From the ironic epigraph to the 626th page, this monumental work held my attention. Caroline Fraser's work provides not only a deep study of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life, but a fuller understanding of the entire prairie pioneer experience in details supported by 2,074 footnotes.
The ironic epigraph?
"The prairies burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country," said George Carlin. Just as the destruction of a prairie is a beautiful sight to some, the book sweeps back and forth between the splendor of the prairie and its harshness, between Laura's writing and the truths she disguised.
Because Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are widely read and made into a TV series, we may think we know her. But as Fraser says, "Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine." Fraser shows us the pioneer woman and writer as part of a deeper history which includes the Homestead Act, the spread of railroads and the closing of the frontier. Fraser notes:
Across every inhabited continent, just as on the Great Plains, mass land clearing and wheat farming has led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack. Combined with the market forces controlling distribution, human-caused climate change joined with natural weather patterns to wreak absolute havoc.
During the 1930's, the Great Plains were known as the Dust Bowl because of severe dust storms as a result of the foolish plowing of two and a half million acres of native grassland, destroying an ecosystem that had flourished for millennia. This horrendous phenomenon was no act of a god or freak natural accident. "It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time," Fraser says. "Farmers had done this, and they had done it to themselves." We've known for centuries that plowing native grassland is destructive, but then and now, plowing is misguidedly encouraged by the government.
Laura Ingalls Wilder's farming families, memorialized in the Little House books, were part of what Fraser terms a "game of chance," with the prairie as the casino. While the published version of Laura's story has been popular in many cultures, Fraser tells us how she really lived. Laura wrote that "The commonplace, home work of women is the very foundation upon which every rests," and her own writings reflected that view. Though she often acted courageously and supported the education and independence of women, she was discouraging on the subject of woman suffrage.
I was surprised to learn in this book how thoroughly Laura's daughter Rose dominated the creation of the Little House books. Rose's distortions of her mother's life were aided by a profit-seeking shyster, Rose's "adopted grandson," Roger MacBride. History conspired in helping make the books popular: the tales of rural steadfastness were a heart-warming antidote to the Vietnam era. The TV show inspired by the books was even more misleading and simplistic, but audiences loved them. Teachers in South Dakota even read the books in classrooms, ironically at the same time as we began to come to terms with our treatment of our Lakota population.
In spite of all that is wrong about the Little House books, and in spite of the profiteering that warped the way they were published, they endure because they show us over and over Laura Ingalls Wilder's belief in the value of honesty, endurance, and of making the best of what we have.
Caroline Fraser is editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, and the author of Rewilding the World and God's Perfect Child. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among others.
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