Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books, 2017) by Caroline Fraser is a good book but not a great book. There is information in the book that you either won’t find elsewhere or won’t find without having to locate numerous sources. The book is important because it is the first comprehensive biography of Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
In spite of the title, the book is as much about Rose as it is Laura. The title is also misleading in that much of the book has nothing to do with the prairie, prairie fires or Laura’s American dreams. And the title suggests that whatever Laura’s American dreams are, they are prairie fires, consuming whatever is in their way, but the book doesn’t show that at all. Fraser attempts to tie the book and title together in her Epilogue, but it doesn’t quite work.
The book’s biggest problem is that Fraser seems to lack empathy with her subjects. Biographers do not have to love their subject, but in order to understand someone, they have to enter their world completely. In Wilder’s case, that is a world far from Fraser’s soft world where women have equality. Fraser seems to sneer at her subjects at times, particular when writing about Rose Wilder Lane. This was a turn off, and I had to discipline myself to finish the book.
Early in Fraser’s discussion of Rose, it is obvious that Rose suffered from some kind of mental illness. Fraser seems to recognize also that Rose suffered from mental illness, but she shows no empathy for her. Fraser obviously dislikes Rose’s libertarianism, the same libertarianism embraced by Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. While I share Fraser’s dislike of that particular brand of libertarianism, showing Lane’s hypocrisy, Wilder’s hypocrisy, Paterson and Rand’s hypocrisy because they did not always adhere to their beliefs are not adequate arguments against libertarianism. Many people do not live up to the standards of their beliefs. That by itself does not invalidate their beliefs.
Fraser also indulges in some generational chauvinism, which William Manchester defined as “Judging past eras by the standards of the present.” Fraser declares that Wilder is a racist because she writes about a black face minstrel show. How does that make Wilder a racist? Wilder’s inclusion of the minstrel show does not include any information about whether or not she approved of black face minstrel shows. She is simply recording something that happened. It is no more racist than Harriet Beecher Stowe recording the whipping of Uncle Tom.
As a writer, Fraser also has some minor but annoying habits. She can’t seem to use a noun without including an adjective, or a verb without modifying it with an adverb. These adjectives and adverbs reveal Fraser’s prejudices, ideology and dislike of her subjects. Removing the unnecessary and often irritating modifiers in her book would have shortened it by many pages and subdued its imperious tone. Then there is her habit of beginning sentences with conjectures about Laura or Rose with the word “undoubtedly.” And I can’t end this review without mentioning Fraser’s fascination with the male derriere on two occasions in the book. And her description of a photo of Rose showing “post-coital flush” in her face is bizarre since the photo is black and white and “post-coital” facial flush, if such exists, would undoubtedly have disappeared from her face by the time an old fashioned camera was set up and operated.
After reading Prairie Fires, I was surprised to learn it won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a good book but not Pulitzer Prize quality. In spite of my issues with the book, I recommend it to anyone interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, the Little House on the Prairie books and/or the history of the American West. Hopefully, in the future someone will tackle the subject again and will be as comprehensive as Fraser but more empathic.
For another review, the best I have ever read, check out this one at amazon.com