Caroline Fraser is the author of the new biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Award. She also has written the books God's Perfect Child and Rewilding the World, and was on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Q: What first got you interested in writing a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder?
A: I first thought about it seriously when I was working on the chronology and notes for the Library of America edition of the Little House books, which I edited. As I was writing those materials, I kept coming across such fascinating stuff in the history she lived through, and it made me want to learn more.
There were all these tantalizing clues in the letters she wrote to her daughter, Rose, about the Dust Bowl and the Depression, about the history of the locust outbreaks and drought on the Great Plains, and even the ways in which her work for the federal government, as secretary/treasurer for the National Farm Loan Association, somehow evolved into her disdain for the New Deal.
The more I learned, the more I felt readers might respond to the historical background of Wilder’s life. There was a moment when I was writing a note about the “Minnesota massacre,” as Wilder calls it in Little House on the Prairie, when I was reading about the history of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.
And I just thought, Wow. Why haven’t I heard about this? Why haven’t we all heard about it? It’s one of the most dramatic moments in American history.
Q: How did you research the book, and what do you see as the key differences between her actual life and the life she depicts in her books?
A: I first started doing research on Wilder when I wrote a long article for the New York Review of Books, back in 1994. That was a review of William Holtz’s book, The Ghost in the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane that argued that Lane was the real author of the Little House books.
I was skeptical about that, so I borrowed the microfilm of Wilder’s drafts of The Long Winter, among other things, and looked at how involved she was in writing—and editing—of her own work.
To be sure, Lane was indispensable. The books probably would never have been published without her professional connections, as well as the crucial editing she did on every volume.
But we have Wilder’s original drafts (or at least the ones that have survived), and they’re the foundational texts of the books. She wrote the books. Lane edited and revised. During the course of working on that article, I visited De Smet, South Dakota, for the first time, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to see the other home sites.
That article inspired the Library of America to reach out to me years later to edit their new edition of the Little House books, and I was able to continue the process, for instance, visiting the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to see the Lane and Wilder papers.
When I began working on Prairie Fires, the first thing I did was drive around the country visiting the various sites.
First, I drove to the Little House on the Prairie site near Independence, Kansas, and then on to Mansfield, Missouri, for the first of several visits. On another trip, I drove from Minneapolis to Pepin, Wisconsin, and then to the various home sites in Minnesota, Iowa, and back to De Smet. I also went to Malone, New York, where the Wilder family farm is.
It’s so fascinating to see these places in person—Malone, for example, is so far north, only a few miles from the Canadian border—and it really helps to see how landscape influenced the lives of these families. These places are remote and fairly isolated, which would play a critical role in the challenges the families faced.
As for the critical differences between Wilder’s life and the books, if I had to narrow it down, I’d say it’s how very difficult their lives were. Reading the books as a child, you’re aware of this, but you also have a strong sense that everything will work out.
In real life, of course, things didn’t always work out. There were accidents, deaths, debts, droughts, failures. The odds were stacked against the small farmer. Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder were so desperately undercapitalized that they really could never succeed, even on a subsistence level.
Q: What did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I was very surprised to learn about Rose Wilder Lane’s early newspaper career and her involvement in yellow journalism.
That, to me, opened up all kinds of fruitful questions about how Wilder and Lane viewed autobiography and memoir as genres that were infinitely malleable. The two of them really didn’t see much of a distinction between fiction and nonfiction, in some ways, and that’s how the Little House books became an experiment in autobiographical fiction.
We’ve gotten so comfortable with the books that we’ve forgotten how unusual it is to write autobiographical novels about your own life in the third person. And in a very unusual twist, Wilder and her daughter would insist that everything in the books was “true,” even though they knew it wasn’t.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane?
A: Tumultuous, in a word. They were like chalk and cheese, in a lot of ways. Laura was careful, frugal, and anxious about the future, while Rose could be mercurial and headlong and quite a spendthrift.
People in Mansfield described Rose as “Bohemian,” a reference to what they may have considered her loose morals—she was very much a “New Woman,” autonomous, independent, flying in the face of an older generation’s moral code. That had to have grated on her mother, living in a conservative southern rural town.
And yet, despite their differences, the women were almost suffocatingly close in some ways. Today, we would say that they had no boundaries. They were often living in each other’s pockets at Rocky Ridge farm, where Lane was heavily involved in her mother’s work (and I’m not sure Wilder could ever have prevented that, even if she wanted to).
Their financial lives were completely entwined. Their political beliefs evolved in tandem with their dismay over the New Deal and loathing for the Roosevelts and Harry Truman.
Ultimately, I think they loved each other but at the same time couldn’t stand each other, something that reflects the complexities of many mother/daughter relationships.
Q: What do you think accounts for the ongoing fascination with the Little House books, and what do you see as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy today?
A: Wilder has come to embody our pioneer experience. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were once male icons of that chapter of American life, but through the Little House books, I think Wilder has become our quintessential image of frontier settlement.
And that’s an interesting legacy, because the image promoted by the Little House books suggests that homesteading was a success, when of course the reality was far more complicated.
And her legacy keeps evolving—first there was the television show in the 1970s and ‘80s, with its own distortions. And we’re continuing to have important discussions about racism in the books, about the portrayal of Native Americans, about the domestic role of women.
I think what we’re left with is the fact that books have been endlessly influential and they’re still inspiring us to reexamine our own history.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m doing a lot of talking about Laura: In December, I did some bookstore appearances and a lot of radio interviews (with more over the coming weeks). And I’m looking forward to giving talks at upcoming conferences and book festivals this year. I have some ideas for another book, but it’s going to take a lot more work before I know about that.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: We’re in the process of working on materials for book groups, so look for those coming soon on the Macmillan website. I’m also getting ready to post research photos and other stuff at https://prairiefiresbook.com/ So if you’re interested in seeing more pictures of the landscapes and people described in the book, please check it out.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb