Looking Again at a National Book Critics Circle Finalist: Caroline Fraser's Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Sarah Harrison Smith on January 30, 2018

Prairie-Fires.jpg When we saw Caroline Fraser's biography of beloved children's book writer Laura Ingalls Wilder included in the list of finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it seemed like a good idea to republish the interview Fraser gave us a few months ago. Her extraordinary history of Laura, the Ingalls family, and their place in American history is already winner in our books.

For readers who grew up with Laura Ingalls Wilder's  Little House books, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder offers a fascinating and often surprising account of the life and times of the writer and her family. In an interview with the Amazon Book Review, author Caroline Fraser discusses her discoveries about Wilder's father, Charles Ingalls; the sources of Laura's ecstatic relationship to landscape; and the much-debated question of how much Wilder's daughter, Rose, contributed to the writing of the books that made Wilder so beloved to generations of children.

Amazon Book Review: You’ve done a lot of work on Laura Ingalls Wilder. You compiled and annotated the definitive Library of America collection of her work and now you’ve written this wonderful big biography, Prairie Fires.  What drew you so strongly to her?

Caroline Fraser: I think just for starters it’s an incredible story, her life.  As I was doing the Library of America volumes I was really startled and fascinated by the history behind her life.  Finding out a little bit more about things like the Minnesota Massacre, and so forth.

When I first wrote about her for the New York Review of Books I was writing about the whole issue of whether her books had been ghost-written by her daughter. I think that was kind of a big thunderclap in the lives of most of her fans, the idea that she didn’t write the books. That was really the catalyst for my writing about her, though of course I had been a fan of hers as a kid. 

Where do you stand on the question of Rose Wilder Lane’s involvement?  Where do you think it began and ended?

I don’t think that Rose ghost-wrote the books and I think that that was a really unfair and inaccurate characterization.  Obviously, she played a critical role and the books would probably not have been published without her, without her connections, without what she brought to them in terms of the editing and revision.

One of the extraordinary stories of Wilder’s life is her relationship with her daughter and the ways in which it helps create these classic books. There really isn’t any other relationship like it in literary history, that I am aware of, where a mother is writing books and the daughter is secretly editing them.  It’s kind of a bizarre and fascinating relationship, but I think that the idea that Rose was really the secret author of them is deeply unfair. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s relationship with her own mother is such an interesting one. When you read the Little House books I think you sense enormous respect and love for her mother, but her father seems to be the primary object of her love. When her mother died, the two hadn’t seen other for 20 years. Why was that? 

Well, I think it’s hard to know on an emotional level what was going on there.  I think that there were certainly practical reasons why they hadn’t gotten together.  At that point in her life, Wilder was still struggling very much in terms of the work she was doing on the farm and her struggles to kind of develop these other sources of income and it was very difficult to travel all the way from Mansfield, Missouri back to De Smet.  It was not an easy journey to make and yet she did make it repeatedly later in life when she had the luxury of a car, when she had the luxury of a little bit more income. 

So it’s hard to know.  I don’t think that they were ever estranged, I think there was an enormous amount of affection between them that you can see in the few letters that have survived. But I wonder sometimes whether after Charles Ingalls died it became almost too painful for her to go back to that life, to go back to her roots.  She had an enormous amount of nostalgia for the family and for what she remembered about the family when it was intact. I almost wonder if it was too hard for her to revisit it emotionally once he was gone. 

In Prairie Fires, you make the point that Pa Ingalls in the Little House books is slightly different from the Charles Ingalls you discovered looking at primary sources.

I think Charles Ingalls in real life was a really wonderful man, really warm, cheerful. I think all the things we see in Pa in the books was there in Charles Ingalls, but when you look at some of the choices that he made, he does appear in a little bit more of an ambiguous light.

For starters, in her books, Wilder always emphasizes how patriotic he was. He’s always singing these patriotic songs and talking about America, Uncle Sam and expressing his love of country. Yet Charles Ingalls in reality had an opportunity to serve his country in the Civil War.  He was of prime age at that time and chose not to do that.  He and his older brother never enlisted and did not serve in the Civil War. We don’t know why that was, we don’t know why he made that decision. It may in fact have been related to the loss that Caroline Ingalls had suffered (she lost a brother in the war) but that’s a really interesting choice to look at. It raises questions about how he felt in making that decision and why he made that decision. 

It’s also really interesting to look at his decision to take the family into Kansas at a particularly unstable moment in the relations between the owners of the land, who were the Osage Indians, and white settlers. He essentially decided to squat on land that didn’t belong to him.

We know a great deal more about that now then wasn’t even known in Wilder’s day.  We now know exactly where the Little House on the Prairie was built.  Wilder thought it was in Oklahoma, and it turns out to have been much closer to Independence, Kansas, than she realized. 

