Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
In this eye-opening novel, Fraser allows readers to get to know the famous author Laura Ingalls Wilder in a new way. Fraser uses diary accounts, manuscripts, legal records, and personal letters to share intriguing insights into Wilder's life for readers. Fraser asserts that Wilder's life was much more difficult than her books reveal.
But as adults, we have come to see that her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be fully told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts.
Wilder is best known for her Little House on the Prairie series, in which she describes tough and full lives of pioneers and their families.
In life, loss was the engine that set Wilder's fiction in motion. Exile propelled the powerful emotional current of the Little House books, an intensely felt nostalgia for people and places lost to her.
Over the last century, many young girls have grown up reading about the triumphs and tragedies of pioneer families in the grand American West.
Critical or adoring scholars and readers might agree about one thing: the Little House books are not history. They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is there, if we look for it—embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfactions, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security.
Fraser evaluates Charles Ingalls Wilder, Laura's father, and provides a new analysis of his character:
The image of Charles Ingalls that emerges from these unsettled early years contains elements of moral ambiguity missing from the portrait his daughter would one day so lovingly polish. Having avoided fighting in the Civil War, he was not above trying to profit from it. Like many in his time, he did not hesitate to put a young and growing family in harm’s way.
In an effort to challenge idealized notions of Charles, Fraser shares knowledge she has gained through research.
His dealings with Indians and implicit reliance on the government—to protect settlers from the consequences of their provocative actions and remove Indians from land he wanted—were self-serving. He was willing to press his advantage, to take something that did not belong to him if he thought he could get away with it. These were very different characteristics than the ones his daughter would choose to emphasize decades later.
Tracing the Wilder family's influence, Fraser connects books from sisters within the family to an American movement:
Three weird sisters in an antifeminist trifecta, they each celebrated in their books the strapping male as a hero, and exhibited a striking dissociation from what was happening around the world. Emphasizing free will as essential to liberty, the works laid the foundation for the libertarian political movement in the United States.
Fraser also describes the real hardships of living on the land in the late 1800's:
...on the Great Plains, mass land clearing and wheat farming had led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack. Combined with the market forces controlling distribution, human-caused climate change joined with natural weather patterns to wreak absolute havoc.
Although Wilder's books are not entirely non-fictional, they have left a mark upon twentieth-century American history for years to come.
Wilder made history. Sealing her themes inside an unassailably innocent vessel, a novelistic Trojan horse for complex and ambiguous reactions to manifest destiny, wilderness, self-reliance, and changing views of women’s roles outside the home, her books have exercised more influence, across a wider segment of society, than the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, which held that American democracy was shaped by settlers conquering the frontier. Their place in our culture continues to evolve.
In the breadth of its impact, Wilder’s work—even in its bowdlerized, co-opted versions—has few parallels. It has shaped and inspired politicians across the decades.
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