Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is Caroline Fraser's engrossing biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, delving into the similarities between Wilder's life and the Little House on the Prairie novels: the failed farm ventures, constant money problems, and natural disasters. The book also explores Wilder's family life, particularly her relationship with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and debunks the myth that Lane ghostwrote Wilder's books. Fraser shares 10 facts about Wilder that you may not know.
Everyone knows something about “Laura,” whether from the ever-popular autobiographical novels or the ubiquitous 1970s-era TV show. But there are fascinating differences between the fictional character and the real Laura Ingalls Wilder, who sprang from a remarkable American family. Over the course of her long life—she lived from 1867 to 1957—Wilder would traverse “all the successive phases of the frontier,” as she put it, traveling by covered wagon, homesteading, and settling a raw railroad town on the Great Plains. Decades later, she would fly across country in an airplane. Here are a few facts from my biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that you might not know.
1. Wilder was related to one of the Salem “witches.” An ancestor, Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier (granddaughter of Edmund Ingalls, long thought to be the first of the family on the continent), was denounced as “a rampant hag” by Cotton Mather and hanged as a witch at Gallows Hill during the Salem Witch Trials. From the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Mayflower, from Puritans to Presidents, Wilder would be tied by blood or marriage to the wellspring of American history.
2. As a child, Wilder survived a cloud of 3.5 trillion locusts. In the mid-1870s, Laura witnessed one of the most devastating natural disasters the country had ever known—a locust plague that caused an estimated $116 billion worth of damage from the Dakotas to Texas, pushing thousands of settlers to the brink of starvation and ruin, including her own family. The Rocky Mountain locust was the culprit: the only swarming grasshopper species in the U.S. and Canada. It went extinct around 1902 for reasons that have never been explained.
3. Wilder lived most of her life in the American South. From her youth, Laura was a veteran of covered wagon journeys and has always been strongly associated with western settlement thanks to her stories about Kansas, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territory. But she never traveled on the great overland trails to California or Oregon, and in her 20s, she moved to the Ozarks of southern Missouri and lived there for the rest of her life. Her long exile from her beloved family and the prairies of her youth may have inspired the nostalgia of the Little House books.
4. Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a yellow journalist who taught her mother the tricks of the trade. Mentored at the San Francisco Bulletin by a friend of William Randolph Hearst’s, Lane began intensively tutoring her mother during Wilder’s 1915 trip to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. That relationship ultimately led to Lane’s secretive editing of her mother’s later memoir and the Little House books, a process that would only be discovered decades after publication.
5. Wilder would claim that “every story” told in her books was “true,” a claim that was not, in fact, true. The Little House books feature invented characters and fictionalized episodes. But one of Wilder’s tallest tales was delivered in a speech at a Book Fair in Detroit in 1937. Telling an audience of children that she sometimes had to leave the truth out of her books, she embroidered on the gory story of the “Bloody Benders,” serial killers on the Kansas prairies. She claimed that her father was among the vigilante posse that hunted the Benders and killed them. The Benders were real, but the posse and her father’s vengeance were entirely fictional.
6. Through her great-grandmother, Margaret Delano Ingalls, Wilder was related to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she loathed. Wilder was a Democrat for years but along with other rural farmers grew sharply critical of the New Deal, calling Truman a “liar” and wishing that Eleanor Roosevelt would have to scrub her own floors. She apparently never learned of the connection and for the rest of her life supported conservative politicians and causes.
7. The Little House books were used as post-WWII propaganda. After the series was completed, in 1943, General Douglas MacArthur’s post-war occupation headquarters in Japan chose The Long Winter as one of the first American books to be translated into Japanese, aiming to support “democratization” and to buoy the morale of a defeated and starving people. German translations were published in a similar effort.
8. Wilder had an “adopted” heir she never knew. In her later years, Rose Wilder Lane met a teenaged boy, Roger Lea MacBride, who would become her lawyer, literary agent, and “adopted grandson.” When the childless Lane died in 1968, MacBride inherited an estate enriched by the bestselling Little House books, licensed the television rights to Little House on the Prairie, and ran for President in 1976 as a Libertarian. Campaigning to abolish government, including the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Post Office, and the F.A.A., he received .2% of the popular vote.
9. Wilder never owned a television. Michael Landon’s adaptation of Little House on the Prairie would one day win her millions of viewers all over the world, but Wilder herself didn’t like the only filmed version she ever saw, of her novel The Long Winter. She told a friend: “The children will read my books, and watch this movie, and they won’t know which is right. My books are just like I lived them.”
10. Laura has been sculpted in butter. This summer, in honor of her 150th birthday, a pigtailed Laura joined the dairy pantheon at the Iowa State Fair, standing alongside the popular Butter Cow. It was a fitting tribute to a lifelong farmer and a girl who loved singing to her cows as she milked them.