It takes a lot of work to uncover what really happened to the vast prairies of the North American Midwest. You have to dig under Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1890 declaration that the frontier had made America what it was and now it was gone. Pioneer famers, Turner said, had busted sod, felled forests, and turned “‘free land’ into golden grain,” furnishing “the forces dominating American character.” (173)
You have to dig beneath the Homestead Act’s grand vision. Beneath the sepia romance of Dorothy’s Kansas. Beneath Willa Cather’s Nebraska and Hamlin Garland’s Wisconsin. And beneath the reveries of the most beloved of the “troubadours of the prairie”—Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Caroline Fraser has done this excavation in her engaging and thorough historical biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She begins, not with Wilder’s version of the Dakotas with Laura and Mary picking wildflowers where “the untouched grasslands were sweet and clean, as if the land itself, before the plow, breathed the essence of purity.” (354)
Instead she begins with death—an 1862 massacre in Minnesota shortly before Wilder’s birth in which Dakota Indians fought back against white incursion. The retaliation of the settlers was bloody and vicious, but it set the stage for the further westward expansion. The Homestead Act gave permission, Fraser notes, but
“ultimately, it was not policy or legislation that opened the far west…It was wrath and righteous retribution that did it, forever changing the contour and condition of the land, pushing settlers farther west than they had ever gone before, flooding the prairies with farms, towns, fields, grain elevators, and train stations.” (24)
The familiar characters of Wilder’s Little House books are here in the first section of Fraser’s book—Ma and Pa and Nellie and the gang. But the story is more morally ambiguous than we remember. Laura’s father seems less stable and more willing to lay claim to recognized Indian land. The poverty they face is chronic, the living conditions are brutal, and the farming fantasies are easily brought to ruin by locusts and price shocks. It’s a gripping story with far more nuance than the broad celebrations of the pioneers that would come later.
By the time the real Laura Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, arrive in Mansfield, Missouri, where they lived the rest of their lives, it’s not clear how Laura’s childhood would find its way into American lore. At their farm on Rocky Ridge, the couple continued to be enmeshed in the farming life, experiencing the Populist Party heyday of the 1890s, the New Deal reforms, and the Dust Bowl. Laura began writing occasional newspaper columns and went to work for the local branch of the National Farm Loan Association.
It was their daughter, Rose, who was the catalyst for the writing life to come. Rose comes across as a high-flying idealist shaped by the yellow journalism in the air in San Francisco where she first goes to write. Her writing has verve and energy and plays loosely with the truth. All of that comes into play as she partners with her mother to produce the wildly successful Little House series that finally lifts Wilder out of poverty.
What Rose also brought to the table was an ideological bent that was fiercely individualist and libertarian. An associate and admirer of Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane published her own manifesto of unbridled capitalism, 1943’s Discovery of Freedom. Fraser lays out how Lane’s political narrative, which her mother shared to a more moderate degree, helped shape the narrative of the Little House books, embracing the image of the heroic pioneer farmers taming a vast land. Wilder provided the raw material and the familial warmth that made the series endearing.
Fraser is a little too invested in the family drama between the mother and daughter, which seems more clearly delineated for her than it does to me. Lane is continually described as being on the verge of a mental health crisis but somehow manages to go on and even succeed. Fraser notes that the two were at odds on money and writing process, but again they managed both without a complete falling out.
If you resist the temptation to get pulled into the drama, there is a more powerful picture here about the way that the Little House books and our other stories shape the way we see even the land in front of us. Is it a land, vast, open, and bountiful, that rewards hardworking risk-takers? Or does our reckless exploitation of it run inevitably into the land’s limitations? Are the native inhabitants of the land consequential actors or exotic curiosities or, as Wilder sometimes has it, tragic, failed defenders of a prairie purity? Is the heartland the source of American character or a breeding ground for grievance and a hollowed out casualty of global economic trends?
These are not easy questions but we can at least have better stories to help us see what and where we are. Wilder and Lane gave us some of those, even if their stories were limited by their times and political interests. As we have pursued it on Heartlands, there are more stories to be told and more lands to discover even when we feel we’ve already been there.
Hat tip to Deborah Lewis for getting me to this book.