Caroline Fraser won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography with her book, “Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” It describes Laura’s life from before her birth to years after her death.
The story includes a fascinating, clear, and detailed description of the settling of the Dakota Territory. This included what is now North and South Dakota, and much of Wyoming and Montana. This also was Sioux Territory, and the desecration of the Sioux way of life, as this area was populated by white people, is detailed.
Through the 1800s, Congress expanded the territory to include part of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. In the late 1880s, North and South Dakota were established and what was known as the Dakota Territory was greatly reduced. However, during the expansion, which included the creation of the Homestead Act, the Sioux and the Dakota Indians lost their land, their lives, and their families.
Caroline and Charles Ingall began their life together in 1860. They struggled to establish homes and support their family during the upheaval of the settling of the west which included, besides the wars between American soldiers and the Indians, fires, famine, disease, blizzards, drought, and floods.
Charles Ingall was among those who tried to profit from the Homestead Act, but there were very few years in which he prospered. Ingalls also could not bear to be around many people and because of this and other factors, the Ingalls family moved frequently. Their homes included mud huts, one-room dwellings above stores, and occasionally, a log cabin built by Charles Ingalls. The family settled in DeSmet, South Dakota, when Caroline refused to move again.
That Laura Ingalls Wilder could take what was a childhood of poverty, sadness, hunger, and many near-death experiences, along with the fleeting joys she experienced with her family, and turn her story into what became the Little House books is nothing short of amazing.
The life she describes in the stories are mostly true, but as Laura herself often said, it wasn’t the whole truth. Laura was a mother to Rose Wilder by the age of 19, and she buried another child when he was just days old. When Laura received word in Missouri that her mother Caroline had died, she hadn’t seen her mother for 20 years.
Laura omitted from her books the tragedies and near-death experiences of her family along with other sad and frightening events. In a large part, she couldn’t bear to remember them but she was writing for children and needed to leave out frightening tales. She omitted the details about her strained relationship with her own daughter whose erratic behavior as a teen and adult often troubled Laura. She omitted Almanzo’s stroke in his 20s which left him physically unable to do many of the farm chores that Laura assumed for the rest of her life.
The Little House books remain famous in part to the simple, direct writing style of Laura and her ability to describe in detail what she remembered and wished to tell about her upbringing. The television show created and directed by Michael Landon in the 1970s revived interest in the books even as his shows took great liberty and fabricated many of the stories.
Some biographers have suggested that Rose Wilder Ingall (1886-1968), a renowned editor in her time, contributed to the writing of the books. Rose, however, did not have a similar writing style, and although she connected her mother with publishers, there is no evidence that she had a hand in the telling of the stories. She did contribute as an editor, and her mother relied on her for her editing skills.
That Laura Ingalls Wilder did not begin writing her books until she was 60 years old is remarkable. She died in 1957.
Fraser’s book, which traces two centuries in the history of our country, shows how people endured the settling of this land, how Native Americans were the victims of the white man’s search for identity and independence, and how a resilient child of the frontier became a best-selling author and a revered woman to this day.
Fraser includes much information on the legacy of the Little House books and how Rose Wilder Lane entrusted her mother’s estate to Rose’s friend, Roger Lea McBride. She describes how devotion to Laura Ingalls Wilder continues with people still visiting her homes and fans tracing her journey from the former Dakota Territory to Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura lived her entire adult life.
Anyone acquainted with and devoted to the Little House books will treasure and learn from this story. Anyone wishing for a true recounting of the settling of the West will delight in it as well. The research is exhausting and satisfying; this must be the definitive book on Laura Ingalls Wilder. It deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize for Biographies, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, and to be a New York Times Bestseller.