Charles Ingalls’s assumption about the land, his assumption that the district naturally was going to belong to white settlers and so he would just squat on it and take it -- he was part of a movement of many thousands of others who were doing that, but I think it really has cast him in different light, knowing that.

Until I read Prairie Fires, I hadn’t realized how bad relations were between white settlers and the Osage Indians. The Minnesota Massacre, which Ma refers to in Little House on the Prairie, really was a horrifically violent event – and there was terrible violence on both sides.

I hadn’t realized it either.  I think unless you live in Minnesota you may not be aware of what a huge national crisis the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 represented. It happened during the Civil War and I think the history of it in many ways got lost. It’s faded so much from our consciousness. When you read Little House on the Prairie, and come across these references to the Minnesota massacre, you kind of don’t know what she’s talking about now. But when she wrote the book, I think everybody remembered it. 

It was kind of like the 9/11 of its day. It was this huge event that terrified people in the region and distracted Lincoln from the Civil War and while it was dealt with ... relatively quickly, I think it remains in the consciousness of people, especially people who had been living in the region.

Could you talk a little bit about the impact of landscape of Laura Ingalls Wider? 

One of the most beautiful, memorable and important aspects of the Little House books is Wilder’s response to what she perceived as wilderness.  I think if we’re going to be strictly accurate, some of these areas had already been altered in some ways. But she was reacting to these places as a wilderness, especially the Dakota Territory, the Great Plains and the grasslands and the birds. 

Her description of the birds flying over Silver Lake and seeing them leaving the territories for the winter and her description of wolves, in particular, is just extraordinary. It’s an incredible response. When you think about what she suffered as a result of living in these places and the natural disasters that she survived, the locust plague of the 1870’s, the blizzards, the tornadoes, it’s incredible that she had this really open and almost ecstatic love for a landscape that brought her family really nothing but struggle. That to me is a really remarkable thing about her personally.

Do you think that that love of nature was fed by literature at all?  She doesn’t have a lot of books as a child but she does have a few.  Did you sense that they had an impact on her view of the world?

You know, that’s a really interesting question that is so hard to answer because we don’t know a lot about what she was able to read beyond the Independent Fifth Reader and Pa’s “big green book.” I have a copy of that.  It’s an incredible work of natural history. 

That’s the book they were able to read together on Sundays?  Can you describe that a little bit?

It’s this massive, encyclopedic tome called The Polar and Tropical World and it’s full of stories about all these far distant places, Hudson Bay, stories about Indians, stories about Africa. I think possibly some sense of the importance of nature came to her through works like that, but I have to say that I think a lot of that was just her reaction, her feeling about being alone in the wilderness, of experiencing this vast open landscape and the freedom that the wildlife had. 

She seems to associate wolves with this freedom to come and go and the birds -- she dreamed sometimes of being like those birds, of being able to fly away, and I think that that was very much just a part of her and of how she reacted to the land. You don’t see it in her sisters.  Her sister Carrie is terrified when they see the wolves on Silver Lake, her sister Mary is frightened, and I think she feels those fears but nonetheless, there’s this really sort of ecstatic reaction to the beauty of the land is hers and hers alone.

Do you think it’s part of her inheritance from Pa?

Yes, I do think that there is a connection there, because he liked to do the same thing.  She often describes how he would go off on these solitary “tramps,” when he was going off hunting or following his trap lines. He really valued that time alone. He wanted to be out in nature by himself and she really understood that, I think, and empathized with it.

Other than the massacres, which we’ve talked about, what surprises did you find in writing this book?

Well, I think that there were a lot of things that I was surprised about.  One was the realization that she lived most of her life in the American South.  That’s a really sort of astonishing thing, given that her work is so closely associated with the West. She was an adult, really, before she ever was able to visit the West Coast.  She certainly didn’t ever travel to the West in a covered wagon. 

She came to love the Ozarks, I think she found them really beautiful and I think she felt safe there.  It seems to have been a place where she finally was able to establish a sense of security, but I think she also really missed what she left behind, and I think it was in part that distance, her exile both from her family and from the Great Plains, that helped inspire her need to write these books. 

Which of her books speaks most to you personally, and why?

As a kid, my favorite was The Long Winter. It is such an incredible story of survival and not just physical survival, although there was that, but also there was the mental aspect of being able to endure this kind of horrible claustrophobic experience of being trapped in this house by blizzards, one after the other. Much of that ability to survive comes out of her closeness with her family and the fact that they can develop this kind of extraordinary stoicism. That really spoke to me as a kid. 

As an adult, I find Little House on the Prairie to a very rich work of art in terms of its responses to settlement, to white settlers’ encounters with Indians and with wolves. In many ways, it’s a very surprising book in that regard, because it reveals all these things that are racist and stereotypical about the way settlers see Indians, but it also indulges in this real close association and identification with Indians which was itself its own form of appropriation. There are scenes in that book that I just think are unforgettable.

Thank you very much, Caroline Fraser.

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