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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls—the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books. But the true saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.

The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading—and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.

Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.


One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year

The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books

640 pages, Hardcover

First published November 14, 2017

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About the author

Caroline Fraser

14 books119 followers
Caroline Fraser was born in Seattle and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American literature. Formerly on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, she is the author of two nonfiction books, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church and Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, both published by Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books.

She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine, and The London Review of Books, among other publications. She has received a PEN Award for Best Young Writer and was a past recipient of the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writer's Residency, awarded by PEN Northwest. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Hal Espen.

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Profile Image for Julie .
4,027 reviews58.9k followers
December 29, 2017
Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser is a 2017
Metropolitan Books publication.

‘All that I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth’

This is an incredible biography of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder of ‘The Little House on Prairie’ fame.

To say this book on Wilder's life is comprehensive would be an understatement. Caroline Fraser paints a vivid portrait of the beloved author, but still preserves the respect for her novels that have entertained many of us for generations.

As a child, I read the ‘Little House’ books over and over again, and of course, I tuned in once a week to watch the television show. (Until it got too soapy and I started to outgrow it)

So, naturally, when I saw this book, I knew I had to have it. As it has been pointed out, the books Wilder wrote were a fictionalized accounting of her childhood. This leaves one to wonder about Wilder’s life, beyond her childhood and marriage, and what information she may have glossed over while writing her books, which were primarily a hit among children.

With over six hundred pages, this book was not only a very detailed, extensive look, at Laura Ingalls Wilder, but the historical evolutions that took place during her life.

I won’t go into the details provided in the book, as you will want to read those for yourselves, but I will say I was very taken aback by some of the historical details, by some of the antics Charles Ingalls, Laura's father, got up to, and some of Wilder’s attitudes towards those in a worse situation than her own, as well as how political she and her daughter, Rose, often were.

A great deal of time is spent on Rose Lane, Wilder’s only surviving child, and their complicated relationship. I had never heard any of this information and found myself riveted by the stark differences between the two women, and Rose's bold, selfish manipulations.

I simply can not fathom the amount of time and work the author must have put into this book. Not only does she dig deeply into Wilder’s life, giving us one of the most in -depth studies of her struggles and opinions, thus allowing the most realistic and insightful view of who this woman really was, and the impact her daughter has on the public persona we’ve embraced up until this moment, but she also researched the historical eras Wilder lived through, providing a striking look at the harsh life many were subjected to, barely able to survive, and the complicated land agreements that displaced many Native Americans.

The failures and disasters came around far more than the triumphs. It wasn’t until Wilder was in her fifties and sixties that her writing career took off.

Although this book is almost encyclopedic, and may look as though it would be dry reading, and does seem daunting, with its ‘door stop’ weightiness, I found it was very absorbing and the pages seem to zoom by. Even so, it did take a while to read through it. There are lots of notes and I tend to skim over all that, but it is nice to have the information available for future reference. There are several wonderful photos of the Ingalls/Wilder family, of Laura, and of Rose, who plays a large role in this book.

Overall, I must say this book was much more than I bargained for. It is very, very well researched, and as such, I learned a great deal from it, and despite the risk of disillusionment, I found Laura Ingalls Wilder to be quite an interesting person. She was a hard worker, often carrying the weight of her family on her shoulders, and like all of us to varying degrees, complex, difficult, and at times I didn’t care for her attitude, while at others I admired her temerity, and her ability to staunchly weather all the hardships life through onto her path. I didn’t always understand her point of view, didn’t always agree with her choices, and found Rose Lane to be a real pain, but at the end of the day, this biography is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Even if you are not a fan of the ‘Little House’ books, the historical aspects alone are worth giving the book a try. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading history, and of course for those who would like to know the real truth about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

5 stars
Profile Image for Matt.
918 reviews28.3k followers
April 3, 2021
“If [Laura Ingalls] Wilder’s life was triumphant…it was a different kind of triumph than we are accustomed to recognizing. She wrote no laws, led no one into battle, waged no campaigns. If we listen to her, we can hear what she was telling us. Life in frontier times was a perpetual hard winter. There was joy…but it was fleeting. There was heroism, but it was the heroism of daily perseverance, the unprized tenacity of unending labor. It was the heroism of chores, repetitive tasks defined by drudgery…Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person. Not only a fictional character, although she lives on in that guise. When you stand in the small town cemeteries where she and her people are buried, you know they were real. In the silence on the rise in De Smet, on the hill in Mansfield, covered by grass and gray markers, there are real bodies buried in the ground, not images or icons or fantasies.”
- Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs…”
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, from the opening lines of Little House in the Big Woods

The impressions we form in our youth are among the strongest we will ever have. That is probably why the people who were introduced to the Little House books as children remain attached to them so strongly. It has been years (and years, and years, and years) since I first listened to my dad as he read the series to me. Once I learned to read myself, I went through the series again, and again. Their presence has never left me, something I can’t say about The Hardy Boys or The Boxcar Children. As soon as my first child was born, I mentally began counting down the days when I would break out my tattered edition of Big Woods and read that fairy-tale like hook. With my oldest daughter just turning six, we have finally reached that time.

Despite my great love for Little House, I have spent precious little time wondering about its creator. I never knew of or paid attention to the lingering controversy about whether the series represented fact or fiction (today I think we can comfortably say that it’s a blend, and be okay with that). I never really attempted to place Laura or her family in a historical context, since the books themselves are remarkably ahistorical, mostly eschewing dates, times, and goings-on in the wider world.

In other words, when I picked up Caroline Fraser’s cradle-to-grave biography of the real Laura, I did not do so with any great expectations. Rather, I had a mild interest in the woman who created the girl who taught me all about making molasses candy in the snow and churning butter and constructing a door without iron hinges. Thus, I was unprepared to be utterly blown away by this fantastic volume. Fraser’s work is rich, layered, and powerful. It is a quintessentially American tale of poverty to riches straight from the unforgiving frontier. But instead of making her wealth from the land, which Wilder’s books always assured us was possible, with just a little more sweat, a little more time, she found success in turning the failures of her own life into a sweetly packaged saga. It is a remarkable tale.

The dominant them of Prairie Fires is crushing and abject poverty. It is about failing, trying again, failing again, and trying again (and failing again). This sounds terribly depressing, but before you stop reading, let me assure you, it is not. Instead, it is honest. It gives you the hardscrabble reality of the homesteader, of the poor pioneer sold the Jeffersonian dream of a secure and happy life on a self-sustaining farm, only to be crushed by unsuitable land, years-long droughts, and creditors, always the creditors. With the exception of Laura, who achieved her lasting literary success late in life, the rest of her family died without ever discovering the elusive Eden in the west.

Their failures, though, do not make them failures. As Fraser expertly demonstrates, through every scrap of documentary evidence she can find, these were amazing people: tough, resilient, gutsy, and undaunted. If you’ve ever read the Little House series, you know that Pa – Charles Ingalls – is one of the stars. His love of Laura, and Laura’s love for him, is the most profound relationship in the novels, especially given Wilder’s tendency to highlight mechanistic processes and descriptions of nature over scenes of intimacy. Here, the real Charles Ingalls steps forward, and you see that that aspect – the love between the father and daughter – was real. I’ll be honest, I might have shed a tear when Charles died.

[Her father’s] most remarkable gift, as Laura saw it, was a deep and profound contentment with what he had. Despite all the losses and reversals, the perils, the hunger, the always disappointed hopes in the next harvest, he was satisfied in the life he had chosen. He cherished his wife, his children, and his music:

“All Father needed to make him happy [Laura wrote in an unpublished manuscript] was his family, a new, wild country to live in or travel over, good hunting and fishing, some traps, his gun, two good horses hitched to a rain-proof covered wagon and his violin…”

Fraser’s telling of the Ingalls true-life adventures, here given in unexpurgated fashion, with all the thorny little details (such as the Ingalls family squatting illegally on Osage land) is reason enough to read Prairie Fires. Things only get better, though, with the introduction of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s only child, and a literary dervish, unforgettable in her own right. Rose is like something out of fiction: a world traveler; an outspoken journalist; a financial sieve who made and spent fortunes; a political hardliner who ended up outflanking the John Birch society; and a self-taught genius as an editor and storyteller. She also probably suffered from a mental illness, as shown by the many suicidal musings in her journal. Here, Rose proves a perfect foil to her reserved and polite mother.

