Prairie Fires: Kicking Nostalgia in the Tender Bits

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder cover
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

My earliest bookstore memory is of going to the mall (remember when malls had bookstores? Good times) and leaving with two books. One was the first Garfield collection. The other was Little House in the Big Woods.

Thus began a childhood reading the Little House series til the paperbacks disintegrated. I’d read them through probably at least twice a year. My poor patient field spaniel became my baby, stuffed into the wheelbarrow I’d converted into a covered wagon, as we lived the pioneer life every summer. Every few days, we’d pack our belongings into the wagon and migrate to a new homestead in the yard, following the lead of the Ingalls family. I swept my dirt floors clean with handmade brooms, and made a mattress stuffed with dried grass. I longed for real maple sugar candy and Indian beads. I wanted to make hay in the sunshine. I fully identified with that dark-haired, headstrong little pioneer girl.

Still do, actually.

Eventually, I outgrew the books. Other series replaced them in my regular rotations. But I still harbor all the warm fuzzy feels, and sometimes I remember my favorite bits and get transported back to those happy times.

So reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was sort of like watching that grass fire leap Pa and Ma’s hasty fire break and burn the cozy little log cabin to the ground.

Pa, rather than being an enterprising pioneer whose misfortunes were due to circumstances beyond his control, turns out to be a man who had a disastrous knack for making foolish financial decisions. Laura had to get a job as a child because her family couldn’t make homesteading pay. Shit got a lot more real than she ever let on. Domestic violence and attempted murder were things she witnessed all too frequently. Babies died a lot, including her Ma’s, hers, and her daughter’s.

And speaking of daughters: her darling Rose was probably an actual psychopath.

There are always myths involved with fictionalized versions of a life, but the foundational myth of the Little House series, that rugged pioneer folk don’t need no help from the gubmint, proves to be a gigantic lie. Libertarians would probably scream in horror finding out the truth behind the Wilder myth, but I doubt they’ll read this book. And if they do, they’ll probably pretend Caroline is a lying librul shill. Too bad for them she’s got the sources to prove her claims.

So yes, this book kicks childhood nostalgia right in the teeth. But it’s worth it. It’s fascinating learning how the Ingalls really lived. Caroline is so very good at tying together historical events and providing social context. We get a bitter but compelling taste of the real pioneer life, and get to see how pioneers fared as the Old West ended and the 20th Century began. We learn how Laura’s life went after the books ended. We get to gawk at the utter shit show that is Rose Wilder Lane. And there are new, older, wiser fuzzy feels as we survey Laura’s legacy.

If you were even a casual fan of the Little House books, or if you want to see the rugged individual American myth busted, this is a book you need.

You also need Ana Mardoll’s review of it. Trust me. It makes excellent companion reading to this book.

Prairie Fires: Kicking Nostalgia in the Tender Bits