Friday, May 17, 2019

Prairie Fires reveals hardship lurking in the Little House books

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
If you grew up reading the Little House books and wondered if the tale was sugarcoated for children (it was), have I got the book for you – Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. She deservedly nabbed the Pulitzer Prize for biography for this book in 2018.

Fraser dug deep into any records she could find, fleshing out details lurking between the lines of the story told in the children's books. It's a fascinating read.

As I wrote a few years back, I grew up cherishing the Little House books. As a child I didn’t just play house, I played Little House. I imagined living in a log cabin while pining for a piece of horehound candy and a tin mug to call my own. I craved a gingham dress even though I couldn’t pick a gingham anything out of a lineup.

The Ingalls family suffered adversity aplenty, from failed crops to dire illness, and endured many periods of barely eating enough to survive. The books resound with Laura’s wonder at the world and evocative descriptions of pioneer life to such an extent that it’s easy to overlook the underlying hardship. That’s the allure – the wide-eyed awe of the storyteller takes the sting out of the harsh bits (especially when you’re too young to fully understand).

Nevertheless, you know life is hard when the highlight of your year is pig-butchering time. I’m sure farm kids get used to the realities of seeing where food comes from, but even as a child I couldn’t quite muster Laura’s enthusiasm for eating a fried pig’s tail and batting around an inflated animal bladder like a balloon. But in a world where grasshoppers sometimes descend from the skies and destroy your crops, or you’re so hungry you’re thrilled to eat blackbird pie, any bit of pig you can sink your teeth into sounds like Christmas come early.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
And then there’s Pa, a beloved character who truly seemed a loving father, but whose choices sometimes made life more difficult for his family. The charm of passages depicting him tickling little Laura with his oversized, old-timey beard before picking up his fiddle to delight his girls with music makes me smile even now. But the books imply that he’s also a man whose wanderlust did the family more harm than good at times. This dude didn’t like it if he could look across the prairie and even see smoke from someone else’s stove – and you could probably see that from miles away in the flat, vast countryside.

As Fraser wrote of Pa, "Like many in his time, he did not hesitate to put a young and growing family in harm's way."

They had a pretty good setup in the "Big Woods," living near extended family who offered a sense of community as well as a potential source of aid in hard times. But it was getting too crowded for Pa, so they loaded up the wagon and hit the dusty trail. He often got that faraway look in his eye and a yen to move on, and little Laura sympathized because she felt that same lure of seeking what was around the next bend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but when you’ve got a family that needs food, shelter and clothing, and frequently starting over makes it hard to consistently provide those things, well, the dreamer in you might be screwing things up for everyone. Pa even got a job for the railroad once, which seemed like a pretty good gig. But he eventually wanted to move on yet again.

"Charles Ingalls was born at a crossroads," Fraser wrote. "As if to fulfill the prophecy in that, he would always be a wanderer, propelled by hopes of a better future farther on." Which is fine if you don't have shorties, but he did.

I’m not trying to slam Pa here, but the truth is, life was incredibly hard for the Ingalls clan, and his yearning for new horizons all the time had to get pretty old with Ma. At least Ma put her foot down and insisted he keep his promise that they settle somewhere the girls could attend school (even if they sometimes had to walk barefoot for miles to get there).

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
Wilder's books lovingly detail the long-vanished pioneer life she recalls from her childhood, but it’s amazing how much woe you can find lurking between the lines. The older I got, the more I realized what was left out or downplayed, and it was an often heartbreaking tale of deprivation and loss.

Wilder based her children's books an autobiography titled Pioneer Girl that she never published. Her daughter, Rose, a journalist and author herself, help Wilder rework that biography into something more marketable, something that left out a lot of bleak details. In 2014 an annotated version of that biography came out, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, and it is a massive beast of a book. I still haven't gone through it all, but I want to. And I’ll just have to mentally prepare myself for a harsher dose of reality than the beloved children’s books provided.

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