acknowledging her own insecurity, took her daughter’s hand and launched into a new career. This new relationship between mother and daughter lasted for the next forty years. (For a deeper look into Rose and Laura as collaborators, see article in The New Yorker, “Wilder Women.”)

By 1916 Wilder was a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist. She developed her voice and themes through her involvement and activism as a clubwoman, member of a Masonic organization, farm activist, secretary-treasurer for the Mansfield branch of the federal Farm Loan Association as well as a prolific columnist for the Ruralist. Wilder’s first national magazine article came through her daughter’s connections and marked their first collaborative clash. Using her former husband name, Rose Lane had a burgeoning career as a celebrity biographer by 1917. She was also a talented and insightful line editor. She wrote several pages of suggestions for a project Laura was working on urging her to pay attention to the rules of good writing, show rather than tell, stick to a narrative voice, provide colorful details and pay close attention to transitions.

Laura Wilder was working on her autobiography and writing children’s stories. Rose Lane discouraged her from writing children’s stories as trivial with no opportunity to make a name. Initially, her autobiography was rejected despite Rose’s revisions but was ultimately accepted, and she was asked to re-write it as a children’s story. Her first book, Little House in the Big Woods sold strongly during the Depression. Wilder was already hard at work on another book. Her books ultimately were listed in the top twenty bestselling children’s book of all time!

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott Author

Laura Ingalls Wilder on her porch, home in the town of Mansfield, Missouri, early 1900’s

Laura Ingalls Wilder became one of the most significant influencers of our American culture. She showed children how to be poor without shame, demonstrated the heroism of endurance, celebrated the simple pleasures and how to make the best of what you have. She spoke against government intervention and opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal believing everyone could and should support themselves. She never acknowledged, perhaps never recognized, that the homesteading both her parents and her own family took advantage of was a gift of the government.

In Fraser’s biography of Wilder, we come to see that her autobiographical novels are stories that transform the brutal hardship she experienced into the American myth of stoicism, a romantic idealism of poverty and the ethos of individualism. We see the contradictions in her strength, perseverance and grit as a woman to aggressively pursue survival without debt with her belief that women belonged at home and in the kitchen. We also see the influence of her cultural times when we use today’s lens to identify the racist language and stereotypes in her books.

Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, reviewed by Bev Scott

Farmer at the plow, “breaking” prairie sod.

Fraser not only writes a detailed story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the historical times in which she lived, but she also chronicles the life of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was Wilder’s editor, instructor and guide who revised and rewrote her work frequently without either of them acknowledging Rose’s contribution. Rose had no compunction to expanding the truth and including creative additions to the story that never happened. Wilder apparently saw nothing wrong with Rose’s fictional reporting. Neither of them heeded the strict standards that emerged at the time from the journalism school at the University of Missouri. Wilder accepted Lane’s practice of merging truth and fiction, publicly claiming that her books were true when at least some of the story was fiction.

Prairie Fires is a detailed, carefully crafted historical work. Fraser places the life of Wilder in the cultural context of the events on the American Plains of the nineteenth century and social forces and seismic shifts of the first half of the twentieth century. These events and social forces molded and shaped Wilder’s voice and philosophy which are embedded in the Little House stories. This cultural context helps us understand their enormous influence. Despite my frustration of so much attention given to Rose Wilder Lane, I highly recommend this book.

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12 Oct
2017
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

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8 Nov
2016

The Tradition of Thanksgiving

blog by Bev Scott, vintage postcard for thanskgiving

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude. Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving. The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.

Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret,” I have often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today. Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Turkey on a farm, line drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders. Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son. I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother. I will honor her especially since Thanksgiving falls on November 24th this year. I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Thanksgiving Turkey drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great-grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(A previous version of this article was published  in my blog “The Writing Life,” in 2015.)

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30 Sep
2015
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Book Review: “The Mind of an American Revolutionary” by Jon Foyt

The Mind of an American RevolutionaryReviewed by Bev Scott

Jon Foyt has written a well-researched and engaging book about the American revolutionary, Robert Morris.  We follow Robert’s life from his youth in Liverpool without a father or mother to his success in ocean commerce and trade connecting the New World to the rest of the world.  He became a trusted leader and influential citizen of Philadelphia during the American Revolution helping to finance the Revolution itself.

This is not an action-packed story of the intrigues and horrors of the Revolutionary War.   Foyt takes a different path than many authors in emphasizing the thoughts, opinions and feelings of the protagonist. Hence, the book is an exploration of the developing mind of Robert Morris as he achieves success, articulates the rationale for the Revolution and struggles with temptations which will increase his wealth or meet his sexual desires.

Early in the book, the author introduces a Major Lowenstein a Hessian Mercenary and doctor sent by his German Landgraf Prince to learn about what goes on in the mind of Revolutionaries.  Through conversations and interviews with Major Lowenstein, we learn about the dreams, beliefs and values of Robert Morris.  Morris articulates his dreams of freedom from the laws of the English Crown which he believes will bring expansive future economic opportunities.  Another character, a barmaid named Betsy, is also used in similar fashion to unearth the thoughts and opinions of Morris.  Although Morris was considered a member of the elite society, he remembered his own origins as an uneducated youth from Liverpool.  He knew that many of the subjects in the Colonies were intelligent and curious yet unable to read and write.  As he engages in conversation with Betsy, the barmaid, he treats her with respect and answers her questions and shares his views of the growing movement for freedom from the King.

Morris’s quick financial mind and his trustworthy reputation enable him to build a prosperous commercial ocean trading business and to marry into the upper class of Philadelphian society.  However, his expanding dreams for the new Republic and his belief in his own ability become contaminated with his own arrogance and greed, leading to his downfall.

Foyt opens the book by introducing us to an established and confident Robert Morris, and brings both Betsy and Major Lowenstein into the scene.  The author’s effort to provide the context for the relationship among these characters and to use them to explore the mind of Robert Morris results in a slower and less engaging start than the book deserves.  The pace picks up when we learn about Robert’s early life and the challenges he encounters when he arrives in the Colonies.  Because of the approach taken by the author to explore the mind of the American Revolutionary, the character of Robert Morris is well developed and engaging.  I was lost in the extensive description of the waterfront seen by the young Robert on his arrival to the New World, but Foyt brings in historical detail and “real” characters from our Revolutionary history which add depth and interest as the story unfolds.

I recommend this book if you love American history and you are intrigued by the development of the thinking, philosophy, and beliefs that led to the Revolution and to our Founding documents and the principles of democracy.

Author website: www.jonfoyt.com

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