Guest Blog Post by Kristi Martin —
This chapter begins with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s journey to visit her past in the prairies. Returning with her husband to DeSmet, South Dakota was a homecoming to a place transformed by time. The landscape contained recognizable faces, but altered landmarks. Reuniting with her younger sisters Carrie and Grace, Laura met the same dissonant familiarity; they, too, had changed. With her parents and her sister Mary deceased, Laura appraised the physical remnants of their family home with Grace, who was seventeen when Laura and Almanzo left South Dakota, and by this time was fifty-four. How startling to miss the entire adulthood of one’s sister in those thirty-seven intervening years! After sorting her family’s belongings, Laura remarked, “Everything of value left there has disappeared” (329), and I wonder if she meant more than monetary worth as Fraser suggests by the hard use of the tenants; the tangible presence of her family had also vanished. I imagine the visit felt alienating and bittersweet.
On this trip, the Wilders were tourists. In addition to visiting family, they went sightseeing at Mt. Rushmore and regional historic sites, including at least one connected with family history. As Fraser relates, Laura used the opportunity to envisage the place and the experiences lived there through the eyes of her relative, but with her own senses. It was an imaginative and empathetic experience conducive to writing historical fiction. The couple also saw the Great Depression evident in the landscape. How did the changed places of their past figure into the narrative of American history? What was the value of her family’s experiences? How could Wilder transform the loss she witnessed into something meaningful? The answer, of course, we know in hindsight.
When Wilder returned home to Missouri, she embarked on the writing and publication of the first book in what became known as the “Little House” series, a fictional version of her life before she left DeSmet. While Wilder’s writings about her childhood began before her trip, the nostalgia of her visit must have been a palpable driving force for her recollections and efforts to recreate the past in a new form.
I have to confess, until recently, my knowledge of Little House was primarily through the television show (I know most of the episodes by heart). I was bored with Little House in the Big Woods when I first read it as a child (though I am enjoying Wilder’s books as an adult). My interest in Wilder’s life was present then, but Prairie Fires is my first in-depth foray into Wilder’s biography. My historical and literary passions led me in the direction of a different 19th century author, who – to my great surprise – made several appearances in this chapter! When Fraser alluded to the literary significance in the similarity between the titles Little House… and Little Women, my attention was caught. I have spent the past twenty-five years studying Louisa May Alcott, her family, and literary circle in Concord Massachusetts. Frasers’ observation that the title emphasized “the security – and insecurity – of home” (334) lit up my mind with thoughts about how place, home, and family function within LH culture, and further parallels between Wilder with Alcott. Both female authors were primary earners, anxious about poverty and relieving the monetary and physical burdens of their family. Both appealed to home, family, and autobiography in their most popular writings in a way that overshadows their unsettled domestic lives, frequent moves, and economic hardships caused in some measure by their fathers’ idealism and the male head of household’s indebtedness and inability to earn. While family is a constant in Wilder’s fiction, the appeal of home rooted in place is a characteristic that Fraser draws out. It speaks also to pilgrimages to the places the Ingalls and Wilder families lived and the settings of her fiction (the two often blurred) – another similarity shared with Alcott – that developed in the decades after Wilder’s death.
It is remarkable that even before publication there was a confusion between autobiography and fiction at the heart of Wilder’s storytelling, which required clarification to her publishers – and perhaps in the author and her editor-daughter’s consciousness. It seems Rose, in particular, struggled distinguishing between fact and fiction. Laura also experienced dissonance when her daughter used Wilder’s parents as characters in her own work, Let the Hurricane Roar – which Rose compared in importance to Little Women, ironically seeing her own adult novel as greater literary value than her mother’s work for children – featuring events of Wilder’s marriage. Wilder viewed this as fiction different from her own, jarringly with her associations and not “connected with her family,” though admittedly based on “facts” related to Rose as personal history (347). What does this fictionalizing mean for loose autobiography and authenticity in the no-less-fictional LH series? It raises questions as to whom the Ingalls and Wilder family heritage belonged. If to Laura, why not also to her daughter Rose?
Fictionalizing family history bred mutual feelings of distrust, resentment, and ingratitude between mother and daughter. It also joined their collaborative strengths in creating a lasting legacy bequeathed to American national culture. In midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, as farms failed, the LH series celebrated agriculture, self-reliant endurance, and pioneer families as foundations of national character and landscape. Wilder nostalgically recreated the wild prairie before cultivation turned it to dust. The Ingalls’ abandoned prairie home echoed the empty houses Wilder saw on the prairies in 1931 when she visited DeSmet. Perhaps one of the most moving passages in Prairie Fires thus far is about Wilder’s writings about the wild prairie roses (364). Although Fraser does not explicitly make the connection, Wilder’s prairie roses are surely an evocation of her daughter, a result of her courtship, and reflecting what her daughter meant to her. Fraser reminds us that the volatile emotions and generational conflict surrounding the composition of the Little House books are part of what make the series as much a product of the time when written, as the books are a reflection the setting.
Guest Blog Post by Kristi Martin —