One of the best sections in this thoroughly entertaining biography details the working relationship between Rose and Laura. For as long as the Little House books have existed, Laura has been dogged by allegations that Rose was the true author. As Fraser persistently shows, through examination of letters and manuscripts and Rose’s own oeuvre, those charges are false. Certainly, Rose helped mold the clay, adding in various fictions, and softening rough edges. But this is hardly tantamount to ghostwriting. If anything, Rose pilfered Laura’s life for her own novels, which Rose used to advance her increasingly strident libertarian politics.

The only flaw in this book is a flaw within myself. It broke the Little House spell that Laura wove for me so many years ago. It will be hard, going forward, to fully embrace the warm and cozy cabin, knowing it was at times nothing but a drafty tar paper shack; and those delectable meals she lovingly described were often the menu spun by her own imagination.

Moreover, the canvas that she paints of the American West is riddled with holes and colored by nostalgia. The frontier she describes only really existed in myth and false memory. The land she called empty was actually peopled by Indian tribes; when she saw an absence, it was because they had been pacified, either killed or removed. The self-sustaining farms she talks about were seldom self-sustaining. They were dead ends of debt and ecological disaster. The distortion of the western historiography matters, because we base so much of our national character on that experience.

But I don’t think Laura Ingalls Wilder ever set out to bolster a national fable. I think, to the contrary, that her self-mythologizing helped her cope. She tamed her own past by writing these stories.

And there are still good lessons to be learned. Chief among them, the ability to find joy in the everyday things:

“[Laura’s] voice speaks to us of those people and their feeling for the land. It speaks not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.”

Forget the paeans to doing-it-yourself, to enduring, and making do. The real heart of Little House is the pleasure one takes in a peppermint stick at Christmas; in the way that sunlight dances across the ripples of a creek; in the deep contentment of being surrounded by those you love, and who love you back.
Profile Image for Beverly.
806 reviews293 followers
July 29, 2018
At 515 pages, Prairie Fires asks for a chunk of your time, but I found myself more and more enthralled by it as I read deeper into Laura Ingalls Wilder's fascinating life. What Carolyn Fraser does is tell you the truth behind the fantasy of the Little House books. Fraser is a prodigious researcher, but never pedantic or trite. She writes as Wilder did with the directness and honesty true to her subject.
The most riveting part of the book for me was Wilder's contentious relationship with her only child, her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane, who I had never heard of was also a writer, but not nearly the caliber of her mother. She was apparently a good editor though and helped her mother with those tasks in writing the Little House books.
Fraser is witty too and made me smile many times, usually at Lane. Such a pompous, snide child and adult she became. How could such a wonderful mother be cursed with such an ingrate. Lane, Ayn Rand and Isabel Mary Paterson apparently were the progenitors of the libertarian movement. Fraser calls them, "Three weird sisters in an antifeminist trifecta, they each celebrated in their books the strapping male as a hero, and exhibited a striking dissociation from what was happening around the world."
Fraser celebrates the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her love of her family and the land, even though her life was a, "...perpetual hard winter."
Profile Image for Brina.
902 reviews4 followers
June 4, 2018
Spring is my favorite season. It is a time of rebirth, the new baseball season, and the Pulitzer announcement. While not a fan of awards shows that drag for hours, I giddily await the Pulitzer Prize reveal each year with anticipation. It is an ongoing, open ended goal of mine to read as many Pulitzer winners as possible over the course of my lifetime. Whether I enjoy the content or not, the books are usually well written and a joy to read. This year, I was delighted to find out that the winner for biography was Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Like many Americans, I had grown up reading her Little House books and thoroughly enjoyed following the coming of age saga of Laura and her sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace. Fraser, the current editor of Little House Books of America, had researched the real life Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family from a historical lens and placed her in the context of American history. The result is this award winning biography that I knew I could not pass up.

As a child it is easy to get swept away by the lives of characters in epic book series like Little House. One roots for them through their ups and downs and overlooks any faults. Little House not only avoided presenting the character Laura with many faults, but it also omits the often times depressing history of the Ingalls family. Fraser presents her adult readers with a more accurate yet less rosy picture of the Ingalls and Quiner families. The first Ingalls in America came over on the Mayflower and settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Samuel Ingalls had been a proponent of the Puritan ideals of hard work and self-sufficiency that so characterized his descendants Charles and later Laura. The family worked the land over the generations, always seeking out better opportunities, and eventually made their way west to what is now Kane County, Illinois and eventually Wisconsin. This is where the family lived during the outbreak of the Civil War where many siblings married their Quiner neighbors. Listing among their relatives the Delanos, who would later produce an American president, the Quiners shared similar characteristics with the Ingalls', especially their adherence to hard work and self-dependency. One of the resulting Quiner-Ingalls matches was Caroline Quiner to Charles Ingalls.

Charles Ingalls was determined to make himself as a successful farmer. In the era following the Civil War, the federal government offered land grants to homesteaders to take the American west from the Native Americans once and for all. The history of the reconstruction era west is filled with bloody battles in the race to win the land. Fraser details some of these often lost battles in western Wisconsin and Minnesota as the Ingalls family journeyed from one state to another seeking out the perfect homestead. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was born near Lake Pepin, Wisconsin on February 7, 1867. Her treasured Little House in the Big Woods begins in Wisconsin when Laura had just celebrated her fifth birthday. The fictional family never lacked food or entertainment even in lean times, and Pa always told stories and played his fiddle. The real life Ingalls family had left Wisconsin on the Chicago and Northwestern railroad prior to Laura's fifth birthday. They were impoverished, never outright owning a home of their own, and moved from Wisconsin to Kansas back to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota again, following family members in search of the perfect piece of land to call home. Yet, Charles for all his good character traits, found it difficult to make ends meet as a farmer, and as Laura wrote her family history into children's stories, she created a truthful tale that wasn't all true.

In the end, the family settled on a homestead on Silver Lake near De Smet, South Dakota, where they would remain as settlers moved west. The Ingalls' had endured poverty, swarms of locusts, the first great depression of the 1870s, and multiple mortgages on attempts to homestead. Charles and Caroline Ingalls finally found this life in De Smet, even if the farming life continued to be challenging. They became pillars of their church and masons in the Eastern Star organization and endured a real life long winter. Mary went blind, and Laura did indeed take up teaching so that Mary could go to the college for the blind in Vinton, Iowa. In this time between the winter and teaching, Laura became acquainted with Almanzo Wilder, who she married in 1885 at the age of eighteen. The Wilders had moved west from the town of Malone, New York, and enjoyed a similar history as the Ingalls'. Almanzo, or Manly as Laura called him, had attempted to homestead, but found it difficult to make ends meet among droughts, locusts, and the boom or bust farming cycle. By Christmas of 1886 the couple had a daughter named Rose and Almanzo struggled to make ends meet as a farmer. The Ingalls family had moved to town, abandoning attempts at farming, and Laura and Almanzo eventually left De Smet in 1894, for the land of red apples, Mansfield, Missouri.

The second half of the book details Laura's and an adult Rose's writing careers. The two clashed over life in rural Missouri, Laura and Almanzo enjoying fulfilling lives as farmers on Rocky Ridge Farm, while Rose always had an eye on the future and a way out of dodge. As soon a she could, she left her parents while working as a stenographer and made her way to San Francisco. An independent woman before it was popular, it was Rose who took up writing as career before her more famous mother. Whereas Laura penned an occasional memoir in order to preserve her father's stories and tunes played on the fiddle, Rose worked for income, ghost writing autobiographies of prominent Americans as Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, and President Herbert Hoover. Alienating her subjects and embracing the role of an isolationist American, Rose was a polarizing figure. Yet, she played a prominent role in encouraging her mother to write and later publish her family's history in the form of children's books, working in the key role of copy editor.

Whereas Laura and Rose did not see eye to eye in a loving mother-daughter relationship, Rose's expertise as an editor as well as her contacts in the publishing industry got her mother an initial contract with Harper and Company. During the depression era, the Wilders were again in a cycle of poverty and distrusted the federal government programs of President Roosevelt, ironically a distant relative. People always read books, especially for escapism purposes, and the Little House series became an instant hit. Americans enjoyed reading about a wholesome farming family on the prairie, calling to a calmer time in America. There were few to no mentions of Native Americans, locusts, poverty, or other hardships aside from the long winter, and people from all walks of life found themselves relating to the hard working Ingalls family. Neither Laura nor Rose envisioned the books becoming what they are today, yet the royalties from the books allowed Laura and Almanzo to finally lift themselves out of poverty and enjoy their twilight years comfortably. Even though neither Charles Ingalls nor Almanzo Wilder fulfilled their dreams of becoming successful homestead farmers, their American dreams played out to the children around the world in the form of now classic children's books.

