Tagged with " Caroline Fraser"
9 Jul
Posted in: Book Reviews
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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.

23 Mar
Posted in: Diversity
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Racism in the “Little House” Books?

Plains Indian, Buffalo Hunt painting John Stanley

Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the book news again.  There are calls to remove her books from children’s libraries!

The American Library Association (ALA) is considering removing her name from their life-time achievement in children’s literature award. The librarians are re-considering the name of the medal based on the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans in the Little House books. Their concern is the conflict of the ALA vision to “respect and honor children’s families’ history” with the values of respect, inclusiveness and integrity with the racism depicted in the books.

Caroline Fraser, author of Wilder’s historical biography, Prairie Fires writes in an article in the March 14 issue of the Washington Post, that “no book, including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.'” Those who have decried the white supremacy which lies at the heart of so many children’s books, have demanded that the books be removed from school libraries. Some have been motivated by a story Fraser reports of an 8-year old Native American girl came home in tears after hearing the story read in school. Others have admonished publishers to address the racial imbalance in children’s literature by publishing more stories about Native Americans or African Americans.

Indeed, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935) has inspired both disapproval and devotion. Many of us grew up enamored by the sentimental description of family values in the Little House stories, but not all of us are white. Fraser tells about an immigrant girl born in Saigon attracted to the story and how Hmong families from Laos living in Walnut Grove were drawn by one girl’s devotion to the television show. The town features a public mural with a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress.

African American family, historic photo c. 1930's, packing car to leave

Publishing more books and stories for children with Native American, Hispanic, African American or other ethnic perspectives is incredibly important to understand today’s diverse world. But, should the name of the medal be changed or the books removed from school libraries because they are racist? Perhaps changing the name of the medal is not wrong. It certainly is not censorship. It might be argued that it is acknowledging the cultural shift that no longer recognizes or rewards books with such blatant racism.

In contrast, removing the books from libraries or refusing to read them to elementary school children is not only censorship but denies all children the opportunity to learn through story the history of homesteading as well as the promotion of white settlement which violently took over Native American lands. I agree with Fraser that the answer to the racism of Wilder’s books is not to ban them but to provide the opportunity to learn that history is interpreted from cultural definitions and perspective. How exciting it would be to have the opportunity to learn about the white cultural perspective current during Wilder’s life. Imagine adding to the conversation, with alternative cultural viewpoints from the Native Americans who were losing their traditional lands or the African Americans who were just freed from slavery.

What is your opinion?

2 Mar

“It’s So Cold!”

hut in blizzard










It was a howling blizzard with below freezing temperatures and white-out conditions. My grandmother, crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, and her two youngest children, one of whom was my dad, were living miles from any neighbors.  Dried corn cobs used for fuel for the stove to warm their modest one-room house were gone. The wind howled and showed no signs of letting up. She could not, as an invalid, manage herself to go the barn for more corn cobs. Grandma refused to allow my father, still a small boy, to go out in the blinding white-out blizzard for fear that he would get lost and freeze to death. So, she decided to burn her precious books to keep warm. (from a family story passed down to me.)

The last few weeks in the Bay Area we have experienced unseasonably cold weather. We are bundled in warm jackets, scarves, gloves and hats to keep out the cold wind. And we complain to friends and colleagues and even strangers at the store or in the elevator, exclaiming “It’s so cold!” Yet, our cold weather is nothing like the below zero temperatures with deep snow drifts that other parts of the country have experienced this winter.

It is a minor inconvenience compared to the family story above or the incredible winters our ancestors experienced on the prairie.

I have been reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, which describes the incredible winters suffered by Laura Ingalls¹ and her family with the other South Dakota homesteaders in 1881.²

Construction of sod houses had been abandoned on the South Dakota prairie in favor of cheap goods shipped by rail. Americans seem to always prefer the latest and easiest approach even if it is not the most effective. Shacks with board and batten construction with a layer of tar paper for insulation offered little protection from the wind and snow blowing in through the nail holes. The only heat source was a single wood stove.

pot belly stove

Blizzard followed blizzard. The snow banks piled twenty-five feet high. The last train with supplies came to De Smet, South Dakota in early January, 1881. A hundred people were trapped in town, hoping for a lull or a thaw which never happened. The Ingalls family also expected a barrel shipment by train of winter clothing and a Christmas turkey. It never arrived.

