Prairie Fires brings historical context to the Little House books

Have you read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? Do you enjoy history or reading biographies? Then Caroline Frasier’s Prairie Fires, an in-depth look at Wilder’s life and her novels, might be the book for you. 

Prairie Fires does a particularly good job of portraying the historical reality behind the idealized life on the frontier that was portrayed in the Little House books. However, Frasier has her own biases about the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and those opinions do at times shape the book more than they should. Additionally, Frasier’s historical context comes with a great deal of detail, which is sometimes helpful but may be too much for some readers. 

The Little House books are more than just a series of children’s books––they shaped millions of readers’ views of America and the American dream. Yet the books are heavily edited for young readers, and do not include the harsh realities of frontier life or the time period. The age of industrialism was an especially difficult time for frontier homesteaders like Wilder’s family, who struggled with poverty and never did make a successful life for themselves on the frontier. 

The majority of the book I found very interesting and helpful. Putting Laura’s early life and the events in the book into historical context gave me greater insight into the Little House books. It was particularly interesting to read after beginning US History as a Dana Hall junior, because I can make greater connections to some of her research and historical context. Wilder and her family lived during a time of westward expansion and were one of the families struggling to make a life on the frontier. Manifest destiny, the impact of railroads, the Populist party, western expansion, and journalism at the time all played a big role in Wilder’s life. 

Wilder’s books never mentioned the illegality of her family living on land belonging to Native Americans. As Wilder’s family pushed west alongside other European settlers, native people were disenfranchised, violated, and violently pushed off their land again and again. 

Many times, Frasier gives historical context that puts Wilder’s narrative into much needed perspective. However, she does not fully address Wilder’s racist depictions of Native Americans. She sometimes gives greater historical context about Native American tribes and their conflicts with white settlers, and states that “Wilder’s treatment of Indians, for all of her admiration for them, had undeniably reductive and racist elements” (356), but at other times her personal view towards Laura clouds her writing. At times she defends Wilder’s racism, saying that, “Wilder was not a historian. Instead, her novels would be created from a complex tangle of subjective sources: family lore and letters, old hymnals and songbooks, treasured artifacts of her youth, and her own recollections. Her depiction of the West was drawn less from newspapers or encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folk art” (356-357). While it is true that racism and vulgarity were a part of Wilder’s childhood, that does not excuse the racism in her books. 

Frasier’s bias towards Wilder is especially prominent during the last third of the book, where Frasier strays from discussing Wilder’s early life and the events in the books, and instead looks more closely at Wilder’s and her daughter’s personal lives. Literary historians debate Wilder and Lane’s collaboration on the books. Some speculate that Lane was the primary author of the Little House novels, while others, like Frasier, argue vehemently against this and portray Lane in an unkindly light. Frasier’s bias towards Wilder paints Lane, who struggled with bipolar disorder, as an unpredictable source of anxiety for Wilder and her family, and Frasier does not show as much sympathy in her writing towards Lane as she does to Wilder. 

To me, the last third was the least interesting part of the book, but if you are someone interested in Wilder’s and Lane’s lives during and after the publishing of the Little House books, it may be more interesting for you. For me, the historical context was what made this book most worthwhile, and I would highly recommend Prairie Fires to critical readers with an interest in the Little House books, history/biography genres, and a stomach for detail.

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