Caroline Fraser completed extensive research while placing the Ingalls family into a historical context as homesteaders struggling to achieve the American dream during the late 19th and early 20th century. She places Laura, Almanzo, and Rose and their personal history alongside historical events unfolding around them, showing their family and personal growth as the country matured from an agrarian to industrial society. The anecdote depicting Laura and Almanzo learning to drive was especially light hearted. Yet, most intriguing was the argument as to who played the lead role in writing Little House books, Laura or Rose, and how much of the books were fact or fiction. Leaving out the hardships facing the Ingalls and Wilder families in order to create a more wholesome story for children, the Little House books, despite this shortcoming, have persevered for generations. As I enjoyed reading the series as a child and now passing this down to my daughters, I was captivated by the real life story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. Prairie Fires is deserving of its Pulitzer, and I look forward with giddy anticipation to see which biography merits the award next year.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Beth Cato.
Author 109 books536 followers
October 25, 2017
I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

When I visited Laura Ingalls Wilder's farmhouse and museum in Mansfield, Missouri, last year, it felt like a pilgrimage to me. Seeing Pa's fiddle, walking where Laura walked, was a soul-deep experience for me. Her Little House books had a major impact on my life and making me the author I am today.

I have read several biographies of Wilder over the past two years, including the annotated version of her original, truer-to-life manuscript, Pioneer Girl. Fraser's work is the most comprehensive book by far, encompassing the lives of Laura's parents and extending after her death to the actions of her daughter and the evolution of her literary estate. The amount of research involved is staggering. It's well known that the Little House books deviated from reality in major ways, and that Rose Wilder Lane was a major collaborative force in bringing the "juveniles" to publication. Sorting through the muddled mess of half-truths could be confusing, but Fraser lays out the facts through primary source materials, manuscripts and letters. The book is quite long; the galley is over 500 pages, plus citations, but it's a fast, intriguing read for people like me who are already invested in Wilder's world.

The only challenge in the book is not the author's fault at all, but the dominating, bipolar presence of Rose Wilder Lane. She cannot be separated from her mother's legacy; she had too great a role in developing the books, and her influence on her mother is undeniable. But my gosh, Lane is exhausting to read about. She was mentally ill, vacillating between suicidal depression and manic spending sprees, and as she grew older her extreme politics took on a sinister bent. If she were alive today, she would be an alt right troll on Twitter.

Fraser doesn't shy away from showing how Lane's politics--and Wilder's--evolved through the ends of their lives. It's not a pretty truth; actually, it's rather infuriating to see how Wilder's celebration of the can-do American farming experience was so far from reality. Her family was persistently poor. They settled on Kansas land they had no right to. They slipped out of Burr Oak, Iowa, in the dead of night to evade debt. Wilder's sisters and mother died, still utterly stricken by poverty. Wilder was only secure at the end because of her book sales, as her Missouri farm had always hovered at the edge of failure, too, intermittently blessed and damned by Lane's financial whims.

While this book will be enlightening for anyone who loves Wilder's work, it should be regarded as a vital read for anyone with an interest in American history from 1860 onward. It presents on honest, brutal assessment of what Native Americans endured in Minnesota and beyond, the realities of farming, the interplay of politics on local and national levels, and how the west was settled--and unsettled in our modern era of oil pipelines and fracking.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,076 reviews711 followers
March 19, 2021
This book is marketed and generally reviewed as the definitive biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series of books. My description is a bit different.

This Pulitzer Prize winning book came across to me as a verbal Venn diagram consisting of three major biographies of; (1) Laura Ingalls Wilder, (2) her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, and (3) the Little House books themselves which seem to have a continuing life of their own by turning into a TV series leading to a secondary explosion in book sales. In addition to these three major biographies are multiple overlapping stories consisting of the stories of other family members, ancestors, neighbors, contextual history, culture, and economics.

Below all the aforementioned stories—i.e. circles of the Venn diagram—is the big circle they are all based on. The book offers moral full disclosure by beginning the book with acknowledgment of the original occupants of the land—the Native American Indians with particular focus on the story of the Dakota War of 1862. It's worth noting that the presence of American Indians are occasionally referenced in the Little House books, but not much sympathy is expressed for their forced change of life.

Readers of this book experience Laura's story twice, once while her life is described as it actually happened and second when the story is written down many years later. Laura initially wrote her memoir intended for adult readers as Pioneer Girl. At the time, it was rejected by publishers and was never released. Then her daughter, based on suggestions from a publisher, encourage Laura to write a portion of her memoir intended as children's literature. That version met with success and between the years 1933 to 1941 Laura wrote eight books which covered her life up until her marriage at age eighteen.

It's interesting to follow the process of writing of these books because the reader has been told the non-fiction version, and it is fascinating to see how a difficult and complicated story with many ups and downs turned into a mostly happy story. Part of this can be excused because of the young target audience. However, there are various indications that some of the parts of her life left out were parts she couldn't write about—i.e. perhaps repressed memory.

Laura's daughter Rose is a significant part of this book because her involvement with the writing of the books has been the topic of scholarly debate for a number of years. The author, Caroline Fraser, in this book describes their working relationship as mutually dependent. Laura was the one who had lived the story, wrote the original draft, and was able to infuse the writing with simple emotion with which readers fell in love. Her daughter Rose had the writing skills and publishing contacts necessary to polish the writing into a compelling narrative and get it published. Neither could have written the books on their own.

So why didn't Rose insist on being acknowledged as a co-author or editor? Ironically, she considered the books to be children's literature which was beneath her reputation as a writer for adults, so she preferred that they be credited to her mother. Once the initial books were successful they felt obliged to continue with the initial authorship credits. Unfortunately, they also fell into the mistake of insisting that the stories were true. The fact is that they are based on true stories, but the time line has been juggled and portions of the real life story—the painful and embarrassing parts—have been skipped over.

The pioneer story represented by Prairie Fires is at the heart of the American psychic. I found the book compelling because I know that my own ancestors lived through experiences similar to those described.

The following are some quotations and excerpts that caught my attention.

Laura loved both her parents, but her father was clearly her favorite:
Sometime shortly after his death, she wrote an essay about her earliest memories of him. It seems more than a mere tribute or homage, attesting rather to a powerful need to weave her way back into his presence, to find him again through the art of description. It starts with his eyes, "so clear and sharp and blue" that could "look so unerringly along a rifle barrel in the face of a bear … and yet were so tender as they rested on his Carolyn … or me." She recalled his thick brown hair and his strength and endurance he had in youth, tramping "all day through the woods without fatigue" and carrying his infant daughter just a surely and patiently when she was sick or could not sleep.

His most remarkable gift, as Laura saw it, was a deep and profound contentment with what he had. Despite all the losses and reverses, the perils, the hunger, the always disappointed hopes in the next harvest, he was satisfied with the life he had chosen. He cherished his wife, his children, and his music:
"All father needed to make him happy was his family, a new wild country to live in or travel over, good hunting and fishing, some traps, his gun, two good horses hitched to a rain proof wagon and his violin.

I am not sure but I should have put the violin first and the family second and I know that its place was second only to the family with us all.

It made merry with us when we were glad, it sympathized with us when we were sad, it gave us paeans of praise when we had been good or successful and acted as a father confessor when we had been bad." (p202-203)
The following is Fraser's summary of aspects of Laura's life that were left out of the Little House series:
In construction her autobiographical series, Wilder and her secret editor had skillfully and purposefully left out an exhausting list of revealing events, details, and characteristics: her brother Freddy's death, her father's persistent debt, his failures as farmer and provider, and the entire span covering the lurid shenanigans at Burr Oak and Walnut Grove, including Laura's servitude under the McMasterses. In her Hard Winter she disposed forever of the horrible George and Maggie, and their ill-timed baby. In Little Town, she improved her test scores. In These Happy Golden Years, she tidied up her first composition "Ambition" quoted in full. But nothing more consequential, more dramatic, and more heart breaking than what she left out at the end, the grief and penury that was soon to come.

