PRAIRIE FIRES by Caroline Fraser

…one felt like one was listening, not reading…

I finished a book this week that left me a little distraught. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year – even more than that, it absorbed so much of my childhood, leaving me with very happy memories and contributing to my lifelong love of reading.

I was excited to read the biography of the life of a childhood ‘friend’ – Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. I absolutely loved my copies of each of her children’s books, in particular ‘Little House on Plum Creek’ which seemed to capture every inch of my imagination with the devastating prairie fires and the onslaught cloud of locusts. Living in a home underground set my mind on fire as a child, wondering what it must be like to live that way.

What I never considered was the real-life devastation locusts and prairie fires would have on a farming family…

I honestly don’t know if I can recommend this biography to a fan of the Little House books or tv series. It was difficult to read the true events that happened behind these childlike books of fiction. Prairie Fire covers the entirety of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, so it is exhaustive in its details taken from her diaries as well as city and state records. It is bookended by the real Charles Ingalls at the beginning of the book and Michael Landon in the end. (In fact, Landon’s….end…is discussed. His backside was so popular on the tv series ‘Bonanza’ that he decided to wear no underwear in the ‘Little House’ series. Is this something we really need to know?!)

BECAUSE I was such a fan of the books and later the tv series, I found this book fascinating. But fascinating in a car-wreck-I-can’t-look-away kind of way. There are parts of Laura’s life that I now wish I didn’t know. I will not be able to look at the books with the same innocence I always have in the past. As a fellow Missourian, Laura and Almanzo’s home in Mansfield, Missouri, is that of lore around here. Reading Prairie Fire gave me a different perspective into her life and that of her childhood.

I mean – of COURSE her life was not as idyllic as the books and tv show led us to believe. Her books were carefully categorized as fiction for that very reason.

As a history student in college I thought a study of pioneer women would be enticing to study someday. I suppose that’s because it is a time period that I do not believe I could have endured very successfully. The arduous trek across untamed America toward uncharted land…no calling ahead for hotel reservations! So it was interesting to read ‘behind the veil’ of the hardships the Ingalls and later the Wilders endured to settle land and build their dreams.

The books are not the truth but the truth about our history is in them.

Yes, I recommend this book because it holds valuable insight into the trials and hardships of building America. (Only slightly touching on the Native American aspect of ‘building America’.)

No, I don’t recommend this book because it will taint your bucolic image of freckled-faced Laura and her adoring family.

Have you read it yet? Tell me your thoughts…

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