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June 27, 2019

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser ~ a Review

by Donna Huber

I don't think I've read a biography since I was high school. I've read a few memoirs, but my nonfiction choices typically focus on a subject rather than an individual. Prairie Fires has been sitting on my review shelf for a year and a half. I was excited to read it, but it came right after the Christmas holidays and at 600+  pages it was difficult to find the time to read it.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

Prairie Fires
November 2017; Metropolitan Books; 978-1627792769
audio, ebook, print (640 pages); biography
Earlier this year, the television show Little House on the Prairie came to Amazon Prime video which I promptly started to binge watch. It renewed my interest in all things Laura Ingalls Wilder and I made a point to make Prairie Fires a priority. Once I got through my new release ARCs for the month, I started it. And immediately my interest was piqued.

Its only 515 pages of real reading. The other pages are photographs, bibliographical notes, and an index. For nonfiction of this length, I read it relatively quickly thanks to Fraser's light touch and excellent narrative skills.

I was afraid I would get bored with a biography as they can sometimes be a bit dry. But Fraser switches between focusing on Wilder's life and the larger scheme of the world Wilder lived through. She touches on politics, climate, agriculture, economics, literature, and general American history of the period and ties it all to Laura's reactions and worldview.

The narrative picks up in the eventful summer of 1870, when "everyone was sick with chills and fever." Malaria was a mystery at the time, though historians have described it as "the most prevalent disease on the prairie frontier." No one knew what caused it: Did it spring from the virgin soil the first time it was turned by a plow? Did it seep through the open window with the morning dew? The Ingalls family was convinced that eating ripe watermelons was somehow to blame. p. 54

As a child, which is still true today, I didn't care for stories set in this time period so I never read the Little House series. Though I did enjoy the television show, which I mostly watched in re-runs apparently. I did realize until was watching it on Prime that the show starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert first aired in 1974 (several years before I was born). And I was 6 when the show went off the air. It is known the Michael Landon took liberties with the show, some of the episodes were apparently based off of old Bonzana scripts. However, one episode that I remember vividly was of the dog Jack dying, this occurs in one the books also. So I was absolutely stunned (and I'm not sure why this stuck out so much) when I read the dog had been traded along with the horses. (Also, I thought the horses were named Pat and Patty.)

Before they left to complete the long, exhausting trip north, Charles traded his horses, Pet and Patty, for a sturdier team. The troublesome bulldog Jack, who wanted to stay with the ponies "as he always did," was traded as well. p. 58

We get some background on the Caroline's and Charles's family and then follow Wilder through childhood with her sisters to her married life with Almanzo, with the last third of the book focused largely on their daughter Rose. There is even a bit of information on what became of Wilder's estate and legacy including the television show, historical sites and museums, and ongoing publication of her stories.

I found the insights into Laura's life just as interesting as the American history information, much of which I haven't thought of since my school days. Considering she went from riding in covered wagons to driving cars to flying across the country in an airplane and lived through 2 world wars, as well as several boom and bust economies, a lot of history occurred in her 90 years of life.

There is a lot of attention given to whether the Little House books were autobiographical or pure fiction (as well as Rose's writing which was suspect in its truthfulness). I'm not sure if this was controversial outside of literary circles. Or maybe it's not a big deal now because we understand that it is a fictionalized account based on her life. When I was looking up stuff about the show I didn't encounter any mentions of the books series being considered non-fiction. And my entire life the series has always been in the fiction section of the library. What I did run across was discussion on whether Laura really wrote the books. Fraser also delves into the topic which is interesting in light of the popularity of collaborations and ghostwriting in the publishing industry today.

Whether you are a fan of the Little House series and Laura Ingalls Wilder or are wanting to delve into early U.S. history (without reading a textbook), then you will find an interesting and informative read in Prairie Fires.

 Buy Prairie Fires at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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  1. i used to think i would like to live in a simpler time...until i read about it. lol
    sherry @ fundinmental

    1. Yes. I'm part of a homesteading group and its fun to learn about a lot of the stuff but I don't have any plans to churn my own butter (or shake a glass jar until I have butter).