I was really hoping I would finish Fire and Fury and Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder around the same time just for the hilarious fire related puns I was thinking about. The books themselves, pretty different.

I finished Fire and Fury in like, a day, Prairie Fires (by Caroline Fraser) on the other hand has been a few weeks and a bit of a slog at times. Although probably no more so than any other 500+ page book that’s pretty depressing. Definitely not how I remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, her real life was significantly harder and less fun than it sounds in the books. I also didn’t love the later books as much as Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, which I think are the happiest books of the series.

Prairie Fires is really the story of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane and goes from twenty years before Laura’s birth (discussing the Dakota Wars) and goes until both Wilder and Lane have died and all the legal wrangling over the book’s copyrights has been settled. Of course, the introduction actually opens with Wilder finding out her mother has died — “Some of us have received such messages. Those who have not, one day will.” Because I just can’t seem to find a book that isn’t about mother and daughters and motherhood these days. (Incidentally, the book is dedicated by Fraser to her mother, “She helped me make books with crayons and bind them with yarn. She took me to libraries and bookstores, gave me every book I ever asked for, and my first typewriter. I promised that if I ever wrote a book I would dedicate it to her, and I regret that this comes too late for her to see it. Memories are our treasures and torments, as Wilder once said, and somehow it is only in books that it can be set right in the end.” Fraser, Wilder and I are all in agreement on this point I think).

I thought this book would cover more of Wilder’s childhood, but that’s actually a pretty small part of the book (and I would assume, is significantly harder to research) — about a third is her younger years, a third her adult life in Missouri before she begins writing, and a third set when she begins writing and publishing the series. There’s some debate about how much of a hand Lane (her daughter) had in writing the books, this author definitely marshals compelling evidence that Wilder wrote the initial drafts but there was more and less editing done by Lane to each book which Wilder and Lane never really admitted during their lives.

The book paints Lane as very mentally ill. She’s suicidal all the time, her politics don’t really make any sense, apparently she and Ayn Rand were both beasties with/inspired by Isabel Paterson, although as written in this book, Lane is like a less smart, more crazy Rand. I definitely get the sense that Lane’s biographer, who was much more sympathetic to Lane and was the person who initially argued that all the books were really written by Lane, created a bit of a backlash against Lane by those who love Wilder. Which is not to say that I don’t think Lane is crazy. She seems like she really had no ability to discern fact from fiction, or at least no desire to do so — she wrote “biographies” of Herbert Humphry, Jack London, and Charlie Chaplin, none of which were what one might actually term a biography since they were all heavily invented by Lane, but she got upset when say like, Jack London’s widow didn’t want her to publish. She and her mother Wilder both argued the Little House books were “absolutely true” despite all evidence to the contrary, and the fact that literally no one cared that some of the worst parts of Wilder’s life had been softened for children, the chronology mixed around a bit, some characters were composites, and something were added or altered for storytelling purposes.

Some fun facts I learned about Wilder — she had a terrier named Nero who could sit politely at the dinner table and eat off his own plate. Similarly, I later learned that when driving on a 105 degree day, they periodically stopped to pour water on the dog and feed him ice cream to keep him cool. Now, these are people I could have gotten along with.

I also enjoyed when Lane referred to her own constant reading as “little more than a drug habit.” Hey, it’s safer than heroin!

You definitely don’t need to read Prairie Fires if you have no interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder. But, if you’re interested in the less white washed version of homesteading than that painted in her books, you might enjoy this. Fraser definitely convinced me that it was and is pretty much impossible to make it as a farmer in America, I learned new horrible things about how the native people were treated by settlers, and although I knew the dust bowl/horrible drought of the 1930’s was in part created by the farming practices of the past 50 years, Fraser really brings home the environmental devastation wrought on the plains.

Currently reading: About 100 pages left in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, then starting The Owl Killers. Going to the library to return Prairie Fires and will make every attempt not to get more books out…probably…

Also — I’ve already planned my summer vacation (WEEK AT THE BEACH!) in June, so starting to brainstorm good beach reads, yes, I will be taking at least 6 books with me. Suggestions?