Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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I never read these books as a child, being too busy with fairy tales and Arthurian stories, and never saw the television series. However, Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder, Prairie Fires, came highly recommended to me, so I thought I’d better catch up on these children’s books.

In this, the third book in the loosely autobiographical series, Laura and her family leave their beloved Wisconsin house in the big woods, described in the first book, and set out for Kansas. The experience of traveling in a covered wagon is vividly conveyed, seen from young Laura’s perspective, though the discomforts are minimised. Laura, her older sister Mary, and baby Carrie get restless sitting in the wagon all day, and Laura worries about the dog Jack who has to run the whole way, but she’s also fascinated by all she sees and comforted by the sound of the horses feeding as she goes to sleep.

As in the other books, the small family encounters hazards and setback, but Ma and Pa can always be relied upon to keep the girls safe and feeeling loved. Eventually they find themselves on an open, seemingly uninhabited prairie near Independence, Kansas. The descriptions of the grasslands—their shy colors and scents, their creatures and breezes—show a genuine love of this land.

Reading this book as an adult gives me a curious double perspective. I know too well the ecological damage done by farmers like Pa plowing up the fragile prairie. I know too much about blatant lies of the government and railroads that lured homesteaders onto lands not appropriate for wheat farming, and of course about the injustice and genocide visited upon the Osages who in fact inhabited this land.

There has been some outcry about the depiction of the Osages in these books, but at least in this one I found it pretty even-handed. Remember that it is from a child’s point of view, one who knows nothing of the larger picture or the history. When the Native Americans do turn up on their seasonal migration, Ma and some of the other nearby homesteaders are afraid of them, but Pa treats them as neighbors, with courtesy and respect. Young Laura describes the ones she actually meets as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I also know too much about poverty, and do not take at face value the nostalgic recreation of life in a one-room cabin with sometimes only potatoes for dinner. If I’d read this book as a young child, in a bedroom well-stocked with toys and books, nourished on three balanced meals a day, I wonder how I would have reacted to young Laura’s blissful descriptions of her single doll, a rag doll made by Ma, and the comfort of a single potato or turnip for dinner and Pa’s fiddle afterwards.

As an adult, I was fascinated with her detailed description of the house Pa built: the way he notched the logs, put on the roof, built the door, and crafted leather hinges for it. Laura’s childish pursuits are charming, but what captured me was Ma and Pa’s endless toil, the heartbreak of lost harvests, the impossibility of breaking even.

It was not a simpler time; it was an infinitely more difficult time. I’ve chopped wood for winter fuel and washed clothes with a washboard. I’ve tried to live off what I can raise. The hardships of frontier life, of homesteading don’t seem romantic to me. Perhaps they might have if I’d read these books as a child, unaware of all that was being glossed over.

Have you read or reread a children’s book that seems different to you as an adult?

Best books I read in 2018

Best books I read in 2018

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2018. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
This unusual and remarkable book is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life. This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor.

2. Waking, by Eva Figes
It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this stunning novel. Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death.

3. Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland
In crafting his poems Tony Hoagland, who passed away this year, brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment. The poems in this, his final book, often moved me to tears.

4. Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon
For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through.

5. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
This memoir by the Supreme Court justice is remarkably well-crafted and imbued with a generous spirit.

6. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in her poems. She also speaks of different sorts of unity and embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

7. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley
With this novel, Mosley takes us into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges. It is one of the most moving portrayals of aging that I’ve read. Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

8. [Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin
Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share: brevity, self-containment, and “urge to finality of utterance”. What they also share is humor, wit, and true wisdom.

9. My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
This quiet story is not for everyone, but I fell in love with Lucy’s voice. In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is.

10. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit her aunt, only to find herself embroiled in an invasion. Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

What were the best books you read last year?

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

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For once, I saw the film of this award-winning Young Adult book before reading the book itself. I’d taken an excellent workshop led by Rosoff, so when I saw the film listed, I decided to take a look. Only later did I follow up with reading the book, and was glad I did.

As the story begins, fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit Aunt Penn, sister to Daisy’s mother who died when Daisy was born. The teen loathes her stepmother, who is pregnant, saying, “If she was making even the slightest attempt to address centuries of bad press for stepmother, she scored a Big Fat Zero.”

Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. She’s met by her fourteen-year-old cousin Edmond, who is not only smoking a cigarette but has brought a “falling-apart” jeep in which he will drive her home.

Thus begins her adventures with her charmingly eccentric cousins in an old house in the countryside. Aunt Penn who is important in the government, leaves almost immediately “to give a lecture in Oslo . . . on the Imminent Threat of War.”

Daisy pays little attention to war-talk, since people had been yammering about the possibility for the last five years, though her oldest cousin Osbert can’t get enough of the latest news. She spends her days with Edmond, his twin Isaac, and their little sister Piper, and assorted dogs, goats and other animals. They fish and swim and picnic.

Then comes the invasion.

This is when the film blew me away. Watching it without knowing the story at all, I thought if a war came, it would be like the Land Girls or children being moved to the countryside during the Blitz, as in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart.

I was wrong. The images of rural England occupied by an enemy force—villages turned into military encampments, cars abandoned on country lanes for lack of petrol—shocked me deeply. And, to my shame, showed me just how superficial my empathy is for other countries trapped by warring armies: Sarajevo, Aleppo, so many others. Not England, I kept thinking.

Shameful, indeed.

I’m glad I went on to read the book. Not only is it more detailed and nuanced—movies must necessarily leave out much of what’s in a book—but Daisy’s voice is so true as she tries to keep her head above water, waters that get deeper and more treacherous as the story goes on. I felt I experienced every minute with her, every shifting emotion. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

Have you read a book recently that showed you something new about yourself, perhaps something you’re not proud of?