The series would show none of it. Her final novel was her last opportunity to spend time with parents long gone, her last word on a marriage that began with such joy and promise. Secure in the eternal present tense, the last thing Laura says to the reader is, "It is a beautiful world."

Wilder could go no further. Her life story, re-imagined as an American tale of progress, was uplifted by authenticity and suffused by an ineffable sorrow. But for the rest of her life, she was done with all that. She had restored the family fortunes in fiction and fact. She had said goodbye. "We are all here" went the song the family sang in their darkest, coldest hours. In Wilder's re-creation of the past, they still are. (p440)
The following is Fraser final take on Laura Ingalls Wilder's legacy to American literature.
Her voice speaks to us of those people and their feeling for the land. It speaks … about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature. … … Wilder's family was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others. But however emblematic her portrait, it was also achingly specific, down to the lilt of the songs they sang and their last glimpse of an intact prairie: the grasses waving and blowing in the wind, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallows, the setting sun sending streamers through the sky. In the end, being there was all she ever wanted. (p515)
Profile Image for Catie.
1,334 reviews57 followers
September 25, 2019
Enjoyed this biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially since Wilder is the author who made me the reader that I am. Well researched, intelligent and an incredibly detailed background about the period in history during which the Ingalls, Laura, Almanzo and Rose Wilder Lane grew up.

BUT, this book also made the real characters quite unlikeable. I realize the true story behind the Little House books was a lot more stark, harsh and depressing than the picture Wilder painted in her children’s books. But, I felt Fraser made it a point (driven quite hard) that the books were not based on truth/fact, Laura was somewhat of a manipulative and unbearable mother, and Rose Wilder Lane was a self-serving, mentally unstable and disturbed woman, who had major mother issues.

I appreciate Fraser, wrote a book highlighting the realities of the American West, the pitfalls of farming during the late 1800 to early 1900’s, and the well researched facts surrounding Wilder’s life. But I do think she focused a little too much on the negative as well as facts and figures that weren’t necessary in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book (quite long in length) seemed to focus more on the mental and emotional issues of Rose Wilder and her relationship with her mother. Instead of being a book about Wilder herself. I also agree with some of the other reviews that I read - it is the biographer’s job to show and not tell, while remaining somewhat unbiased as a narrator; Fraser failed with this.

Overall, I’ve been left with a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. And feel a childhood favorite and role model I’ve looked up to all my life, is now a bit tarnished. Maybe a re-read of Wilder’s series is in order to wash out the bad taste...

Favorite Quotes:

“It is the simple things of life that make living worth while, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest and living close to nature. There are no hothouse blossoms that can compare in beauty and fragrance with my bouquet of wild flowers.”
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,653 followers
January 3, 2018
"Prairie Fires" is one of my favorite biographies I read in 2017. It's about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but there is so much social history here that it's also the story of the American plains. Homesteaders. Indians. Wolves. Railroads. Market crashes. Drought. Tornadoes. Blizzards.

And of course, devastating, all-consuming fires.

I grew up reading the "Little House" books about Laura Ingalls, and like millions of children, I loved them. Being a child of the 80s, I also grew up liking the "Little House" TV show starring Michael Landon (even though it greatly exaggerated the affluence of the Ingalls family, making it charmingly ridiculous in hindsight). Reading "Prairie Fires" will bring new appreciation and insight to fellow fans. The biography is brilliantly written and structured, beginning with damnable government policies and violent clashes with the Indians before Laura was born; following her family through their difficult and circuitous travels around the Midwest; detailing her marriage to Almanzo and her tempestuous relationship with their daughter, Rose (who seemed to suffer from manic-depressive illness); continuing with how Laura got her start writing the children's books, and how Rose was a wizardly co-writer hiding behind the curtain; and finally, the strange story of what happened to the Wilder estate after Laura died.

There are so many fascinating details in this book that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It may damage your childish dreams about Laura's pioneer experiences that were featured in the original novels, but those were always a fictionalized version of the truth. The reality is much more interesting, and is a story worth knowing.

Meaningful Passage
"Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person. Not only a fictional character, although she lives on in that guise. When you stand in the small town cemeteries where she and her people are buried, you know that they were real. In the silence on the rise in De Smet, on the hill in Mansfield, covered by grass and gray markers, there are real bodies buried in the ground, not images or icons or fantasies.

"Her voice speaks to us of those people and their feeling for the land. It speaks not about policy or politics but about her parents, her sisters, her husband, and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead. 'Our family was De Smet,' she said simply, of those days when they were alone on Silver Lake. She always remembered that place, that moment, 'a wild, beautiful little body of water, a resting place for the wild water birds of all kinds, many varieties of ducks, wild geese, swans, and pelicans.'

"Wilder's family was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others. But however emblematic her portrait, it was also achingly specific, down to the lilt of the songs they sang and their last glimpse of an intact prairie: the grasses waving and blowing in the wind, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallows, the setting sun sending streamers through the sky. In the end, being there was all she ever wanted."
Profile Image for ``Laurie.
196 reviews
December 17, 2018
Just an absolutely wonderful and informative book that I can't praise highly enough. Even though I've read so many books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this thoroughly researched biography is densely packed with new information. When I say densely packed, Caroline Fraser has delved into many different areas to flesh out Laura's life as well as the life of the Great Plains prairies.

The Homestead Act passed in 1862 which basically gave away 160 acres of government owned land in the west to anyone who was able to make improvements and live on the property for 6 months of every year for 5 years.
If these simple rules were met the homesteader would then own the land.

Even immigrants to America who planned to become a citizen were allowed to lay claim to 160 acres. What excitement this must have been for the European peasant class when they learned of this chance to become a landowner, something that wouldn't be possible in crowded Europe. Millions of them did come to America settling the West in a remarkably short time frame.

This good news also caused a lot of excitement for one Charles Ingalls, a hunter and trapper living in the Big Woods of Wisconsin who decided he would give farming a chance since the Big Woods were about trapped out. He would pack up his family and start heading west, eventually ending up in the new railroad town of De Smet, South Dakota where he would file an homestead claim.

Laura would base her Little House books on her childhood experience travelling west with her family as Pa Ingalls attempted to grow a successful wheat crop on his new farm of 160 acres in the great plains of South Dakota.

John Wesley Powell, American explorer and geologist had advised against the settlement and farming of South Dakota since it was far too arid and not suitable for farming. The author goes into great detail explaining Powell's knowledge and reasoning for his grim assessment which I found fascinating to learn.

But the railroads and the government apparently didn't want to hear his expert opinion. After all, the railroad had already been built in S.D. and they might go bankrupt if people didn't start moving in and claiming farm land.

Experienced farmers knew better than to settle there but Pa Ingalls wasn't an experienced farmer. But he was an eternal optimist and was confident his new farm would be a success. The author relates the extreme toll the repeated failed wheat crops had upon the Ingalls family and their dire poverty.

Things only got worse for Laura when she married Almanzo Wilder. In quick order she had her first child Rose Wilder Lane but would lose her infant son not long after giving birth. The heartaches only got worse as every wheat crop failed and their house burned down. Then Laura and Almanzo were stricken with diphtheria and barely pulled through. Almanzo's fever during his illness would cause him to have a stroke which left his legs crippled for life. No longer able to farm the Wilder's would move to Mansfield, Missouri and start over again.

From this point the author includes Rose W. Lane in Laura's biography and follows her life just as closely. After Rose left home in her teens she became a successful author of many stories she sold to magazines. She traveled extensively in Europe before returning home in the late 1920's to take care of her parents who were by now in their 60's. Little did Rose know that her parents would live for 30 more years.

By this point in Laura's biography it becomes clear that the author absolutely loathes RWL. She has managed to dig up all the dirt on Lane as well even accusing her of plagiarism several times.
I can only assume the author's dislike of Rose stems from Lane's extreme right wing politics and support of the Libertarian party.

I'm not an expert on RWL so I don't know if she really was as awful as Fraser relates or if bias has affected her take on Rose. I've always had the opinion that Rose was bratty - even real bratty at times but I'm unsure if it bordered on con-artistry even though the evidence does look damning I hate to say.

Rose returns to her parent's home a new millionaire from playing the stock market. She soon invests all her mother and dad's money in the stock market too. Life is good in the roaring 20's that's for sure but we all know what happens next. After the crash the Wilder family are dirt poor, the same way they had arrived in Mansfield many years ago. The stress is too much for Lane who appears to have suffered from devastating depression with suicidal tendencies. Lane is barely able to continue writing stories and to make matters worse the magazines aren't buying very many of them.

