I know it is a terrible cliche, but every chapter inevitably had me thinking “this sounds familiar, I feel like we read this every day, the more things change…”
While I did not grow up watching the television series, I was a voracious reader as a child, and repeatedly read The Little House of the Prairie series. I am also very interested in biographies of writers I enjoy, particularly when my perception of them isn’t particularly well matched by the reality (see also L. M. Montgomery). I saw this sitting in the new releases section of my library, with the seemingly incongruous pictures of flames on the cover, and could not resist.
The Little House books seem to be woven into the cultural fabric for most young readers – there we find adventure and wonder and recognizable childhood emotions. Who hasn’t pined for something owned by a friend, been jealous and angry at a sibling or friend, and been scared and needing comfort from a parent who seems so wise? Laura Ingalls seemed to be me in an earlier time, I thought, but Fraser’s book about Ingalls Wilder paints a slightly different picture of this woman, as well as introducing the reader to her domineering daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Of course I knew as a child that the book version of Laura, along with the TV version, would have been idealized, but Fraser’s book frames both the Ingalls and Wilder families against the larger political and environmental crises experienced by American homesteaders. Fraser ties the day to day life of the Ingalls families to events such as the Minnesota Massacre, the horrific locust infestations, and enormous destructive fires. It’s economics, but it is fascinating, truly.
Ingalls Wilder grew up POOR, as did most of the people around her, and it forever coloured her experience of the world, as it did that of her daughter. The American people, even then, were being sold on some version of the American dream, ever just out of their reach. At that time, most of the people dreamt of having a successful farm, and so the government encouraged them to move further west, settling land that they knew was contested by indigenous peoples and at risk of drought. When failure arrived, most of the government would not consider “handouts,” wanting these starving and desperate people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, etc etc etc. While the values exemplified in the Little House books – independence, hard work, loyalty – are ones that she embodied in her real life, the books certainly present a curated version of that life.
Wilder Lane, who suffered a difficult upbringing and some mental health issues throughout her life, was a talented writer in her own right who found her own success as a novelist and reporter. Unfortunately, she all too willingly fell prey to paranoia about big government and foreign powers; her growing anti-Semitism and suspicion of both the government and her more liberal friends leading her into lonely spiral of isolation and making her vulnerable to predatory hangers on. To a certain extent, she influenced her mother in the same way, which is certainly not something you would expect of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It all seems depressingly familiar.
Caroline Fraser’s book has won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. This review is not doing this book justice. It is so good – I have recommended it to everyone who would sit still long enough to listen to me. It’s a biography of a famous author with a shared focus on her author daughter, but it’s also a history of the USA. It is so much, but also very enjoyable to read and extraordinarily well written, and is prescient of the current American political climate. I cannot recommend this highly enough.