Prairie Fires

"Prairie Fires" by Caroline Fraser

PRAIRIE FIRES: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. By Caroline Fraser. Henry Holt. 625 pages. $35.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” books, had a recurring nightmare of walking down a “long, dark road” into unknown woods. “Prairie Fires,” Caroline Fraser’s superb biography of Wilder (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography), doesn’t belabor the suggestiveness of this image, but it seems clearly to hint at a dread of the future. No wonder Wilder found inspiration in looking backward.

Writing during the Depression, with darkness looming, she turned the hardships of an earlier time, her frontier childhood, into an epic adventure. We now know that her autobiographical novels were both highly fictionalized and brilliantly edited. It makes most sense to think of them as collaborations between a mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose imagination delivered a romanticized version of her own pioneer experience, and a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, whose editing tightened the drama of her mother’s story.

Wilder was a late bloomer. She didn’t publish “Little House in the Big Woods” until 1932, when she was 65. The eighth and last volume, “These Happy Golden Years,” came out in 1943. Like other adventurers, the Wilder clan was drawn to ever-Western environs by the Homestead Act of 1862. The years pass by as a chain of plague-like disasters: locust swarms that devour crops, droughts, Indian raids, burned houses, diphtheria, blindness, strokes. The list is long.

But hardship isn’t the point of the story Wilder tells. Stamina is, and making the best of things. Wilder prized an attitude of cheer and courage, especially when luck turns sour. The whole family loved to be on their way again, moving, as Wilder writes, in “the direction which always brought the happiest changes.”

Wilder came to consciousness staring out the back of a covered wagon. She would write, “It was lonesome and so still with the stars shining down on the great flat land where no one lived.” The social, civic and physical openness of the frontier came to be understood as a forecast of other forms of openness, especially of opportunity and freedom.

But Wilder did not enter an empty space. The Great Plains were fully inhabited by indigenous peoples. In fact, the Ingalls family built its first prairie house in Kansas on claimed land that the government had already promised to the Osage tribe. The family had to give it back and retreat. More often, the natives were dispossessed as white settlers moved in to assume control of the homesteads — 160 acres for a $10 filing fee and the chance to “prove up” in five years. More than half the homesteaders failed.

Fraser’s biography toggles among Wilder’s actual experiences, the fairy-tale versions in her novels and the larger historical picture. What, in the end, is Fraser’s attitude to Wilder and her little houses? She likes these books tremendously, but she also understands that Wilder did not write them to set the record straight on the pioneer experience. Wilder’s motives were more personal, all about drawing her back into the circle of gaiety and closeness that was the Ingalls' family atmosphere. She wished to recover what she called the “golden thread” of her childhood.

Wilder adored her parents, especially her reckless, musical father, who was a Mayflower descendant whose fiddle-playing and storytelling set the family’s merry tone. Fraser’s riveting biography makes excellent use of her scholarly work on the Wilder manuscripts to settle decisively the rumors that Rose Wilder Lane was the ghost writer for books published under her mother’s name. But she also readily acknowledges the daughter’s contribution, especially in the early books. The simple, heartfelt last line of “Little House in the Big House Woods,” for instance — “Now is now. It can never be a long time ago” — can’t be found anywhere in Wilder’s own hand.

The marquee character in Fraser’s biography is Rose Wilder Lane, a biographer’s gift. Lane from start to finish was a rebel, scornful of all manners and rules. Fraser describes her as a fabulist. For a short time, she made a name writing celebrity biographies. Charlie Chaplin sued her, and Jack London’s sister nearly did. Lane lived in Greenwich Village in the teens of the last century, wrote dispatches for the Red Cross during World War I, stayed in a Paris apartment, was adoptive mother to a series of “sons” and spent her last years as a right-wing reactionary in Connecticut.

She had ideas of supporting her parents and pledged a yearly stipend of $500 a year, a sum that she hastily set about borrowing back every year. From the beginning, Lane, who was so indispensably helpful to her mother, was also competing with her for material. She even wrote a bestselling novel called “Let the Hurricane Roar,” whose main characters were Charles and Caroline, the Ma and Pa of Wilder’s own "Little House."

Fraser understands the complication, strength and strangeness of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter. On the back of a picture from Mansfield, Mo., standing on her porch and wearing a simple shift, Wilder wrote, “Just as I am, without one plea.” After all their years of childhood voyaging, Laura and Almanzo Wilder, the farmer boy who courted and married her in the last "Little House" book, settled in the Ozarks, just as they were.

Fraser is the best of biographers, combining scholarly rigor with narrative vivacity and spacious affection for her subject. It can never be a long time ago, but a book like Fraser’s can be a kind of time travel.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.