The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
By Caroline Fraser
Illustrated. 625 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. $35.
Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the 1890s
Stretched past its capacity by the tumultuous migrations and movements of the 19th century, that orderly term “westward expansion” is ready for a break. Rather than proceeding in a systematic march across a continent, a wild cast of characters — miners, farmers, ranchers, loggers — raced into the West, locating natural resources, extracting them and refining them into commodities to place on the market. “Westward explosion” might be the better phrase.
As these resource rushes multiplied, thousands of Americans plunged into a parallel — and, by many measures, more rewarding and more consequential — form of extractive industry. Harvesting from the West an inestimable treasure of experiences and observations, these adventurers then refined this raw material into reminiscences, novels, diaries, letters, reports and tales of adventure, both actual and imagined. Since westward expansion coincided with the expansion of the print media, and since readers in the eastern United States had good reason to seek escape from the disturbing changes wrought by industrialization and urbanization, these exported cultural commodities found a receptive marketplace. Endowed with an improbable durability, this infrastructure of printed words retains much of its power to define the region.
Caroline Fraser’s absorbing new biography of the author of “Little House on the Prairie” and other books about her childhood, “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise. Charged by what Fraser calls a “unique ability to transform the raw material of the past into a work of art,” Wilder won for herself the status of a pre-eminent figure in the shaping of the myth of the West — that seductive collection of icons, images and articles of faith installed in millions of minds and souls worldwide.
Western historians, even those who aspire to register as high achievers in the defiance of myth, have found their plans rearranged by the enduring Wilder legacy. In 2002, I gave a keynote speech at the White House, addressing Wilder’s work in a program on Western women writers hosted by the first lady, Laura Bush. Wilder’s books, I know from my visit to the East Room, have not been exiled to the periphery of the configurations of 21st-century United States power.
Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder’s emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder’s “Little House” books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading “Prairie Fires” will provide a lasting cure. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, “Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization.
“Several farmers,” a Missouri newspaper noted around 1910, “and particularly those interested in poultry, have inquired who Mrs. A. J. Wilder is.” Though not a well-traveled path to literary success, writing columns for farm journals gave Wilder a source of income that would, in an arrangement still followed by many rural families, supplement the finances of the struggling farm where she lived with her husband, Almanzo, while also providing repeated opportunities to practice the craft of writing. Those little-known columns, drawn from the experience of raising
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