Laura Ingalls Wilder’s captivating autobiographical novels may have been written for children, but they have become primers for mid-19th-century pioneer American history and the hard-won creation myth of a new nation. Even their titles – Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, By the Shores of Silver Lake – bring with them the wholesome whiff of self-reliance in rural isolation, of the ingenuity of poor people struggling against the mighty vicissitudes of the natural world. Above all, they are about the comfort of the log cabin and of home, the final destination after an arduous journey into the unknown. In the many places associated with Wilder, a tourist industry has flourished: visitors can see a restored log cabin and try spinning or making butter – a frisson of hardship for a generation nostalgic for a world without choices.
Prairie Fires celebrates this aspect of Wilder’s appeal, but it also explores less straightforward aspects of the author’s life, particularly her relationship with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful author herself and a leading proponent of Ayn Randian libertarianism. Laura Ingalls Wilder was no more an untutored ‘hedgerow scribe’ than her British counterpart Flora Thompson. Like Thompson, she was a working writer, penning columns about her life and memories for the Missouri Ruralist for many years before Rose decided she needed a wider audience. ‘I’m trying to train you as a writer for the big market’, she wrote to her mother in 1924 – and in 1932, Little House in the Big Woods was published. Caroline Fraser has no truck with the theory that the books were ghosted by Rose, but there is no doubt that Rose’s editing (and souping up) helped make them the bestsellers that they became: she added fictional elements, such as an encounter between the Ingalls family and the notorious serial killer Kate Bender, and left out some truths, including details of the period they spent working in a dreary hotel.
Fraser dislikes Rose intensely, and not just because of her politics. It is easy to see how Laura’s only surviving child got up so many people’s noses: she was brash, arrogant, inconsistent, an epic hater and at times unnervingly unpredictable. But she was also adventurous, dogged, curious and unconventional, a model in many ways of uncompromising female independence. She lived all over the world, often travelling by choice in conditions quite as uncomfortable as those in the Ingallses’ covered wagon. After a brief marriage, she eschewed permanent relationships (‘I DON’T WANT TO BE CLUTCHED’) and seems to have found her emotional home in an awkward space somewhere in spirit between bohemian Greenwich Village and the Wilders’ homestead in Mansfield, Missouri.
Both mother and daughter were grafters – in fact, it’s exhausting just to read about Rose’s prodigious output of celebrity biographies, travelogues and newspaper columns. Although highly paid, she was extravagant and when short of money there seems to have been no hook she couldn’t hang a piece on. Travelling to Europe with the Red Cross press corps in 1920, she churned out features from inaccessible regions. In Paris, her passion for Albania was a running joke (she and her friend Helen – known as Troub, short for Trouble – had set up home for a while in Tirana). It was lampooned in a novel by Joseph Bard, the protagonist of which adores Montenegro: ‘She hated America for its industrial spirit, and fell in love with the Montenegrins in the far off Balkans because they had no industrial spirit whatsoever … [and she] wrote touching stories about their honesty, wisdom and general superiority of manly spirit.’
Honesty, wisdom and manly spirit are of course pervasive themes in her mother’s stories too. Born in 1867, to Charles (Pa) and Caroline (Ma), Laura Ingalls spent most of her childhood on the move, from Wisconsin to Kansas to Minnesota and finally to South Dakota. The family were following employment (merry, fiddle-playing Pa worked as a labourer, a butcher, a carpenter, a railroad payroll clerk and finally a storekeeper), enticed by government settlement offers and the paradisal promise of land. They were moved on again by drought, dust, locusts and debt, fluctuating wheat prices, booms that went bust and the ever-present threat posed by Indians enraged by the white man’s seizure of their lands and the broken promises of governments. Months of snowbound or heat-parched isolation could drive the inhabitants of a log cabin mad, or ‘shack-wacky’. Fraser calls the lives of pioneers like the Ingallses ‘equal parts recklessness and passivity’ and she draws a vivid picture of optimistic restlessness and a God-fearing refusal to submit to despair in the face of disaster.
At eighteen, Laura married Almanzo Wilder. The event marks the concluding point of the Little House series, but it kicked off sixty-four years of married life. They too hitched their wagon for the first few years. Their original house burned down, their crops failed, they were hopelessly in debt. But the Wilders ended up in the relative comfort of the Missouri Ozarks, where they lived for half a century, running a poultry farm called Rocky Ridge.
‘Again and again’, writes Fraser, ‘Rose returned to Rocky Ridge, even as she most wanted to escape it. Neither mother nor daughter seemed willing or able to free themselves.’ Fraser is as primly censorious of Rose as the Mansfield residents, who disapproved of her unwise friendships, her smoking and the way she satirised the locals in short stories: ‘Rose’, one sniffed, ‘didn’t seem that refined.’ When Laura embroiders the truth, Fraser thinks it ‘pure folk art’, but when Rose does the same she is reprimanded for exploitation.
In politics as in life, Rose was an extremist. As a founding mother of the libertarian movement, she plundered her parents’ lives for copy, making them exemplars of the virtues of self-sufficiency that big government eroded (characteristically glossing over the fact that state aid, for example, had allowed Laura’s sister Mary to attend a school for the blind). Yet the Wilders were in full agreement with their daughter’s politics and as adamantly opposed as Rose was to Roosevelt’s New Deal. They refused ever to have social security numbers and Almanzo saw off a government agricultural inspector. During the Second World War, Rose stockpiled food rather than submit to government rationing. Laura lived to ninety, dying three years after taking her first flight, from Wisconsin to Connecticut. Rose inherited her mother’s royalties and left them to Roger MacBride, an ‘adopted grandson’ who ran for president as a libertarian in 1976.
What emerges from this book, exhaustive and overdetailed though it is, is a powerful and sometimes strange account of two women who wrote their way to independence during two very different centuries. This is a book about a nation’s sense of itself – a place where those wagons are always on the move. The pioneers were about ideas as well as territory and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little house has a very big hinterland.