...deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise [of chronicling the West] ... 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 ... 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.
...an impressive piece of social history that uses the events of Wilder’s life to track, socially and politically, the development of the American continent and its people ... Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life. In the 1930s, populists like the Wilders were a minority voice in America; it was rather the characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who reflected the mood of the country. They resembled the people who, in their millions, greeted Roosevelt as a savior, convinced that his was the view required for national survival. Today, the balance of power has reversed. The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.
Fraser brings a learned hand to this substantial biography of Wilder, learned and substantial though also light on its feet, washed with color, and opinionated ... Fraser’s color commentary freshens the story time and again, because Laura’s life was one of wildfire, dust storms, house fires, illnesses like diphtheria, tornadoes, crazy 'sinister' weather (as is said, if you don’t like prairie weather, wait a minute), warfare in the Black Hills and warfare with the Osage ... Fraser’s volume feels as secure in its verisimilitude and necessary guesswork as those cozy fireside-reading sessions out there on the glorious prairie, that burning, pestilential, heartbreaking, health-sapping, dust-broiling, dark, and wintry prairie. The book will stand true – a testament to bootstrapping work by both Fraser and Wilder – a lot longer than those sod huts.
The intersections between a single family’s experiences and events of wider historical importance provide a grand stage for Fraser’s portrayal of Wilder’s life, times, and enduring legacy. In beautifully unfolding prose, Prairie Fires presents a rich account of Wilder’s frontier childhood, personal relationships, and writing life alongside a vivid historical background. Through deep archival research, Fraser lifts the veil of myth created by Wilder’s published writings to reveal a truer account of the hardships her work concealed and the resonances of that life with the broader American experience ... In describing the particular fortunes of the Wilders, Fraser speaks to the common experience of settlers in the West. Looking beyond the rose-tinted picture of frontier life presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her autobiographical novels, Fraser reveals the extent of the hardships she and her family endured, from extreme debt to the death of her infant brother, Freddie, at just a few months old. This brutal picture is softened by intimate moments of family life and of community that are more familiar to Wilder’s readers ... Underscoring the inextricability of Wilder’s life and work, this is also the portrait that Prairie Fires, through its historicizing impulse, presents of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself: A woman of great determination, whose life, hopes, and dreams speak to the fundamentals of the American character.
In Caroline Fraser’s magisterial and eloquent biography, Prairie Fires, Wilder, in a willful act of reinvention, sanitized the people and events of her life with the support of her troubled only child, Rose Wilder Lane … From politics to art, Prairie Fires is virtually a double biography of mother and daughter and the work they forged in the crucible of their torments, creating an awesome achievement in children’s literature. Fraser assiduously avoids the sentimentality of earlier books, such as Donald Zochert’s Laura, proving herself a fearless chronicler, adept at skewering sacred cows. She’s given us the definitive biography of a self-taught writer whose pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology cloaked the shame of poverty and airbrushed a life perpetually teetering on the brink of doom.
Fraser aims to address both the particulars of the Ingalls’ lives and the way Laura spun the humble facts into a narrative that feels so central to a certain strain of American identity. Her books, Fraser writes of Laura, have made her ‘the emblematic figure of pioneer history’ as well as ‘a treasured incarnation of American tenacity’ … In Prairie Fires, Fraser places Laura’s choices as a writer within the larger context of Americans’ self-deception when it comes to the pioneer life and its legacy. This she manages to do without diminishing Laura herself, a woman Fraser clearly admires.
Caroline Fraser’s magnificent new biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder reveals the full story of Wilder’s journey from pioneer girl to best-selling author, including the wrenching details of Laura’s painfully fraught relationship with daughter Rose, and how their turbulent partnership affected the books … Fraser deconstructs the idealized myth in the children’s books with an incisive critical reading of Wilder’s much darker autobiography, Pioneer Girl … This biography becomes even more fascinating when it turns to the second half of Wilder’s life, specifically how Rose Wilder Lane — a ‘yellow journalist’ of the Hearst era — urged her mother to soften her autobiography into stories that upheld ‘proud American values’ … Prairie Fires is a remarkable, noteworthy biography of an American literary icon.
Fraser offers a revealing look at Wilder's pioneering life on the Great Plains, showing us where the author's real life matched up with the autobiographical Little House series and where it departed … Comprehensive in scope and meticulously researched, the book is a joy from start to finish, an exquisitely written examination of how life on the harsh, 19th-century prairie shaped both the written work and worldview of one of the most famous women in American letters … Here and throughout the book, Fraser pulls off an impressive balancing act: She avoids overly simplistic characterizations of the homesteaders as villains, but she offers an unflinching account of the plight of American Indians. It's a welcome correction to Wilder's story — rarely did the Little House books or the TV series adaptation offer anything like sympathy for native peoples.
In many ways, Wilder’s story is the story of the American West, and Fraser frames her biography in that context … Fraser’s exploration of Wilder’s family history begins with her father’s Puritan ancestors in the 1600s. Caroline (Quiner) Ingalls’ genealogy gets a similar treatment. All this contributes to the great tapestry of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, while also making the early chapters of Prairie Fires dense and scholarly, sometimes to the point of dryness … Fraser has certainly achieved her goal of putting Wilder and her Little House books into a clearer context than ever before.
Yet the confluence of themes raised by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life enables Fraser to explore not only the 'profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation' that the novels’ creation entailed but also the environmental, social, and political forces that shaped both the myths and the realities behind them ... That said, Fraser calls their literary relationship a 'collaboration,' and reminds us that it involved a tension between opposing approaches—Wilder’s plain, unornamented empirical descriptions and Lane’s slick, dramatic, and crowd-pleasing sensationalism. Ultimately, says Fraser, 'Wilder saw writing as a cottage industry: books were the work of many hands, like quilts at a sewing bee' ... Fraser’s meticulous biography has particular urgency today, as she unknots the threads of fact and fiction, of reality and myth, of mother and daughter. She takes on, very occasionally, a moralizing tone that surprises. But these rare lapses have a logic in the broader culture wars of which this book may be seen—at least by avid partisans in the fight for Wilder’s legacy—to be part ... But as Fraser is at pains to point out, that spirit lives on most vibrantly in the novels themselves.
Richly documented (it contains 85 pages of notes), it is the compelling, beautifully written story of a life whose childhood and early years of marriage were beset by incredible economic privation and disaster: poverty, hunger, fire, blizzards, invasions of locusts, and more, enough to seemingly eclipse the biblical plagues of Egypt ... One of the more interesting aspects of this wonderfully insightful book is its delineation of the fraught relationship between Wilder and her deeply disturbed, often suicidal daughter. But it is its marriage of biography and history—the latter providing such a rich context for the life—that is one of the great strengths of this indispensable book, an unforgettable American story.
...a cleareyed and well-documented examination of Wilder’s life, writings, and career; her relationship with Rose; and her politics ... A vivid portrait of frontier life and one of its most ardent celebrants.
...[an] overlong but engrossing biography ... Lovers of the series will delight in learning about real-life counterparts to classic fictional episodes, but, as Fraser emphasizes, the true story was often much harsher ... Fraser’s exploration of Wilder’s life opens her subject to new scrutiny, which, for Wilder’s many fans, may be both exhilarating and disconcerting.