Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a little girl, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I grew up an hours drive from Laura and Almanzo's home in Mansfield, Missouri. I watched the series starring Melissa Gilbert and Charles Landon. I felt I knew a lot about Laura and her life, but what I knew until I read Prairie Fires only scratched the surface. Laura Ingalls was the embodiment of the prairie girl. Born in Wisconsin to Charles and Caroline, Laura was one of four girls who traveled from homestead to homestead in the late 19th century. Charles was determined to find the farm of his dream that would bring a comfortable living for his family. He was a frontiersman and a farmer and he yearned to live off the land. Times were hard, though, and the Ingalls seemed to be constantly dodging debt and destruction where ever they seemed to hang their hat. By the time they made it to De Smet, Dakota Territory, Laura was on her way to becoming a young lady capable of running a household and helping take care of the family. It was in De Smet that she met her future husband, Almanzo Wilder and where they would marry and welcome their daughter Rose.
When times fell hard (were they ever not hard?) on the family in De Smet, the Wilders would venture to Mansfield, Missouri where they would make their home permanently. It was in Mansfield that Laura would pen her classic children's stories of her life growing up on the midwest prairies. It is also where her daughter would get her own start as an author. And herein lies the controversy of the true author(s) of the Little House books. Some believe they are the work of Laura's pen, while others believe that Rose either ghostwrote the series or at least had a heavy hand at the editing. No doubt Rose was an integral part of the writing and publishing of Laura's semi-autobiographical stories. The other controversy surrounding the books is how much is true and how much is fictionalized. Laura always stated that "all that I have told is true but it is not the whole truth." How much of her childhood did she remember? How much did she embellish and how much has been altered to make a better story?
Caroline Fraser tackles all of these questions and gets down to the bones of Laura's story and life. As much as the book is about Laura, it is about her daughter Rose as well. The two had a strained and at times tumultuous relationship. Mother and daughter did not see eye to eye on a lot of things. Each woman was headstrong, yet each had demons that they wrestled with. Laura's story would be incomplete without examining Rose's life as well. At times, the book becomes Rose's story as we deviate from the expected look at Laura's later years, but in the end, it comes full circle. Fraser covers the full spectrum from the early years before Laura was even born through Rose's death and the outcome of the Wilder and Lane estates.
This is a very thorough look at the Ingalls, Wilder, and Lane histories and it will leave you seeing these women in a different light. I knew some of the backstories, but I feel like I have a better understanding of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The questions are not all answered, but I think I'm happy with that. I'm still and will always be a fan of the series that made me enjoy reading as a young girl. I'll also know that what is written is true, but it is not the whole truth.
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