In fear of losing her life's work at Rocky Ridge Farm Laura decides to write her memoirs. Laura had adored her father and after his death in 1902 from heart disease she wanted to preserve the story of his difficult life. Rose helped her with editing her memoirs and presented them to several publishers with no takers during the early years of the depression. Laura was encouraged to rewrite her memories as a book for children instead with "Little House in the Big Woods" being published in 1932 by Harper and Brothers.

The author addresses the claims that the Little House Books were actually written by Rose as some have opined. The evidence does not lead to that conclusion at all though. Laura had began writing a successful column for the Missouri Ruralist farm magazine years earlier so she did have writing experience and the ability to write children's stories. Rose did help her by editing the books and typing the manuscripts to send to publishers but that's all.

In fact, it seems to be the other way around when Rose secretly wrote "Let the Hurricane Roar" based on her mother's material. Rose had basically told the story of Charles and Caroline Ingalls before Laura had a chance to use the material for her children's book series. She didn't even tell Laura about it until it was published.

At least the book was a success for Rose which helped her precarious financial state, but relations with her mother became even more strained. Far from returning home to 'help' her aging parents, Rose had managed to bankrupt them instead with her bad business advice. Laura was burdened with not only a crippled husband but a troubled daughter.

With the publishing of the first Little House book Laura's finances improved and she encouraged Rose to move back to NYC since she was so miserable at the farm in Missouri. Rose's 9 year stay must have been an hellish experience for her parents even though they loved her dearly.

The author also relates the fate of the once wild prairie. In the early decades of the 1900's a few lucky wheat farmers in Kansas were becoming millionaires. Suddenly future farmers were rushing from the eastern states to file a claim for prairie land in order to plant a wheat crop and get rich quick. The remaining prairie acreage was plowed and wheat planted which caused an ecological disaster. Fraser describes how plowing up the prairie grass lands to plant wheat had resulted in hotter temps with resulting drought and crop failure; just as John Wesley Powell had predicted.

Arid South Dakota was particularly affected and it was heartbreaking to read about the fate of Laura's family. Ma, Mary and Carrie continued to live in their town home in De Smet having sold the farm once the land claim had been successfully proved. They rented out the upstairs rooms to make ends meet. Carrie had a career at the De Smet newspaper but moved to the Black Hills area of S.D. in her 30's to file a land claim. She married a miner with 2 young children when she was close to 40 and by all accounts loved her new husband and children.

Baby Grace attended a teacher's college and taught school for a few years until her marriage to a farmer but they would have no children. Remembering pretty little Grace with her round face, blonde hair and blue eyes from the LH books made seeing a photo of Grace during the Dust Bowl and Depression years as a hard-bitten farm wife in shapeless clothing was heartbreaking for me.

Ma and Mary continued to live happily if not prosperously until Caroline passed away at age 85. There was a photo of Caroline in the book when she was in her 80's and she too looked weary and beaten down. I imagine she worried what would happen to Mary after her own death which probably gave her an incentive to continue on.

In the early Little House books Mary and Laura didn't seem to get along very well with goody-goody Mary tattling on Laura and generally bossing her around. To make matters worse Ma clearly seemed to favor pretty, blonde Mary over Laura.

While living at Plum Creek, Minnesota Mary had become ill and lost her vision due to high fever that damaged her optic nerve. By the author's description of the illness it seems Mary probably had meningitis and not scarlet fever. Mary's symptoms began with lassitude and bad headaches for a few weeks which gradually led to full blown symptoms with high fever. She's lucky to have survived.
But Laura learned her descriptive skills by becoming Mary's eyes from then on, describing all the beautiful scenery to Mary as they traveled in the covered wagon.

Laura was devastated by the loss of her mother but Mary practically grieved herself to death, not living long after having a severe stroke. Carrie had brought Mary to her Black Hills home and took care of her there with Nate and Grace moving into the De Smet home. Grace died in her 60's from diabetes. How I wish that Laura's family had left S.D. as well and then maybe their lives would have had a happier ending. Moving from S.D. was the smartest thing Laura and Almanzo ever did.

But what would happen to the ravaged and destroyed prairie which lost all it's top soil during the Dust Bowl. A new policy began during the depression which paid farmers NOT to plant crops or raise animals. With many fallow years and with agricultural improvements being made the prairie would one day become a fertile farmland, a veritable bread basket for the world. The only good to have come with the prairie's destruction is that the deadly locust plagues that ate up the Ingalls wheat crop in Minnesota ended with the extinction of the locust. With the prairie plowed so thoroughly the locusts couldn't lay their eggs anymore.

This book contained so much information that LH fans will probably want to read and I found it so engrossing that I could read for hours without realizing how much time had passed. The real life story of the Ingalls was much harsher than the children's books would show and I was left horrified by the conditions they had lived through. But live through them they did as did many other pioneers that traveled west with a dream of owning land and becoming prosperous farmers.
Profile Image for Linda Hart.
733 reviews138 followers
April 25, 2018
This is an excessively detailed history/biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and has been hailed to be "the most complete and unvarnished biography of LIW ever published." I found the book tedious but "Little House on the Prairie" devotees wil likely revel in it. At 600+ pages I suggest the reader skip the 2nd part of the book which is primarly about LIW's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was a truly unlikeable person. The 3rd and final part of the book was interesting to me. It deals with the elderly Laura Ingalls Wilder turning her childhood memories into one of the best selling children’s book series of all-time. There are extensive footnotes of books, unpublished documents, letters, and more, which are almost as interesting as the main text. It tells of amazing times in our country, and of an amazing woman, but I am not fond of reading plain history so found it monotonous, boring and skimmed most of it. I think the book would have been more effective if it had been condensed, omitted much regarding Rose, and been more focused.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 42 books88.8k followers
June 20, 2018
I've been an ardent fan of the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder since I was a little girl. I remember my father reading them to me, before I could read myself, and every Christmas for several years, Santa Claus would bring me a book. So I was fascinated to read this thorough account of the life of LIW and also her daughter Rose Wilder Lane -- who played a big role in the Little House books. So many interesting details...such as the fact that LIW hadn't seen her mother Caroline in more than 20 years when her mother died. So sad to think about that! PRAIRIE FIRES explains the fuller facts of LIW's life, what happened to her and Almanzo after the events described in the Little House books, why THE FIRST FOUR YEARS is different from the other books, the various illustrations including those by the genius Garth Williams, the fates of the characters...and inspired me to want to go back to reread the Little House books all over again.
Profile Image for Myra.
1,229 reviews7 followers
April 1, 2018
Well, I finished it. Admittedly, I had to skim a lot of the parts about Rose. Ugh. Clearly, this is a well-researched book. Sadly, good research does not make for a good book.

What I liked:
-I definitely have a much better understanding of Wilder and her life. It's clear that my favorite TV show growing up was a far from accurate portrayal of the actual events. (Coincidentally, I happened to catch an episode of Little House on TV while reading this. The one where Mary and Adam are running the school and she gets pregnant and miscarries. None of which was at all true.)

-I have a much better idea of how her life fits into the history of this country.

Issues with the book:
-The story jumps around quite a bit. I'm still not sure what the plague of locusts has to do with Laura taunting Nellie, but somehow they are included in practically the same breath.

-The book desperately needs a timeline. All of the moves back and forth and from here to there. And while there is one map, it would be nice if the book had a map that actually included all of the places involved.

-The book has a very clear political bent to it. It gets preachy about it. I'm fine with including an explanation of the politics of the time for perspective, but the author's politics show through which is not acceptable.

-The book is confusing at times. For example, at one point the author spends pages referring to the newly married Rose as either "Rose" or "Lane." (It's page 213. It sucks. So confusing.)

-Once Rose becomes and adult (around the page mentioned above), the book becomes as much about her as her mother. Wilder all bu disappears at times. And Rose is a pretty horrible person. Yes, we need to know about Rose to understand Wilder's later life, but I could have done with about 80% less Rose. Which would have made the book significantly shorter, bringing me to my last issue...

-The book is needlessly long because of the very full and detailed analysis of Rose and her miserable life.
Profile Image for Sue.
462 reviews3 followers
January 16, 2018
I came for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I got one of the best American history lessons I've ever gotten from a biography.

