Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser, 2017 (NYPL e-book)
I inherited my love of “prairie fiction” from my mother: Willa Cather, O E Rølvaag, Hamline Garland, Sherwood Anderson. Top of the list, of course: Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957). Her Little House series comprises 8 books that cover about 20 years of Laura’s life on the Great Plains of the US, taking her from early childhood in the woods of Wisconsin to her marriage in Dakota Territory. As the crow flies, that’s a distance of just 300 miles, but the Ingalls family covered more than 2000 miles in a looping path that wandered south and north; west, east and then, finally, further west, all in a covered wagon.
When she was 44, Laura began writing columns for Missouri newspapers, about her life as a farm wife (chickens played a large role). It wasn’t until she was in her 60s, though, that her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, was published, in 1932. Eleven years later, These Happy Golden Years closed the Little House series, and since then her family — Pa and Ma (Charles and Caroline), Mary, Carrie, and Grace, and her husband Almanzo — have become ideals of courage, strength, faith, loyalty, and love. Personifications of the Pioneer Spirit, models of what it means to be An American. (Read those capitalized words with scare quotes.)
The Ingalls and Wilder families were all of these, and Laura’s childhood no doubt seemed idyllic to her. Living in sparsely populated areas, far from any town, she had little to compare her own situation to. She knew her parents worked hard, but she accepted this as a given. Life required work, and if things went wrong, your only option was to keep going. Being part of a family meant you didn’t have to keep going alone. And, of course, being white in America meant every door you came to was open to you.
But you have to read deep between the lines to understand that Pa and Almanzo were not financially successful. This is what Fraser, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Prairie Fires, does for us. By setting Laura’s life within historical context, we can begin to see how difficult life was for people like her family, despite the open doors. (And please note that I’m not forgetting how much more difficult life was for people of color. During Laura’s childhood, post-Civil War Reconstruction ended, and African Americans throughout the country faced horrors well-documented for anyone wishing to learn more.)
But back to Pa Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder: It turns out that being a homesteader on the prairie was a pathway to bankruptcy, and part of the reason Pa moved his family so frequently was his inability to make a go of it — whether in Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), Kansas (Little House on the Prairie), Iowa or back in Minnesota (these horrible years, which included one instance of ducking out of debts by leaving town in the middle of the night, weren’t included in the books).
The Homestead Act of 1862 (read more about this here) lured hundreds of thousands of white farmers into the western territories with promises of cheap or free land, easy farming, and future wealth (few Native American, African American, or Latinx people were allowed to take advantage of the Homestead Act). The Act turns out to have been a triple boondoggle — 1) the huge numbers of settlers led to bad-faith treaties (always broken) with Native Americans, forcing them off their ancestral lands; 2) settlers without financial means went deep into debt to plow and plant their 160 acres, then losing entire crops to hail storms, locusts and drought, and then going deeper into debt to start over; and 3) after the prairie grasses were plowed under, winds began blowing the topsoil away, consequently finishing off anyone without financial means to get through the difficult times. The Long Depression of 1873-1896 (which ruined farmers even in the east; Almanzo’s successful father was forced to move to Minnesota after crop failures) was worsened by a 10-year drought on the plains; 50 years later, the area became the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, which turned entire towns and counties into ghost-areas.
It’s amazing the Ingalls and Wilder families survived at all.
Fraser makes all this clear, in her portrait of Pa Ingalls. Multi-talented (husband and father, farmer, carpenter, churchman and town elder, justice-of-the-peace, etc.), he scraped together a living for his family, and they were never hungry (except for during The Long Winter, when the entire town of De Smet, SD, was cut off from food and fuel for nearly 8 months) and always sheltered. But “scraped” is the apt word. The homestead was never enough to support the needs of his family, and he subsidized the farm income with jobs in town — carpentry and carting for the most part. Laura herself went to work at age 13 or 14, sewing shirts for a dressmaker in De Smet; she began teaching before her 16th birthday. The money she earned helped her family, but also went towards her sister’s tuition at a school for the blind in Iowa. Much later, when she began her journalism career, she did it out of necessity. Even in Missouri, where farming was a bit easier, it was impossible to support a family on what the farm earned.
Thus, one myth that Fraser busts in Prairie Fires is that a homesteader, if they work hard enough (there were women homesteaders as well), could succeed and make a life for themselves without help from anyone, including the US government. (Never mind the irony of the US government, having stolen millions of acres from the people already living there, offering it for “free” to anyone who can last 5 years on a claim.) Turns out, you really can’t make it on your own — not as a homesteader on the Great Plains in the 1880s (and probably not anywhere or anytime else). The Great American Individual needed a community — of relatives, friends and neighbors, and the government itself — to survive.
I’ll return to the myth of bootstrapping in Part II of this review, which will also address Fraser’s study of the collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose as the Little House series was written. Coming to soon to this very blog!