This is an impressive work: not only a detailed biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, but a history of a century of American life. The level of research that went into it is nothing short of incredible; Fraser seems to have tracked down every public record throughout several states related to the Ingalls and Wilder families and those around them, as well as obscure connections like a mocking portrayal of Rose (under a different name) in an acquaintance’s novel. The level of detail and the length (515 pages of text, plus extensive endnotes) make this a hefty read, on the dense side for a general audience but not so dense as to restrict its audience to academic readers.
It’s not only slow going because of the detail; the subject matter is also heavy. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in poverty for most of her life, and Rose, though often financially successful, was an unstable and difficult person. Both, especially later in life, became staunch conservatives – Rose, in particular, seems to be the prototype of a Trump supporter – and they crafted the Little House books into a parable of a kind of self-reliance that the real-life Ingalls family never actually attained.
I was aware before reading this book that the Little House books omit darker aspects of the real Laura’s childhood, such as the death of her baby brother. But the myth-making reached beyond the personal to a whole period of American history. Americans are sold the myth of the self-reliant frontier famers, including in Wilder’s own books, although that vision of triumph is tempered by the knowledge that it was achieved at the expense of the native population. But in the reality Fraser carefully documents here, it wasn’t really a triumph even for the white settlers. Most the Great Plains were not in fact suited for small-scale farming, consisting of land not productive enough to sustain the level of intensive agriculture needed to support family farms. Rather than supporting the family through the farm alone, Charles Ingalls worked a variety of jobs throughout his life – and Laura started working herself at the age of nine. Droughts and plagues of locusts led to starvation; intensive farming removed fragile topsoil and caused the Dust Bowl, which was both a humanitarian disaster and one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in world history. The Ingalls family failed at several homesteads, lived with some unsavory characters in between farms, and, like many others, accepted government relief to eat. Laura and Almanzo Wilder eventually achieved financial security – though not through their farm, but rather, through work in town, Laura’s writing, the gift of a house by Almanzo’s parents, and Rose’s assistance – but Laura’s sisters remained impoverished.
So it’s not the most cheerful of biographies, but it’s an engaging and informative one. Fraser deserves to be commended for her thoroughness and her detachment – though I imagine an author generally has to admire a historical figure in order to spend years researching and writing about her, Fraser makes no bones about the darker aspects of Laura’s and Rose’s personalities and viewpoints. My sense throughout was of a careful scholar presenting the facts, along with their context, rather than arguing for one perspective or another. While reading this book takes some commitment, it should be worthwhile not only to fans of the Little House books, but to those interested in the history of the American West in general.