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Millions of fans of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls - the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true story of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser - the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series - masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder's biography, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books and uncovering the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life.
Set against nearly a century of epochal change, from the Homestead Act and the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Wilder's dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. Offering fresh insight and new discoveries about Wilder's life and times, Prairie Fires is the definitive book about Wilder and her world.
Caroline Fraser is the 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 other publications. She lives in New Mexico.
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By JB on 01-20-18
Prairie Thunderstorm Engaging with a Tornado of Bias.
If you are like me the first item with an audio title is the narration. It is very well presented. Despite a few pronunciation glitches, for example Pierre, the production is enjoyable to listen to.
Fraser’s presentation is not for the faint of heart Little House fairy tale reader so be ready for a bumpy ride if you are.
This is a dual bio of Wilder and Lane set against a heavy dose of historical backdrop. And almost immediately this is where Fraser goes off the rails. She will recover at times and I stuck with her because the topic is so interesting to me.
Fraser is no historian and it shows. She makes many mistakes that sometimes appear to be just sloppy work. While others are clearly set piece to support a bias. For which she has many.
I gather from a quick look at her other work she has done some environmental writing. And she brings this to Little House as subtle as a Hurricane
The Homestead Act, homesteading and westward expansion are fundamental to the story. A clear understanding is obviously the foundation to the entire work. Fraser brings her environmental focus like a crusade into the story. The Ingalls and Wilders were simply duped into a “scam,” destined to fail because the Homestead Act was a failure and then were complicit in fraud and get this - climate change. Yes Almanzo with his two row sulky plow caused global climate change induced drought.
With that the reader may ask if Fraser has a grasp on 19th century agricultural practices, as this would form another foundation to the story? Well no, she doesn’t. For example, she will indict Almanzo as committing fraud in his HA claim because he left. She ignores the fact that a homesteader had six months to occupy said claim & this was because they would have had no crop or supplies to support the stock.
Almanzo, according to Fraser, committed fraud by lying about his age on the HA application. This being another example of how terrible the process was. Here we have a clear case of ‘fraud’ on her part. It would be difficult to see it otherwise. The records are clear and can be easily checked with NARA docs.
Almanzo’s age issue was Wilder and Lane playing with facts decades later. This is well known and Fraser knows that Lane in particular is fast and loose with facts. But we have to get the fraud angle worked in somehow.
Little picture things are sprinkled throughout. For example, a “Missouri posse” fought a “proxy war” in “squatter Kansas.” Boy that’s a lot to unpack. A posse is a legal group raised by a sheriff. She does like a posse and will use the word incorrectly multiple times. The Missourian’s were most often called Bushwackers. The era known as Bleeding Kansas was not a “proxy war.” I am not sure what her “squatter” context even is. But there is no historical one for it. I imagine it is another bias against the entire settlement process.
Keystone South Dakota is not at 9,100 ft elevation. Google can be a friend to an author’s fact checker. Although I doubt one was used, a history undergrad intern would have caught most of this.
When covering the move from Wisconsin to Mo/Ks she will use 1850’s overland travel as an example. The Wilders were not going 3,000 miles across unsettled land on a trail of tears covered in burials. It was 1869 in settled Iowa and Missouri.
It is unfortunate we have another title in the Little House pantheon that comes at it from a literary point. Fraser would have done well to stick hard and fast to her area of expertise. I found these sections interesting, but always there is the “can I trust this on a subject I am less knowledgable in?”
Even more unfortunate is the Little House fan who wants to more and uses Fraser exclusively will take this as history. It most certainly is not and note Amazon did not classify it in that category.
If one wants to learn Wilder and her times, Pioneer Girl would be a much better source. Then one could read other secondary sources on areas of interest. For example, Edwards, Homesteading the Plains will show you that it was neither a “failure” or a “fraud.”
86 of 96 people found this review helpful
By NMwritergal on 11-24-17
Don’t read if you don’t want your fond memories...
…of the Little House on the Prairie books or the TV series from the ‘70s entirely ruined.
Because I had read A Wilder Rose (fictionalized version on Rose Wilder Lane’s life based on a fair amount of research, it seems), my fond memories were already trashed, so I thought I’d listen to nonfiction. Things just got worse. Laura Ingalls Wilder is not particularly likeable (though very industrious) and her daughter, Rose is a lying, delusional, wretch. She seems bi-polar, narcissistic, and/or had borderline personality disorder.
I didn’t really know that the Ingall’s and the Wilder’s lives were always one step shy of completely falling apart, how poor they were, the reckless/impulsive/bad decisions that “Pa” and then Almanzo made.
What I most appreciated was that his story was replaced into historical context. Had it not been, I’m not sure I could have gotten through 21 hours. It was fairly depressing, and really Rose Wilder Lane…ugh. Lots of quotations from her personal diaries and letters. Add to the above that she was cruel, a racist and anti-Semite, always trying to undermine her mother. It was just too much and overwhelmed Wilder's story.
38 of 47 people found this review helpful