Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A really good biography by a really good writer about someone fascinating reads like a good novel full of intriguing characters, events, and places. In the peculiar alchemy of literature, such biography creates a literary chiaroscuro, an iridescent interplay of light and shade alloyed in the alchemy of words laced with an internal rhythm of the words that delightfully flavors otherwise flat discourse of nonfiction. On top of this magical incantation, all-around erudition of a writer cognizant of the historical and social contexts armed with exhaustive scrutiny into the subject is the Rosetta stone that consummates the performance by contextualizing the subject’s motivation, actions, and vicissitudes of life that is all very much like a plot. In this regard, Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires about Laura Ingalls Wilder, a prodigious American literary heroine enshrined in the great American literary pantheon, fits into such definition with gusto.
I first came across this book from an article about The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a significant achievement award in Children’s literature, from The Los Angeles Times a few months ago. The award changed the name into “The Children’s Literature Legacy Award” because Wilder’s allegedly stereotypical attitudes toward people of color were considered to be not in harmony with today’s social core values of inclusiveness, integrity, respect, and responsiveness to the epochal changes. In defense of Wilder’s works, Fraser argued that her works were products of her life and that the reception of her books should be more complicated than we might hastily believe based upon the cursory reading of her books as social or historical contexts. It was this very argument that piqued my curiosity about Wilder and her biographer Fraser. As someone who always inclines to someone whose views and attitudes are dauntlessly unreconstructed and intellectually provocative, I wanted to know more about the accused and her public defender. Hence, Prairie Fires is a testament to its quality that sheds light on the myths and misconceptions on the literary world of Wilder and her fascinating self.
To many of us, Wilder is most well known by A Little House on Prairie, also translated into television firmament by Michael Landon in many a language, making it a kind of household name in everyday life. I remember watching it with the unforgettable leitmotif music that rendered the ambience of a story of a pioneer family with none other than faith, charity, hope, and themselves on the Great Plains. Notwithstanding a streak of fictionality laced with idyllic romanticism portrayed in the TV show version, it was this very ambience Wilder cherished the most and delineated in words despite her seemingly perpetual struggle against impoverishment in the epochal changes of economic climates of her time. She was something of a pioneer troubadour who sang the chaste and rustic beauty of the wild prairie as well as the acuteness, coarseness, and strength of a pioneer spirit found in her beloved father. Through a series of poverty after poverty, struggle against struggle, and hope against hope on the life of the open prairie, Wilder was already in training to become a great writer.
It is one of Fraser’s literary finesses that she alludes to “prairie fires” as a metaphorical means for illustrating Wilder’s queasy and passionate character that ultimately spurred her on to writing professionally at a relatively late age in her life. Wilder’s circumstances pushed her into a reluctant lifetime position of a breadwinner and caretaker, making herself to the hostage of Fortune. Her stoic, matter-of-fact manner belied overwhelming fear, dismay, disappointment, and grief as a result of taking a vow of self-denial against her feisty feminine self. All of her aborted dreams and hopes and projections smothered under daily duties that life demanded by a succession of misfortune and became her pant-up fury that metastasized into the fiery images of prairie fires, real or phantasmal.
Fraser is also excellent in providing us with very intriguing information on Wilder’s inseparable relationship with her writer daughter Rose, who is also believed to influence her mother to write professionally. Rose was a very complicated woman whose literary talent seemed to be prevented from blossoming into full fruition on pedestals by her endless windy rage and self-doubt. She loved her mother and father dearly for sure because whatever money she had earned from writing was a munificent largess to them in the forms of a house and other apparatuses. Moreover, it was Rose who induced Wilder to write about her dramatic life that ultimately resulted in A Little House on Prairie. And yet Rose was also always out of reach of her beloved parents. She loved independence, living in the New York City and Europe with a penchant for cultural sophistication and extravagance, measuring herself against the burgeoning careers of her peers. But even her foibles are pathetic and sympathetic in Fraser’s punctilious portrait of Rose colored by the language she employs from her arsenal of words and narrative skills that guard Rose from misconceptions.
The paramount achievement of Fraser in this biography is her flawlessly lucid contextualization of Wilder’s philosophy of life, her viewpoints society, and most importantly, her backgrounds of the oeuvres in the context of regarding the epochal social and historical changes of her time, all of which are gleaned from her comprehensive research into the relevant subjects and her impressive erudition fascinatingly laced with her acute feminine sensitivity in the magical play of the words. In fact, her knowledge on the 19th and early 20th centuries are so impressively and naturally incorporated into the discourse of Wilder’s story that you come to an understanding of Wilder like never before and appreciate her oeuvres in the canon of American Classics by exonerating the accused from being a jingoistic provincial “white” writer. Rather than pontificating the blind idolization of Wilder, Fraser serenely but efficaciously narrates the facts of the controversial author and her meritorious achievements both in life and literature in an expense of will, belief, and truth, producing a mesmerizing biography of a riveting character in literary Americana.
The book does succeed in shedding light on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder by recasting this famous American literary figure in a candid way which none other than Fraser could have possibly done on the topic with her magistral knowledge of Wilder armed to the teeth with thoroughly exacting research on historical and social resources with utmost solicitous attitude and sweet tenderness. For this very reason, Wilder’s books should read as a classics not as a historical textbook of the bygone era whose zeitgeist irks the populace of this modern time. Literature is an art, and therefore its value lies in Art for art’s sake. We use the real to perfect the ideal, and the real encompasses anything – including our foibles and idiosyncrasies – we deem worth sublimating into beauty, which is what art is all about by appealing to our senses, the pleasure of reading something beautifully profound, evocative, and enduring. In this regard, Wilder was and is an artist making the beauty of life out of the reality of life. All this makes this book an enjoyable and illuminating read with Fraser’s irrefutably magical alchemy of words and consummate storytelling skill devoid of expression of infelicity and authoritativeness. This is a canonical biography of a great American writer by another fascinating writer who deserves of the applauding to the very echo.