Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls WilderPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a child I loved the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Loved! I read that series over a dozen times between 5th grade and middle school. My aunt used to tape reruns of the TV show based (very loosely) on the books as a treat for me. I enjoyed the show far less than the books, but appreciated the special gesture anyway.

Themes throughout the book resonated with me. Facing harsh situations with your head held high. Enduring the impossible with grit and cheerfulness. Finding joy and fun in hard work. Being proud of what you have and what you’ve earned, especially if it isn’t a lot. Standing up for what is right, even when you are shy and would rather avoid the attention. Many of my relatives are farmers, physical labor and dirty work were a more frequent part of my childhood than my peers’.

As I grew, so did my fascination with history, especially American history. If you are curious as to why things are the way they are, from our weird government laws to cultural oddities, the best answers are in the past. I’m fond of living history exhibits. I grew up near Lincoln Log Cabin.

I studied history in college. With trained scrutiny and age your perspective changes. Everyone thinks studying history is about memorizing dates and events, but it really is about thinking critically and building arguments. Two different individuals can take the same set of facts and spin up widely different conclusions. Studying history enables one to break down their cases to get closer to the real truth.

In 2018, the American Library Association renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for making a lasting impact in children’s literature to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The reasoning behind this change centered around the series portrayal of Native Americans (e.g. Ma’s famous words “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”) and the inclusion of a minstrel show of which Pa was a participant. When I saw the news headlines I was surprised, but less so when I read the article and was reminded of the series’s darker, less appealing themes that I discarded and forgot about. I understand why the American Library Association would want to distance itself from this as it moves into the future. But the question did remain, would I want to share this series with my child, who at the time was only a few months old. Critics of the award change contend that the books are a product of their time and thus provide an additional learning opportunity for readers.

This summer I completed Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires, a historical autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fraser dived deep into Laura’s childhood, comparing evidence based facts to Laura’s published version. Readers discover what Laura chose to leave out of, modify, or add to her fictionalized life. The author follows Laura’s hardships after the series ended until her sixties when Laura began writing her distinguished series. Fraser presented her case for Laura’s daughter Rose’s influence behind the series through their letters and draft manuscripts. Rose Wilder Lane was an equally fascinating character as her mother. Rose was a world traveler and writer in her own right. She is also often cited as a founding mother of the American libertarian movement.

Once again, I found Laura’s story all-consuming. The author visited many of the same questions that have plagued me all my life:

  • Why do people who need (and accept) government aid the most, hate the government the most?
  • Why do farmers still grasp so tightly to the myth of the independent, self-sufficient farm after generations of failure? Even with government aid, small farms are not successful.
  • Why do women who work outside of the home pre and post marriage to keep their families afloat proudly talk about traditional gender roles?
  • What are we really doing when we accept problematic creative content as simply a product of its time?

Would I want my children to read and cherish this series as I did? No.

For one, I don’t find the series to be a product of its time. Laura was counseled by her publisher within her lifetime to remove the minstrel show. Besides, dismissing something as a product of its time with a mere wave of the hand is how terrible ideas remain with us today. This is how racism seals itself permanently into the human psyche.

I also find it dangerous to use that argument to defend a series that turns a group of people into an “other.” Even if the more sensational statements about Native Americans were removed, the series glorifies its heroes kicking them off of their land, leaving no thought to the immediate ruin and death white settlers brought those tribes.

I will admit that I did mental gymnastics in an attempt to find a compromise. I crave the feelings this series once gave me and want to share that joy and warmth with my own children. But I simply cannot justify it. There is a sorrow to growth, a sadness that comes with revisiting beliefs with newfound knowledge and maturity. Santa Claus is not real, our parents are fallible, and Little House on the Prairie is a libertarian fantasy at best and a colonizing propaganda piece at worst.

I look forward to discovering new series and new heroes with my children. And I definitely recommend Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires.