A few days ago, after a reading marathon, I closed the cover on Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. As an unrepentant admirer of “Laura”, I was intrigued by Fraser’s revelations about Laura’s life that filled the cracks between her books and placed her story in the context of both a larger story of American expansion and a tighter circle of personal relationships. I was intrigued, too, by the extent to which her children’s books side-stepped the family’s poverty and Pa’s often poor judgement.
Those of you who’ve read Shifting Currents know that much of my early life was spent imagining I was Laura. My parents started out reading the books to me, but they must have finished them on their own after I began to read for myself, because their contents were frequent topics of family conversation. Dad marveled repeatedly at Laura’s memory of details like the buttons on her Aunt Dora’s dress. Mom felt sympathy for Ma, who was dragged from one home to another by that ever-adventuresome scalawag, Pa. My brother and I built covered wagons out of cardboard boxes in the living room. Of course, by the time Jack and I had moved to the farm with our own children, I had morphed (matured?) into Ma.
In 1984, our family took a driving trip west in an over-sized van with a canoe on top, hauling a pop-up camper trailer. Our intention was to reach the Canadian Rockies, but in those days we were still farming, and by the time the hay was off the fields that year, it was early August. In order to fulfill our promise to reach the mountains and still get home by Labour Day, we veered south, where the Rockies curve east. When we saw the sign for Pepin, Wisconsin, both Erica and I insisted on a stop. From there on, our trip became something of a Laura-extravaganza as we passed through Minnesota and the Dakotas. (We also saw the Rockies.)
I’d read many of the details in Fraser’s book before in other, less detailed accounts of Laura’s life. As this well-researched tale moved into her later years (she didn’t begin the books until her mid-sixties), I found myself focusing on the recurring questions of veracity. It’s an issue that’s plaguing us on so many levels these days. I’ve struggled with it too, as a sometimes-writer of memoir and essays about my own life, based on my own memories. Are Laura’s books “true”? Are they novels, as Laura claimed and Fraser confirms, or are they memoir/biography, as I have always assumed. How do we know? Does it matter whether Laura really remembers those black-berry-shaped buttons on her aunt’s dress? Are the stories any less true because the chronology has been shifted? Does the fact that rich, stuck-up Nellie Oleson is a composite character compromise the point about haves and have-nots? And what about the gaps that are clearly not gaps in memory but intentional omissions?
According to Fraser, “Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine…‘All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.’” But, when does omission become the sin of delusion?
When I speak about my own memoir, I rely on the words of Tobias Wolff to excuse myself for sometimes altering details in the interest of the story. In the introduction to This Boy’s Life, he writes, “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”Just a few days ago, I read a definition that appeals to me a lot: memoir is not about the writer, it’s about something universal of which the writer is an example. So, how much can you let memory tell “its own story” if in doing so it falsely presents the writer as an example something universal?
The underlying themes in the Little House books—their universal something—has to do with self-sufficiency, honesty, and hard work as quintessential American values leading to success. The boot-strap philosophy. While I don’t find anything in Fraser’s book to convince me that the specific “stories” Wilder tells are untrue, she does make it clear that the over-arching, real-life story of the Ingalls family is not one that convincingly reflects those values. In one family episode—completely ignored in the series—Pa moved the family out of Burr Oak, Iowa, in a hurry to escape an accumulation of debts. He was at various times dependent the largesse of government and charity: homesteads, themselves, were a gift from the government; during their bleakest years, the family accepted handouts; and the government paid much of the cost of Mary’s education at the Iowa School for the Blind. Their brief time in “Indian Territory” was in clear violation of the law, as Pa probably knew. And, as hard as he worked, he was never a successful farmer. His bootstraps were never quite strong enough to support his dreams.
In the most troubling sections of the book, Fraser delves deep into the complex and unhappy relationship between Laura and her daughter, Rose. For me, this was the saddest part of the story. The woman whose work idealized the frontier family and whose own parents served as role models had never been able to establish a healthy relationship with her own clearly troubled and ethically challenged daughter. When Wilder died at 90, Rose was 70. Their writing lives and their financial lives never became untangled as Rose insisted on mentoring her mother, who in turn found it difficult to write without her daughter’s input and approval. However, Fraser debunks the notion that Rose was the “real” author of the Little House books, drawing on letters and edited manuscripts to show that Laura’s comfortable style was her own, and that Rose’s contributions served primarily to add drama to the tales.
To my surprise, Fraser dubs Little House on the Prairie the “most unnerving, original, and profound” of the Little House books. It was, for me, the most difficult to read to children, focusing on the family’s intrusion into Indian Territory and their demeaning attitude toward those whose land they were taking. I think I spent as much time trying to explain the evolution of attitudes as reading the stories. But I was intrigued by Fraser’s singling out of that volume, so last night I dug it out and treated myself to an evening of being Laura. Something I haven’t done for a long time.
It isdreadful, the way she presents the Osage Indians. Cringeworthy, by today’s standards. But we must remind ourselves that we are visiting another time. And the description of building the log cabin, digging the well, making the rocking chair—and Garth Williams’ wonderful illustrations of the little house—remind me that I used to read the whole series every few years. Maybe it’s time again.