They ran out of coal to burn in the stove and began burning hay producing a little warmth. “There was no meat, no butter, no fruit, no coffee or tea. Sugar ran out and the cow went dry.”³ The Ingalls family began grinding seed wheat saved for next year’s crop. The entire town was barely surviving and starvation loomed. Seed wheat was running out. Two men, one of whom was Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, volunteered to drive twelve miles south with a horse and sled to find the farmer rumored to have wheat left from last spring’s crop. They managed to find the farmer, negotiate for the wheat and return to De Smet before the next blizzard struck. They saved a hundred townspeople from starvation.

Finally, the first of April the weather warmed after four months of no fresh supplies of food or fuel. The first trains that arrived in May carried farm machinery and telegraph poles. A riot was eminent until a freight car with provisions was discovered, broken open and rationed out. The Ingalls’s Christmas barrel finally arrived in late spring with the long-anticipated turkey still frozen.

The sacrifices made by homesteaders and pioneers are almost unfathomable for us. It must have been a very painful sacrifice for my grandmother to burn her books. She was a school teacher who placed a high value on education. She had collected her treasured books over a life-time. But she felt she had no choice. Spending days in a dark underground dugout is unimaginable for us. Yet the experience of characters in my novel, Sarah’s Secret, Sam and the widow Peggy and her daughter during a frightful white out blizzard in Kansas was common among our pioneer ancestors.

The Ingalls family took in a young couple and baby without a home into their small crowded home. It meant stretching the dwindling supply of food to nine mouths. Laura was scathing when she wrote in her journal how thoughtless and rude the husband of this family was in grabbing more than his share of the sparse food before his own wife or anyone from the host Ingalls family. Charles Ingalls may have felt obligated and certainly felt they couldn’t put them out into the blizzard. It was a generous sacrifice by his family.

Blizzard in City










These stories are a good reminder for me. I can no longer complain about the cold, windy weather. I am grateful for food, a warm secure home and our modern conveniences. Are you?

¹Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House Series”
²The stories reported below are from Fraser’s book.
³Fraser, p. 110-111.

7 Feb

Laura Ingalls Wilder, American Author

Did you read one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series when you were growing up? Or perhaps you watched the “Little House on the Prairie” television show based on her life which aired between 1974 and 1982.

There was only the enormous empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there…In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon (From Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Laura Ingalls Wilder circa 1885

Laura Ingalls Wilder, circa 1885 (Wikipedia)

Today, February 7 is Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s birthday. She was born in 1867 near Pepin, Wisconsin. In my research and writing of Sarah’s Secret, I stood on the shoulders of this amazing woman who persisted in revising her writing before she achieved the success for the beloved autobiographical sages of the Great Plains. This connection was especially vivid for me in writing Part Two of Sarah’s Secret, much of which takes place on the prairies of Kansas, the setting for Little House on the Prairie. I called up images in my imagination from her writing as I imagined my character riding across Kansas.

Wilder’s family homesteaded in Dakota Territory. Their life on the prairie as homesteaders was grueling with many similarities to the life of my grandparents who inspired Sarah’s Secret. Like my grandparents, who also homesteaded on the Great Plains, the Ingalls family faced severe hardships of blizzards, near starvation and poverty, the challenges that became stories of triumph in the Little House series.

Wilder was also a teacher like my grandmother a few years later. In 1882 Laura Ingalls passed the test to obtain her teaching certificate. At 15 years old she taught in a one-room schoolhouse about 12 miles from her parent’s home. The family friend, Almanzo Wilder, who was sent to bring her home for weekend visits became her husband in 1885. She quit teaching to raise children and work the farm with Almanzo. Her daughter, Rose, was born in 1889. They, too, faced relentless challenges of illness, death and poverty before they ultimately settled and farmed in the Ozarks near Mansfield, Missouri in 1894.

But it was not until the 1920’s with encouragement from her daughter, Rose, did Wilder attempt to write her first autobiography which was rejected by publishers. Wilder was determined to succeed and like authors today, she reworked her writing over and over. In 1932, she published the first book Little House in the Big Woods. She completed the eighth one of the series in 1943 when she was seventy-three. She died in 1957 on the farm she and Almanzo had settled sixty years earlier.

Today, on her 151st birthday, I honor this American woman author writing stories of the challenges and triumphs of homesteading on the Great Plains. Laura Ingalls Wilder is an inspiration and role model whose persistence won her hard-fought success in a male-dominated profession.

I just purchased Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline  Fraser, a historical biography. The description says that the true saga of Wilder’s life has never been told and that this book fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Needless to say, I am anxious to read it. Look for a review in the near future.

What are your memories of the Little House book series or the television program “Little House on the Prairie?”

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