By Kaitlin McManus
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Kaitlin McManus, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Caroline Fraser about her book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
Kaitlin McManus: Laura Ingalls Wilder is a figure who, for the many of us who read the Little House books, we feel that we know fairly well. What prompted you to write a more telling biography of the real-life woman and her family?
Caroline Fraser: The “Laura” that most of us know from the books and the television show is, of course, a fictional character. Readers (especially younger readers) often believe that the books are memoirs describing the childhood of “Laura Ingalls.” But in fact they’re novels, so it’s a similar situation to movies that are “based on a true story.” That can mean anything, and indeed, the view of Wilder’s life presented by the books is fictionalized: There are invented scenes, characters, and dialogue, and the chronology of Wilder’s life was altered. The TV show, of course, is virtually unrecognizable from her life.
The childhood of the real Laura Ingalls differs significantly from the one described in the Little House books in ways that are potentially quite revealing. Most of her adult life is not as well-known, because the books end on the day when the fictional Laura gets married. So I was eager to tell the story of how she wrote these books during the Depression; how she arrived at her politics; and how she collaborated with her daughter. Those are very dramatic chapters in her life; as remarkable in some ways as the stories she chose to tell.
KM: As you mention early in your book, biographies of poor subjects are difficult for lack of records. As you say, “people of high status and position are likely to be rooted by their very wealth, protecting fragile ephemera in a manse or great home. They have a Mount Vernon, a Monticello, a Montpelier.” What was it like to research the Ingalls family, constantly on the move and seemingly always in poverty?
CF: The research was similar to the kinds of things that many of us do to learn more about our ancestors, searching through public records: federal and state censuses, military and church records, homesteading paperwork, property, tax, and bank records. That type of genealogical research can be tremendously rewarding. The fact that Charles Ingalls, Wilder’s father, for example, never served in the Civil War despite being prime age for militia service suggests that he may have sought to avoid the war. Public records also reveal the pattern of debts accrued by Laura and Almanzo Wilder during their early married life.
But these kinds of documents are limited, because they can’t reveal how people felt about their circumstances, or reacted to them. So, as with any biography, I had to piece out public documents with analysis of more personal things for hints about the Ingallses’ and Wilders’ emotional lives—photographs, poems, letters, diaries, articles, manuscripts.
KM: Discussions of factual truth versus emotional truth have become pressing recently. While the Little House series may not always be entirely accurate, You note that it is representative of Wilder’s emotional truth. Can you expand on some of the nuances of Wilder’s relationship with her childhood and memories?
CF: Wilder often said that her real motivation in writing the books was to memorialize her parents and their values, and it’s very clear that she elevated their heroism and stoicism in her portrait, leaving out things that might have cast them in a less-than-ideal light. This is true especially of her father. Her construction of a narrative that shows the family moving westward with a purpose is quite different from the reality, in which Charles Ingalls struggled to find jobs and put food on the table.
Their actual life had an aimless quality, and it’s clear that Laura Ingalls, as a child, often felt overwhelmed by their circumstances. The interesting thing about the books is that when you read them as a child, I think you focus on the cozy family and the happy endings. But when you read them as an adult, you start to pick up on some of those darker things in the background. So some of the more disturbing emotional truths did come through, even when Wilder may not have intended it.
KM: You credit Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter, writing mentor, and very capable editor as Wilder’s catalyst to put her story to paper. But Lane was also a notorious yellow journalist with a tendency to write half-truths and outright lies about her subjects. What kind of influence did Rose’s editorial skills and background have on Wilder’s writing?
CF: Wilder spent several months visiting her daughter in San Francisco in 1915, where Lane had just taken a job working for the San Francisco Bulletin. Wilder had ostensibly come to see Rose and tour the world’s fair, the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, but she also wanted to become her daughter’s apprentice. So she was watching as Lane immersed herself in the world of yellow journalism, writing a fake “autobiography” of Charlie Chaplin and other serialized stories that were little more than dime novels. And the striking thing is that neither woman questioned the ethics behind this—in fact, Wilder told her husband that all these stories that Lane was embroidering or manufacturing were “true.”
This would have a huge impact on Wilder’s own work, first for a regional farm newspaper, the Missouri Ruralist, and ultimately in the Little House books, which present a unique mash-up of genres, including elements of memoir, biography, autobiography, and fiction. It’s very unusual to write a fictional memoir of yourself in the third person, as Wilder did, and the fact that she felt comfortable doing so came from her uncritical adoption of techniques used by her daughter.
KM: As you’ve said in past interviews, Little House books are children’s literature with a wide adult readership. What is it about these books that makes them so popular more than eighty years after their first publication?
CF: In terms of the way their reputation and readership have evolved, I often compare the Little House books to Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Twain, of course, was more aware of what he was doing, self-consciously satirizing and criticizing the institution of slavery. Wilder, I think, was more naïve. Less self-aware. But it’s that folk art quality, that guilelessness, that makes her portrait of settlers’ encounters with Indians in Little House on the Prairie such an unnerving and ultimately important work reflecting whites’ appropriation of native land and culture.
And her extended vision of pioneering and homesteading has been tremendously influential in shaping how generations of children and adults see that history. Many of Wilder’s most avid readers (including myself) have a connection to that past, because they come from farming families or emigrant families who settled in the Midwest.
But probably the biggest factor in the books’ enduring popularity is that they’re great stories, movingly told, evoking the warmth of Wilder’s family and her relationship to the land, which she loved.
KM: The Little House franchise, as you mention in the introduction, is a favorite among famous conservative politicians. You also describe how Wilder and Lane were increasingly conservative throughout the Dust Bowl. How does political-mindedness play into the books’ writing and legacy?
CF: When you consider the Little House legacy, I do think you have to distinguish between Wilder’s books and the TV show. Ronald Reagan’s fondness for the show, for example, has to have been connected in part to his own acting career in westerns and his relationship to Michael Landon, who was a friend and supporter. And I’m not sure that children come away from reading the books with a sense of a political message, which is largely confined to Pa’s anti-government outburst at the end of Little House on the Prairie, and the Fourth of July scenes in Farmer Boy and Little Town on the Prairie. They may well absorb Wilder’s insistence on the values ascribed to her parents—self-reliance, honesty, and integrity.
What’s fascinating to me—and which readers may not be as familiar with—is how Wilder and Lane reflected rural values in many farming communities as they reacted to the New Deal, vehemently denouncing government assistance. It’s especially astonishing when you realize that Wilder had worked for years for a government loan program and had herself taken advantage of favorable terms on a federal farm loan. But the intensity of their disgust with government wasn’t at all unusual, and it foreshadowed the political discourse that we have today.
KM: One of the things I loved most about your book is that while you disclose every truth about the Wilder family, their financial situations and social climate, it always seems fair, even warm to the individual. I sense a real love for the woman, her experience, and her work.
CF: I may not always agree with Wilder’s views or politics, and she wasn’t a perfect person (or perfect mother). No one is. She could be unthinking, even hard-hearted, by her own admission. Her portrayal of Native Americans is racist and traffics in stereotypes. But even with these flaws, which I don’t mean to trivialize, I think she was an extraordinary person, someone who faced truly heartbreaking struggle and persevered, at times heroically. Her work is a testament to the dignity of women’s labor. So yes, I do feel admiration and affection for her. And I continue to love her books.
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.
Kaitlin McManus is a writer in Brooklyn. Originally from Normal, Illinois (which is absolutely a real place), she is wrapping up an MFA in fiction at The New School. She's currently sweating over a novel-in-progress about drugs and emotional commodification.