I've read almost every LIW biography out there or have it on my TBR list. I didn't go into this expecting to learn a lot new about her life or her relationship with her daughter Rose and I didn't -- although the question surrounding the year of Almanzo's birth was a new revelation. If you aren't well schooled on her life, you will be when you finish this book. It is very detailed and gives you insight on how the TV show came to be and what a scheming bastard Roger Lea MacBride turned out to be (don't know who that is? The book will tell you).

But what I liked best about this book was how Caroline Fraser wove history into the story of LIW. We don't live in a vacuum. What happens to us at any given time in our lives is a direct result of what is happening in government or weather or the economy or the general world around us. Some of the LH books have been knocked for their racist overtones; this book finally gives the background to explain why those attitudes are there. You'll see that history does repeat itself, with depressions and panics and poor decisions from DC. You'll have a very firm example of how trying to change Mother Nature can directly impact the economy -- this book is a stark reminder that some of our worst economic times weren't caused by Wall Street but by farmers and carpetbaggers looking for a way of life. And poverty isn't new and it isn't relegated to Appalachia. I never really thought about how little protection the homes of the pioneer midwest actually provided. And you'll see how people readily took advantage of government programs to better their lives all while condemning the government for giving out handouts to "undeserving" people. In many ways, LIW and RWL are early examples of today's Tea Party and Trump supporters.

I know a lot about the history of our country and this book left me breathless at times by what it taught me.

So why not five stars? Because this book frustrated me at times. I felt like I was pushing against ocean waves, reading and not going anywhere. I felt like I was slogging at times, and it wasn't a comfortable book to read. I talked to my LIW peeps, and they agreed that this is a slow read. So this isn't a book that takes you on a cozy and quick adventure through the Little Houses, and that's kind of what I was hoping for on dreary cold sub-freezing nights.

On the plus, it was cool to see the shout outs to so many people I know and to my beloved LauraPalooza.
Profile Image for Cynthia.
633 reviews43 followers
November 14, 2017
I know I’m not the only one whose love of reading was sparked by Ingalls Wilder’s books. Prairie Fires is, of course, about Wilder and her family but along the way Fraser provides an enlightening chronicle of American history focusing on the issue of how Native Americans were treated. We always think of Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator but his record with legislation regarding land preserved and taken away from the first Americans was less than foresighted, in fact, it set off horrible consequences for almost everyone involved including the Ingalls/Wilder families. I learned so much from this book because of how clearly and sequently Fraser describes this shameful period. If you’ve never even read Inglalls’s books by you enjoy history you’ll enjoy this book.

Thank you to the publishers for providing and copy.
Profile Image for Laura.
2,698 reviews80 followers
April 17, 2018
Wow, this just won a Pulitzer Prize for best biography or autobiography. Even though I gave it only four stars, it really is an amazing read, and opens your eyes.


My father was a young man when the Depression hit, in 1929. And although the line of work he was in, first building movie stars home, and then working for the studios building sets, did not suffer, the rest of his family did. He was, if not the sole supporter of his family, of his four, then three brothers, and parents, he was at least the main breadwinner. This effected him for the rest of his life. He knew how to pinch pennies like it was no ones business. Although he ended up building a house for the family he had later, in a posh area of L.A., he would still shift through trash cans to find recycling material, on trash day, before recycling was a big thing.

Laura Ingalls Wilder survived not one, not two, but three depressions. We, as a collective we, remember the one in 1929, because our grandparents, and parents remember it. But few today remember the ones that happened in the late 1800s.

Laura did, and she, like my father, knew that there might, and would be another one around the corner, and so stayed as thrifty as she could be, even when her farms in the Ozarks was doing well, and she was relatively comfortable. And, because she had survived, she figured that others could do the same, without government help.

I bring this last point up, because this is a major theme going through this very weighty tome about Laura's life. The second major theme, that is hammered home, is that the homestead act was a disaster, and caused the Dust Bowl. And because the Homestead act was help from the government, Laura was a hypocrite in later life.

You may think you know about the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, because you have read all the Little House books, as I have. You may think, well, I have also read the ones that came out after her death, such as On the Way home (her leaving the Dakotas for the Ozarks), West from Home (about her trip to San Francisco to hang out with her daughter Rose), or even Little house in the Ozarks the collection of her columns she was writing for the newspapers, before she wrote the little house books. Yes, I too have read those as well, and yet, much of Prairie Fires covers even more than that. It brings in the history of what was really going on, when her stories were supposed to have taken place, as well as the history of what happened after she left the Dakotas, until, in the height of the depression, she started writing about her life, to bring in a little more money.

Have you ever wondered why The First Four Years is so very, very different from all her other books? This book answers that question. It also explains how the books are really out of order, how Little House on the Prairie should have come first, then Little House in the Big Woods.

And although I love her books, and probably always will, it is amazing to see how she and Rose, her daughter, changed the narrative, so that everything was built on self-reliance, that no one ever needed a hand out if they all stuck together, and by gum, you could have a farm, and make a living, and it was all good, despite that not being how it ended up.

Warning, this is a long, and weighty book, filled with footnotes, and citations, and a boat-load of research.

Highly recommend it to all of those of us who grew up on these stories. Everyone should add this book to their collection.

Thanks to Netgalley for making this book available for an honest review.
Profile Image for Claire Reads Books.
137 reviews1,384 followers
January 19, 2022
5 stars to the first 175 pages of this book, ZERO stars to Rose Wilder Lane, as a person!

This book is divided into three parts, and the first section is incredible, covering Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood and adolescence and the early history of homesteading in the West and its effects on the Native populations there (including displacement of the Dakota in Minnesota following the Dakota War of 1862 and the Ingalls’ attempt to squat on Osage lands in Kansas).

The second section of the book focuses a great deal on Rose Wilder Lane who, though critical to the publication and shaping of the Little House series, is at best a difficult and unpleasant character to spend time with, especially as she becomes an outspoken political figure in the 20th century and starts espousing increasingly bigoted and anti-Semitic views.

The third section of the book covers the publication and legacy of the Little House books, and this is where Caroline Fraser’s gift for literary criticism truly shines. I considered putting the book down in the middle section because of the Rose of it all, but I’m glad I stuck with it.
Profile Image for Anna.
269 reviews92 followers
January 17, 2018
Caroline Fraser writes as effectively as David McCullough or Ron Chernow as a biographer in her ability to tell a great story and get the subjects she's describing down to their complicated personalities and relationships. This is a tall order with really high expectations for her intended audience: the international, multi-generational fan base of Little House fans -- but she did it well.
Fraser covered a lot of the same ground from the annotated "Pioneer Girl," published in 2014, but in "Prairie Fires" we learn much more about the mother-daughter relationship with Rose, Laura's only surviving child, and according to some, alleged ghost writer. But Fraser puts to rest the rumors that have pervaded the legacy of the series and sets the record straight about the editorial relationship, showing that Rose's writing style and ideas about the difference between fiction and personal (political) reflection vary markedly with her mother's.
Fraser's outstanding research into the historical span of Ingalls's life was especially captivating. She covered western expansion through homesteading, Indian conflicts, economic depressions and recessions -- and the disappearance of the western frontier with excellent detail -- it never felt like I was reading a boring account of history, because Fraser kept the focus of the historical backstory on how it would look from the Ingalls and Wilder families' eyes. I learned so much just from that alone.
For anyone who loves the books, this is a must-own volume for your personal library.
But the end of the book might have contained my favorite part and quote, when she chronicled the genesis of the television show. I've wondered for years who brought it to the small screen and who was responsible for its essentially fan fiction storylines.
In two words: Michael Landon.
"But while television spiked sales, it also caused confusion. The show was not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin-off, wildly exaggerating the family's well-being."
I've often wondered what Laura would think of the show -- it debuted nearly a decade and a half after her death, and after Rose's. Years had gone by since anyone but lawyers were dealing with the copy rights...however, I think she'd shake her head in dismay, but perhaps secretly be pleased with how many people were touched by her family's legacy -- and their part in shaping historical thought on the settling of the west.
Fraser does make it clear, though: the series is fiction, if based on real people and places, it can't be considered entirely autobiographical, as Laura -- with Lane's help -- did fictionalize many details, story lines and anecdotes throughout. But that might not be important. The chief reason Laura published the series was to preserve the stories of her family and share their legacy with a young audience, and on that count, she succeeded in spades:
"Laura Ingalls Wilder was a real person. Not only a fictional character although she lives on in that guise. When you stand in the small town cemeteries where she and her people are buried, you know that they were real. In the silence on the rise in De Smet, on the hill in Mansfield, covered by grass and gray markers, there are real bodies buried in the ground, not images or icons or fantasies.
Her voice speaks to us of those people and their feeling for the land. It speaks not about policy or politics, but about her parents, her sisters, her husband and her love for them. It speaks of her delight in nature, those glorious moments on untouched open prairies, watching the geese fly overhead.
...Wilder's family was was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others. But however emblematic her portrait, it was also achingly specific, down to the lilt of the songs they sang and their last glimpse of an intact prairie: the gasses waving and blowing in the wind, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallow and the setting sun sending streamers through the sky. In the end, being there was all she ever wanted."
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,124 reviews104 followers
January 31, 2021
So yes indeed, I very much do appreciate the meticulous and copious amount of historical research that has obviously gone into Caroline Fraser's 2017 Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder and also just as strongly consider that Fraser certainly presents a generally thoroughly academically sound and above all mostly realistic portrait of not only Laura Ingalls Wilder's life (both generally speaking and of course also as a writer) but equally of 19th century American history (including the reasons why there often was such overt and dangerous animosity and hostility between European background settlers and Native Americans, with Fraser thankfully showing that the multitude of grievances tribes like the Osage had were indeed more than well justified and legitimate even if their ways of trying to deal with this, with killings, with massacres etc. were obviously horrible and condemnable, and indeed, that this state of affairs kind of also makes us as readers rather grudgingly understand why for example in the Little House on the Prairie novels many settlers including Laura Ingalls’ mother Caroline were often both afraid of Native Americans and also tended to actively despise them).

