Happy 2018. I hope that everyone’s year has begun well.
This week I finished Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had started in the middle of December, but Christmas intervened. It is an excellent book. Fraser has read just about everything there is to read by and about Wilder, and she provides an interpretation of all of it. She has read Wilder’s published works, all the extant manuscripts of the Little House books, and pretty much all of the books that have been written about Wilder. She also appears to have read all of Rose Wilder Lane’s materials as well, which is quite a feat—Lane often kept a detailed diary, and she typed reams of letters to friends, published dozens of articles in newspapers and magazines, and wrote a number of books. Eighty of the Prairie Fires’s six hundred pages are footnotes. It is clearly the most up to date and exhaustively researched biography of Wilder published.
But the book strives to do more than just chronicle the lives and works of Laura and Rose. It sets those lives in the contexts of American national history. Fraser provides detailed descriptions of the Dakota War of 1862, the Homestead Act, and the settlement of the upper Midwest by white Americans. She argues that these events both shaped and were reflected in Wilder’s life and works. The book also considers how World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II impacted Wilder’s writing of the Little House books (they were published between 1932 and 1943). John Miller’s book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder does some of this contextualization, but Fraser’s work is more comprehensive.
In a nutshell, Fraser’s interpretation of the settlement of the upper Midwest and Great Plains is that thousands of families created an environmental catastrophe. The land and climate in many places could not sustain small farmers, but they attempted to make a go of it anyway, spurred on by advertising and scientific ideas (like “rain follows the plow”) that led to marginal existence and misery for many. Many were forced to take jobs in town or rely on the support of others, including church, the local community, and the state and federal government. But government leaders often withheld support, and those who took it were often ashamed. The Ingalls and Wilder families were two of those families.
Fraser also attempts to understand how both Laura and Rose thought. She both allows their own words to speak for themselves and provides her own views of their actions. Laura is depicted as a woman hardened by misfortune but determined to provide for her family. She loved nature and everything in it, and she who ultimately created a literary masterpiece for children. Her detailed descriptions, her understanding of her own life and the characters she interacted with, and her love for her father all make the Little House books juvenile classics. By hard work she secured her family’s economic security.
The book’s depiction of Rose is much less positive. Throughout she is described as mixing the truth and fiction: in her articles for “yellow” newspapers during the 1910s and 1920s, in her fictional “biographies” of great men, in her work with her mother’s life story, and in her personal correspondence. She was never able to manage money, and she suffered from depression and perhaps deeper mental illness. By the end of her life she had let her libertarian ideology take over her understanding of reality. Fraser gives Lane credit for editing and improving the Little House books, making them possible to publish and memorable, but Wilder’s writing is seen as driving the books’ popularity and staying power.
Overall, Prairie Fires is a super book. Fraser’s writing is simple but powerful. She evokes the past well and sets Wilder and Lane in that past for us to consider. Its scope is encyclopedic. I am happy that it appeared while I am beginning to write my book so that I can use it in that effort.
As far as Wilder’s faith is concerned, the book focuses most on religion in the early chapters where Charles Ingalls’s ancestors are described. They were Puritans; one had come to Massachusetts Bay with John Endecott in 1629, one was executed during the witch craze in Salem in 1692 (Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier), and one wrote poetry that was published locally in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Of the latter, Samuel Ingalls, the self-described “unlearned poet,” the book says that he “was a Puritan and may have been a Congregationalist.” (32) I am not sure that Fraser understands the relationship between Puritans and Congregationalists. In terms of church governance, all Puritans were Congregationalists. By the late 1700s, I believe that the term Congregationalist was used for most of the the churches in New England founded by the Puritans of the 1600s. I have a book on Congregationalism by Margaret Bendroth (The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past, [University of North Carolina, 2015]) that I hope will help me get everything straight.
Beyond that, there is not a lot of attention to Laura and Rose’s faith in the body of the book. This is probably partially because Wilder says little about her Christian beliefs in her writings. In addition, Laura and Rose’s religious outlook is not really primary to Fraser’s understanding of the two women. She considers their economic situation, their physical health, and their relationships with each other in much more detail (and again, they have the benefit of greater documentation, especially in Rose’s writings). Interestingly, Fraser returns to Puritanism at the end of the book to help explain why Laura firmly believed that individuals and families could make it without government assistance, even though her parents’ family and her own family were not able to:
Wilder wrote that her mother was fond of a saying: “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.” If anything was bred in her family’s Congregationalist bones, it was their exemplary devotion to self-sufficiency… Puritan identity was based on redemption through mastery of self, and the rigid application of principles including frugality, diligence, and, above all, independence. (455)
I’m pretty sure that Seventeenth Century Puritans and Eighteenth Century Congregationalists would not have agreed with this description. They believed in redemption on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. They taught that those who repent and trust in Christ for salvation must also work to discipline their bodies by cultivating these virtues. But those virtues were not the basis of their salvation.
I relate these disagreements with Fraser’s interpretations not because I think that they mar the book as a whole. Indeed, I think that Fraser understands Laura better than many other writers. Prairie Fires is a monument to years of work in the archives, thousands of hours of thinking about how best to understand the sources, and writing ability that I know that I can’t match. I am glad that I am not setting out to write a book of this scope. In the book that I am setting out to write, however, I hope to provide a better understanding of this one aspect of Laura’s life—her faith—and to explain what it might tell us about the history of American Christianity. In some ways, I think that all scholars are comforted when they find that they disagree in some way with other authors, because disagreements show that there is still something that can be added to the conversation.
I may not be writing very much for the blog this spring. It is my hope to write a chapter of the book, and I think that staying off of the blog may assist me in doing this. (See Cal Newport’s book Deep Work for an explanation of why I believe that this may be the case.) I am also teaching two sections of Western Civilization, which means I have 75 students’ papers to grade when they start coming in at the end of next week. I will see if I am able to give reports perhaps once a month.
Thanks again for reading.
(Quotations are from Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder [New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017].)
Link: Prairie Fires