In Caroline Fraser's telling the Little House books sprang from two roots: Laura Ingalls Wilder's youth in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas and South Dakota, and her twisted-like-an-ingrown hair relationship with her manic-depressive daughter. It is typical of Fraser's approach that she never actually says Lane was bipolar; she was never diagnosed as such, so that would be imposing her interpretation on the material in a way she scrupulously avoids. She just tells you about Lane's life until you have no doubt.
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane
Various people have claimed that Lane actually wrote the Little House books, or edited them so heavily that she might as well have. Lane was certainly capable of that level of mendacity, but really this is just another case of the cynicism for its own sake that bedevils our cynical age. It is perfectly clear that Wilder wrote the books, since dozens of manuscript versions of all the book survive in her hand. For some of them you can trace out line by line where Lane made editorial changes. The changes are significant to the tone of the books – my wife says Lane and the editors at Harper Collins were responsible for making the books "sweet" – but the events are all the way Wilder wrote them. Somehow the relationship between mother and daughter survived repeated betrayals and a constant battle over both how Wilder's story would be told and how much of it Lane could borrow for her own books. They were, it seems, one of those mother-daughter pairs inseparable in the misery they caused each other. From that relationship, though, sprang something amazing.
The really great part of Prairie Fires is the first 175 pages, which chronicle the pioneer life on which the books were based. (Honestly if you wanted to stop at that point, nobody could blame you.) As Fraser shows, the books are most accurate when they are least believable. The incredible story of the grasshoppers who drove the Ingalls away from their farm on Plum Creek, Minnesota was part of a catastrophe that enveloped the whole of the western plains. The year 1874 saw the largest and most destructive locust swarm in North American history, known as "Albert's Swarm" after a Nebraska meteorologist named Albert Child who tried to measure its scope. By Child's calculations it measured 180 miles wide, 1100 miles long, and covered 198,000 square miles, containing roughly 3.5 trillion insects. When they had done eating everything growing in their path they laid eggs, and the next spring an immense brood of wingless nymphs hatched and began walking across the land like a marching army, just as Wilder described. The Wilders were ruined along with thousands of others.
One of Fraser's sub-themes is the ideology of self reliance that animated the Wilders, and that passed from those pioneering farmers into American politics. From Fraser's point of view, the Wilders were repeatedly lied to and let down by those in power, and she wants her readers to understand that their own efforts played only a limited part in their successes and failures. Her strongest indictment is of the railroad men and real estate speculators who lured tens of thousands of homesteaders to claim land in the Dakota Territory. That land, as experts understood, was simply too dry for subsistence farming. Government scientists tried to warn that homesteading in the Dakotas was doomed and fought to limit land claims to those with enough capital to set up the large, irrigated farms that alone had a chance of succeeding. But the homesteaders pushed ahead, singing "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." More than 80 percent failed within a decade.
The Ingalls, though, did not see things that way. They thought they had failed because of bad luck and bad decisions on their own part, and when they left Dakota they immediately set off for Missouri in pursuit of another place where they could find cheap land and set up a farm. Nor did the plight of the homesteaders elicit much compassion from other Americans. In New York, failed homesteaders were bumpkin losers: "It is humiliating to have them so constantly before us, passing round the hat." (76). The governor of Minnesota was not even sympathetic to those ruined by the grasshopper plague, saying he would got give them charity and thereby "weaken the habits of self-reliance." The editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote, "If anybody chooses to lie down and be eaten up by grasshoppers, we don't care much if he is devoured body, boots, and breeches." (80)
To Fraser this is all disgusting, and she wants to launch a moral indictment of those who lured homesteaders into the desert and then abandoned them to their suffering. I wonder if she is missing a deeper explanation of what was happening: simple demography.
What really happened in North America was that European settlers established themselves and then started to breed at a fantastic rate, rarely seen in human history. Especially in New England and Canada the first settlers averaged more than 7 children raised to adulthood per family. When Paul Revere died he had 148 living descendants. This fertility created a river of humanity that stormed across the continent like, well, a little like locusts. They ate up everything in their path: cutting down forests, plowing the land, eating the deer, killing or driving out the Indians. You can point to particular acts of villainy, like the Trail of Tears or the Yankton War, or luring those homesteaders to Dakota. But viewed from on high those individual acts were all but irrelevant. That river of people was not going to be stopped; no government in the world had the power to even slow it. There was always a huge surplus of people who were just extra mouths to feed at home, so they restlessly pushed into the woods or onto the plains. It's sad that Almonzo Wilder and so many others took homestead claims where there wasn't enough rain for wheat, but what would they have done instead? They left the east because there wasn't any work for them at home.
Another excellent section traces the collision of the self-reliant attitude with the Dust Bowl, which was raging while Wilder was writing Little House on the Prairie. Farmers were screaming for help from Washington, but when they got it they hated it almost as much as dust and ruination. If the problem was that the prices for farm products were too low, said government experts, the solution was to reduce production. And the obvious way to reduce production was to stop farming marginal land that was blowing away in dust storms and turn it back into grass for grazing. If the problem was the low price of hogs, the long-term solution was to raise fewer hogs, and the short term solution was to slaughter a few hundred thousand surplus animals and bury their carcasses in the dust. If you watched Ken Burns' documentary you heard old people still traumatized by the government men who showed up at their farms to kill and bury their livestock, not even letting them eat what they could salvage. It never seems to have occurred to many farmers that what they were asking for – prices that would stay high no matter how much they raised – was mathematically impossible. But anyway the hatred of New Deal farm policies across the plains defined the politics of those states for generations to come.