However, as interesting and as enlightening as the presented contents of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder have been for me, and that Caroline Fraser’s combination of biography and history has also and generally been successful, readable and feeling very much time and place based realistic and authentic in scope, I do have a few problematic textual issues that have in fact and actually kind of majorly lessened certain aspects of my expected reading pleasure. For one, (and of course in my humble opinion) there is a bit too much factual information and detail dumping present in Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and well, this does tend to make the general flow of Caroline Fraser’s narrative a bit dragging at times (because too much of a good thing, and yes, overwhelming readers with too any details qualified as being such, can easily become a source of reading tedium). And for two, and much more importantly, while I certainly do NOT find Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane all that attractive and likeable from the information I have read about her, I do have to wonder if the author’s, if Caroline Fraser’s rather vehement and almost vicious dislike of her might just be going a wee bit too far (for I certainly do much prefer the more balanced approach towards Rose Wilder Lane as it is being practiced by Pamela Smith Hill in her Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, since how Caroline Fraser almost tries to make Rose Wilder Lane into some kind of monstrous witch like harridan sure does feel more than a trifle personally uncomfortable).

Three solid stars for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, for a pretty decent biographical and historical portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but one which while recommended, still and nevertheless has left a bit to be personally desired by me with regard to how much in my opinion superfluous information Caroline Fraser’s text often features and includes (and yes, equally so, how the author’s, how Caroline Fraser’s approach towards Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose really could and should be a bit less one-sided).
Profile Image for grllopez ~ with freedom and books.
277 reviews93 followers
August 8, 2019
A HIT PIECE on Laura Ingalls Wilder, her life, the legacy and success of the Little House stories in American culture, Laura's wayward daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, pioneer America, Conservative/Libertarian ideals, and anyone else who crossed those paths!

Obviously Fraser did extensive historical research for her project, but it didn't help me appreciate her work. At first it read like a really strong chronological history of Laura Ingalls' life and what happened simultaneously in America and the world. But after Rose Wilder was born, Fraser's bitter, contemptuous, and detestable presentation snowballed at full speed and fury. It wouldn't be odd to walk away from this book and think negatively about Rose Wilder or anything that she espoused. Granted, she was a troubled woman. But my goodness! Fraser comes across as the typical self-righteousness elitist who has the power to expose the truth, and does so by being snide and arrogant toward those whom she disagrees, especially politically.

After finishing these 600 plus pages, I had such an awful taste in my mouth for having read it and for having purchased a copy without knowing its callous and unkind purpose. It's one thing to write historical truth, but more time was spent belittling dead people and their ideas far beyond Laura Ingalls Wilder's American dreams.

IMO...If you love and appreciate The Little House series and are open to knowing more truth about Laura's tumultuous life and the rocky relationship with her unstable daughter, then there are other sources, like Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. You do not need to read Prairie Fires. Keep that love for the Little House stories, how they affect you, and how you experience them. Don't let Caroline Fraser ruin your acquaintance with them.
Profile Image for PinkAmy loves books, cats and naps .
2,305 reviews220 followers
January 12, 2019
I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie (LHOP) books and watching the TV series. To me, Melissa Gilbert was Laura Ingalls Wilder and Michael Landon, Charles. Melissa and I were born a month apart, Laura and I both clumsy compared to our more perfect siblings both facts made my kinship with LIW feel even more real.

When PRAIRIE FIRES was on a one day Kindle sale for $2.99, I grabbed the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, expecting an adult experience like I had with Little House. I knew LIW factionalized her experiences in the LHOP books and even more so in the TV series. I hoped for at the very least an interesting account of Wilder’s life.

Caroline Fraser’s exhaustive research left no minor detail unwritten. I found myself skimming over census data, great grandparents and even ancestry dating back to a Salem witchcraft hysteria victim. Fraser’s frequent tangents, which important if I was studying the LIW in a historical context, mostly didn’t interest me. Salem was a sidestep that did interest me, weather statistics, blights and locusts, not so much.

PRAIRIE FIRES is over 600 pages, including references and pictures. I would have preferred a 200 page narrative nonfiction about LIW’s life. Laura’s childhood interested me most, particularly seeing how her real life diverged from fiction. I enjoyed reading about the real people in different areas the Ingalls had lived and remembering their fictional versions.

While reading, I wondered how much Fraser’s own opinions influenced her narrative, particularly around Laura’s jealousy of Mary, which to Fraser seemed slightly pathological and to me seemed like typical sibling rivalry. I also wondered if LIW’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane was as horrible as she seemed to be.

PRAIRIE FIRES isn’t the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life I would have told, but I was also impressed with how Fraser brought historical, cultural and biological information into the book. I didn’t enjoy reading PRAIRIE FIRES, but I’m glad I read the story, if that makes sense.
Profile Image for Kelly.
Author 5 books1,211 followers
February 19, 2018
This was unbelievably good. It's a biography about Wilder, of course, but it's not especially sympathetic toward her. Rather, what makes Fraser's book excel is how it's such a historical picture of the time between westward expansion (and conquering--she's not afraid to say as much) and the dawn of flight as a travel medium. That period of 90 years or so is absolutely fascinating and it's absorbing to take it in via Wilder.

There is no sympathy here, either, for Rose Wilder Lane. In fact, the entire time I was listening to this (all 23 some hours!), whenever she came up, I kept thinking about how some of her political leanings are eerily reminiscent of today's. Turns out, she had loose connections to the Koch brothers and well, here we are.

This book will be especially interesting for readers who weren't wildly fanatic about the "Little House" books as well as those who were. It's likely those without some knowledge of the books would feel this goes a bit long, but for others, it might not feel long enough. There's a lot here about children's books, librarianship, teaching, and publishing, too, so readers fascinated by those facets of the world will enjoy hearing and learning about familiar names beyond Wilder.

It's so well-researched and written, and props on audio. I had no problem listening to this one.
Profile Image for Lauren.
183 reviews7 followers
January 2, 2018
Anyone with an interest in post-Civil War American history as well as a love of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series should seriously consider investing their time in this book. (Make no mistake, it’s an investment. I’ve read longer books, but this one is incredibly dense...dense, but worth it.) Meticulously researched, the vast amount and scope of information managed to maintain my interest and the author made everything relevant to Wilder and her family. Much information after a point revolved around Wilder’s difficult relationship with her (clearly mentally ill, hyper hypocritical, often quite nasty) daughter Rose Wilder Lane. It was full of jaw dropping revelations for me and quite a few “don’t meet your hero” moments. I’m a bit saddened and jaded about certain things regarding Wilder now, but most certainly enlightened. My love of the Little House series remains intact, although my eyes are wide open and I have a clear understanding of its place in the grand scheme of things.
Profile Image for Chris.
163 reviews1 follower
January 27, 2018
Very close to five stars for me. (And this is coming from someone who never read a single Laura Ingalls Wilder book or saw a single episode of "Little House on the Prairie.")
Profile Image for Louise.
1,648 reviews290 followers
March 12, 2018
This biography is thorough, interpretive and page turning. It digests enormous research on the Ignalls-Wilder family and the history of and US policy regarding the areas in which they traveled. It shows how the Homesteading Act and homesteading itself, climate/ecology, and cultural and official attitudes towards poverty buffeted this family.

