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November Book 3,

The third November book was the last one. I did not read much in November. It was Prairie Fire by Caroline Fraser.

The book is an examination of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Together they wrote the Little House on the Prairie series. LW did most of the writing, and RL did most of the edits. That much we know.

After that things get-- cloudy.

The books are for kids. They were expurgated. They were written in the depression years when LW herself needed money. By that time the prairie was in the middle of the dustbowl. It was drying up and blowing away. There was a fierce nostalgia for the days of the 'open prairie,' and the settlement of 'a land with nobody on it.'

Only, of course, of course, it was never that.

Laura's father, Charles Ingalls, made use of the Homestead Act to build his first house on the Osage diminished reserve. This was land technically owned by the Osage people. The Osage were in the process of being pushed out.

As a book for kids, she touches on that only glancingly. And it is fine if a kids book is only about happy memories. Much of LW's life was grinding poverty and fear, and hard work, and walking next to a covered wagon in a long skirt and bare feet. She lived her early life in a sod hut which leaked rain and snow. She froze in winter and worked in the fields in summer. Her life was not pretty. I understand that LW did not really want to talk about real reality of infant death, and lice, and hunger, and fear, and fire, and illness and locusts, and shame, and running away in the night because you could not pay your debts. Child Laura lived through all of that. She turned all that into books that made people all over the world happy. And her daughter seems to have been a quite gifted editor, (which is another skill entirely, and one which I respect.)

What bothers me, and what bothered Fraser, I think, is that LW and more especially RL had a real life devotion to the cult of American self sufficiency. In the depth of the depression, and the dust bowl, and later during WWII, they opposed any kind of government intervention. They railed against 'handouts,' social programs of any kind.

Laura, who should have known better, reframed her life as a success achieved alone-- her family against a hard world. Not so. Her family could not, did not do it alone. Nobody did. The Ingalls family had bank loans, land-grants, Indian land that they took without asking, and the kindness of neighbors, and utter strangers. There was one time when her teenage neighbor Almonzo walked through a life threatening blizzard with another boy to get food for their starving town of De Smet. (Laura did go on to marry Almonzo, and live with him for like 60 years, so that does show good sense.)

Through the thirties and forties their private letters and journals show a cultish devotion to Ayn Rand and bootstrapism. This while they both became rich and well known and acclaimed. This while the dust came and the prairie starved, and they read the papers, and they knew it. It hurts to read. They also quite liked Mussolini.

So, in the end, who is the fictional Laura? How does she relate to the real one? I don't think the events in the books were made up-- nobody says that. She just does not tell the whole truth. But what writer does? Does the real Laura owe us some kind of truth? Does she have to be a nice person to make a story about a nice family, or the whole deal is off?

What honor do we as readers owe to the actual Ingalls family, who crossed the prairie, and really did have a fiddle and a dog named Jack, and a Laura with brown hair, and little blond Mary who went blind... At 8 years old Laura was as tough as a little girl can be, and she squatted barefoot around a fire at night in her bare feet, and she probably had internal parasites, and she loved her parents, and she was already thinking like a writer. She was not an objectivist yet.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2017 08:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that. It's a really interesting take. I didn't realise the prairies dried out. Puts my ongoing blasted climate change anxiety into perspective.
Dec. 12th, 2017 09:14 pm (UTC)

Yes they dried out for a ten year period in the 1930s. It coincided with the Great Depression. Interrelated. Prairies were over farmed. We have better understanding now, and better irrigation, at least for the next little while.

They used to say that the land was forever-- and that farmers should plant wheat, even on marginal dry land. 'Rain follows the plow,' they said.

Hubris to make the hair on your neck stand up..,

Dec. 13th, 2017 09:10 am (UTC)
Oh, interesting, thank you for sharing!
You know, that kind of 'neglecting a social system' is toally puzzling for us on the other side of the pond...
Dec. 15th, 2017 07:42 pm (UTC)
One of the first jobs I had after retiring from the Navy was with a boss with the last name of Wilder. I think they said they were indirectly related.

Anyway, I remember having excerpts from some of her stories in our lit book in high school... something about a blizzard and getting home from school. My sister had all the books at one time, and I think maybe Jessica has read at least some of them. I've read them as well, and for what they are, they are very good reading.

Of course they are somewhat sanitized/idealized representations of life in those times.... great for younger readers. But often I wonder how much writers keep hidden from their readers? How much of what they put forth in their work reflects their personal views. Somewhat shocking but then not too surprising to learn of her extreme views on these matters.

Lastly, she was also known as a pioneer air traveler.
Dec. 16th, 2017 09:19 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this, I read and loved the LIW books as did my eldest daughter. I remember taking her to the American Museum in Monkton Combe before we left for France. I was inspired to think that we could make it work as mini pioneers in our French ruin, but of course reality was rather different. Interesting to hear that her reality was so different as well.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )