In 1932, the Daily Plainsman of Huron, South Dakota, ran a feature about a local woman convalescing in hospital. Grace Dow had been visited by her sister, Carrie Swanzey, who read a children’s book to her. What made this mundane story newsworthy was that the book was called Little House in the Big Woods, and the women sharing it were the sisters of its author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book told of their family’s decision 50 years earlier to leave the Big Woods of Wisconsin and head west as pioneers, travelling by covered wagon through Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and into South Dakota, where they eventually settled in nearby De Smet, in 1879.
Wilder’s book offered ‘real knowledge of one phase of pioneer life’, the Daily Plainsman added:
In those days and in such remote parts of the country each home was, of necessity, virtually self-sufficient. Each family depended on the crops raised in the clearing, on the food produced by domestic animals and wild animals, birds and fish, caught and killed by the father of the family, and preserved for the time when they would be snowed in.
It’s a cosy, appealing image of domestic security and independence, and nearly every line of Caroline Fraser’s excellent new biography disputes it. That was certainly the life of which Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, dreamed — but it was one that could not be realised. It could, however, be mythologised, and that is precisely what Wilder did in the seven books that followed over the next decade.
The Little House books became American classics, inspiring a popular, absurd television series in the 1970s, and an entire strand of pioneer heritage tourism. Along the way, they encouraged Americans to reaffirm the national ‘illusion — the ideal — of the yeoman farmer, able to sustain a family on the homestead, raising something from nothing.’ No one knew better than Wilder how much of a myth that ideal was. Her family had been reduced to penury and near-starvation more often than not, forced to relinquish land they couldn’t ‘prove up’ on, driven off farms by natural disasters, retreating to towns for work and protection, and made to leave a homestead in ‘Indian Territory’ where they were illegally squatting. All these disruptions and uprootings were romanticised in the Little House books as ‘Pa’s’ wanderlust, his independence and freedom.
This emotional tension between liberty and domesticity is central to the western, which Wilder drew on even as she rewrote it: in most westerns, the lone wolf doesn’t drag his wife and four daughters around the country with him. The Little House novels fused the western’s self-justifying version of national history with a girl’s coming of age story. Like many a bildungsroman heroine before her, Laura tests the boundaries between childhood and adulthood in a society that teaches young girls to be as rigid and fragile as the little china shepherdess that is her mother’s most treasured possession.
When Wilder began writing her chronicle, she later said that she
had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of railroads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realised that I had seen and loved it all — all the successive phrases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.
This is perfectly true: but it is also true that her novels were profoundly invested in idealising, sentimentalising and whitewashing that history. ‘Indians occupied far more real estate in Wilder’s original manuscripts than in the published book,’ Fraser notes, ‘and her identification with them was striking.’ This is important for any number of reasons, not least of which is that the mythologisation of the American west as an unpopulated land began not during the 19th century but in the 20th, in works like Wilder’s. In 1952 a reader wrote to Wilder’s publisher objecting to the opening sentences of Little House on the Prairie: ‘In the West the land was level, and there were no trees … and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.’ Wilder apologised, calling it a ‘stupid blunder’: ‘Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.’ But the perspective that allowed such an implication imbued all the books: the only people who counted were people like the Ingallses.
Amazingly, this is the first thoroughly researched historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Debunking the myths means carefully grounding the reader in the realities of the American political and historical context, though for some readers Fraser’s history may be rather more extensive than feels needed. But Fraser wants to bring the mistakes and the plights of homesteaders to life, to challenge the fable of the yeoman farmer, and show how Wilder’s nostalgic project was precipitated by the grim realities of Depression-era America: ‘At the very moment that a maelstrom of dust was blowing across the country, Wilder was summoning a vision of how beautiful the prairies once were.’
Wilder was born in 1867, just after the end of the American civil war, in a log cabin outside Pepin, Wisconsin, the second of Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s four daughters. (The loss of their infant son was a dark reality that Wilder kept out of her Little House world.) When she was two, her family traveled to the Osage Reserve (‘Indian Territory’) in Kansas, where she would set Little House on the Prairie. Soon they returned to Wisconsin, before travelling west again to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where they lived in a dugout ‘sod house’ on the banks of Plum Creek.
When they could not survive there, they went back east to Burr Oak, Iowa, another grim episode that Wilder deleted from her hymn to rural life. The Ingallses managed a hotel next to a saloon, where the ten-year-old Laura was exposed to drunkenness, domestic and public violence, and sexuality in many forms, including a drunken man making his way into her room in the middle of the night with clear intent to molest her. The Burr Oak episode ended sordidly, with the Ingalls family sneaking out on debts in the middle of the night.
Such chicanery was, as Fraser wisely notes, more a sign of distress than of dishonesty: ‘Their dodges testify mostly to their poverty and desperation.’ When Charles Ingalls died the De Smet news-paper noted that he was locally ‘held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings’. In 1879, Laura’s older sister Mary went blind, as the family settled, at last, in South Dakota, claiming a homestead near the townsite for De Smet. There they barely survived the long winter, when the town was cut off from the railroad by blizzards, and nearly died of starvation.
They were all saved by two young men going in search of wheat, and four years later Laura Ingalls married one of them, Almanzo Wilder. But the Wilders were no more able to survive on their farm than the Ingallses — now living in a ‘town house’ in De Smet — had been able to survive on theirs. After the birth of their daughter Rose, bouts of diphtheria that left Almanzo weakened and a subsequent stroke that semi-crippled him, the death of their own infant son, and the loss of their house to fire, the Wilders left South Dakota, eventually settling in Mansfield, Missouri, where they bought a small farm and would live for the rest of their long lives. It was in Missouri that Wilder wrote the Little House books, with the editorial help — and hindrance — of her obstreperous daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful journalist and editor, who emerges from Fraser’s chronicle as seriously troubled — at times, nearly deranged.
Lane’s assistance with her mother’s manuscripts led to subsequent claims that she had ghostwritten the novels, but Fraser, who has worked closely with the drafts, persuasively dismisses them. Lane was an active collaborator, working to heighten the drama and prepared to sacrifice any fact that interfered with the emotional ‘truths’. Her mother was more exigent, and, Fraser believes, better able to intuit the darkness the novels needed to ground their sentimentality. Wilder insisted over her daughter’s objections that the novels’ Mary would have to go blind, just as the real one had, because ‘a touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life’.
Lane’s life increasingly takes over, and by the end Prairie Fires becomes all but a double biography. But this seems apt — the exasperating, all-too-real Rose weighing in the scales against Wilder’s highly romanticised parents. ‘The daughter who lived through the ruination of her beloved parents had raised them up, idealising and immortalising them, relegating their failures to oblivion.’
Ironically, what finally enabled the Wilders to live in security on the farm they had worked for for 40 years were the stories Wilder wrote mythologising her father’s failed farms: the reality couldn’t sustain the myth, but mythmaking made the reality survivable, in more senses than one.