You learn the real story of Charles and Caroline Ignalls which their daughter heavily air brushed in her very popular “Little House..” books. Author Caroline Fraser recounts the pitfalls of homesteading: drought, grasshoppers, house, barn and prairie fires, intimidation by Indians and having no sons. The Ignall's fell prey to them all of them. You see the Ignall's family moving from place to place as they freeze, nearly starve to death and lose everything several times.

Laura most likely idealized her childhood in these books to honor her parents. Her attitude towards poverty was shame, and the truth was conveniently inappropriate for children’s reading. You see the straight line from Charles and Caroline to Laura. Like her brave, resourceful, tireless parents, Laura is thrifty, multi-talented, proud and never gives up. The line from Laura and Almanzo to their daughter, Rose, is not so clear.

In her earliest years, Rose Wilder had a taste of her parents’ trials. She was moved from place to place as her parents followed friends and relatives from South Dakota to Florida eventually settling at age 8 in Missouri. Two events may hang over her life: did she as a toddler set the fire that caused her parents to lose their house? Was she blamed for the loss of the money (later found) set aside to purchase the next homestead dream? These may be the events that shaped her erratic life, her suicidal tenancies, her adoption of young men and her extreme right wing politics.

Fraser presents the entanglement of what appears to be a long suffering mother and her adult disrespectful daughter. Rose used her money and fame to support her parents and hoist her mother’s writing career (Laura had been writing for farm journals). But did Rose really support her parents? A case can be made that every dollar she gave them came back to her when she squandered her advances and royalties. Also, how much did the daughter write or edit her mother’s work (for which the daughter claims credit)?

When I read this series as a child, I was amazed to learn the author had just died. It dramatized for me the short amount of time from covered wagons to cars. Reading this book shows further compression. Rose Wilder Lane’s last adopted son, Roger MacBride, inherited the copyrights (parlayed into the TV show which further repackaged the truth about the Wilders) and at age 35 was (perhaps the first) Koch sponsored candidate for President on the Libertarian ticket (running against Ford and Carter).

Caroline Fraser has done a tremendous job. This book should be of interest to writers and historians and anyone interested in the realities of prairie life 1870-1900. Beware to Little House fans who want to keep their fantasies alive.
Profile Image for Jennie Damron.
466 reviews60 followers
February 4, 2019
By shear determination and force of will, I finished this book. It's not that the book was bad. The writing was exceptional, but the book as a whole was a hard read. The author had a depressed outlook on a life of a woman who I don't think would share that same view. Mrs. Wilder endured every hardship you could think of, but people say how kind she was and how she carried herself with dignity. I don't think she would have viewed her life in so Dark a lens. If I wasn't already familiar with Little House on the Prairie I probably wouldn't have liked these people based on this author's work. She didn't depict anybody as really likable. And Rose, Laura's daughter, is something else. She was not a good person, but then again it could have been the way the author chose to depict her. I don't know. I'm glad to be done with this book.
Profile Image for Heidi.
1,211 reviews134 followers
January 16, 2020
Odd that my review for this excellent and comprehensive biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder was lost in Goodreads land because I recall being totally gobsmacked by the real life of Wilder, her family and her slightly venomous daughter.

The author does such a great job of filling in the real details of the stories I grew up reading (and watching on TV as a devotee of the series— it was the only night of the week I was allowed to stay up until 9pm... ahhh the 1970s...).

I highly recommend this book but be warned, it’s not as sweet as the children’s series that made Wilder a household name.
939 reviews48 followers
March 23, 2018
This is a perfect example of how not to write a historical biography. This is one frustrating book to read because the author is such a poor writer and has no idea how to pull together a narrative storyline without going off on tangents or including her speculative opinions on virtually every page. The facts are here, but pulling together lots of printed information from 150 years ago does not a good story make. Instead the reader is forced to read over and over "perhaps," "maybe," "could have," "must have," "probably," "possibly," etc. So the writer is making up stuff as she goes along, trying to attribute characteristics to the Ingalls characters where there is no support for it.

The author also takes dramatic political stances that are inappropriate for this book. She uses early pages to try to condemn the movement of Indians out of Minnesota, failing to show any concern for the fact that hundreds of citizens of the new state were executed by Native Americans that refused to honor treaties. Certainly Indians were not treated well, but to use these bloated pages to preach that the settlers were the bad guys whose deaths seemed somehow justified is inexcusable.

This rambling text also lacks maps, charts, timelines, and other graphics that would have helped in the telling of the story. Because the writer insists on tossing in just about every minute detail that she found searching through historical records (including Ingalls that she's not sure are even related to Wilder!), the presentation of just words on a page make for tedious reading in spots and illustrations would have made stronger points.

Bottom line is that this person can't write well. Almost every sentence is clunky in a formal structure that seems outdated. She sounds like she's writing something from 150 years ago, and maybe that was the intent to match the tone of the Little House books. But if it was it's a mistake. At over 500 pages it's way too long with plenty of unnecessary historical information that has little to do with the Ingalls saga or that could be summarized in a paragraph instead of a chapter. It's hard to believe this book won awards because the well-written book about Wilder has yet to be written.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,863 reviews425 followers
January 24, 2023
This biography paints quite a different picture of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her family and its history. I saw the book the first time when I was on holiday in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I didn't buy it then, but I got around it eventually, thankfully. I like having the facts in order. Laura's childhood was grimmer than presented in her own books and her parents, particularly her father, did not always make the best choices. After she married Alonzo, much of their life was in poverty. Laura raised on daughter, Rose Lane, and their relationship was quite turbulent and often dysfunctional. Well worth reading, for the historical aspects, for the realistic presentation of Laura's actual life and to revisit a family many of us are well acquainted with and relate to.
Profile Image for Evan.
Author 2 books13 followers
November 9, 2017
I received an advance reading copy of this book, for free, through Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for my honest review.

Growing up, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and was a fan of the 1970s television series Little House on the Prairie. Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, billed as “The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, is a book I was looking forward to reading. Fraser’s biography of Wilder is comprehensive. It is exhaustively researched, and, at times, exhausting to read.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section describes the actual events of Wilder’s childhood which were later embellished to create the Little House book series. Although historically accurate, it is very repetitive. Laura and her family start out in Wisconsin, they move to Kansas, back to Wisconsin, off to Minnesota, then Iowa, back to Minnesota, then to South Dakota, back to Iowa, back to Minnesota, back to South Dakota, before settling in Missouri. In addition to telling the story of the Ingalls family, Fraser presents the bigger picture: what was going on in America, and the world, at the time, politically, socially, and with regards to weather phenomena.

The second section of the books veers off course and the focus shifts to Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane is about as unlikeable a person as one could imagine. Despite the prominent role Lane played in her mother’s later life, and career, I felt too much of the book was devoted to her. I found it very difficult to maintain interest in Laura’s story during this section.

Thankfully, the book ends on a high note. The third, and final, section of the book is by far the most interesting. It deals with an elderly Laura Ingalls Wilder becoming an author and turning her childhood experiences into one of the best selling children’s book series of all-time. Fraser looks at what was real, what was exaggerated, and changes that were made to the original text due to political correctness. She also examines how much of the Little House book series was actually written by Wilder, and how much was ghostwritten by her daughter. Finally, following the deaths of both Wilder and Lane, Fraser describes the controversies surrounding the ownership of the rights to the franchise, and how Wilder’s books were reimagined into the Little House on the Prairie television series.

Prairie Fires is a must-read for devotees of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her Little House books, and the Little House on the Prairie television series. For more casual fans, such as myself, it seemed excessive. I would much rather have read 300 to 400 pages devoted solely to Laura Ingalls Wilder, than the 600 pages of Rose Wilder Lane and her mother. Overall, the book delivers on its claim, but does so in a somewhat disappointing manner.
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