Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

One important theme of Prairie Fires is environmentalism. Fraser explains in this biography that the Dakota plains were never meant to be cultivated for grain crops and that even environmentalists in the latter nineteenth century argued that the area should not be divided into homesteads. In 1877 and again in 1878, Major John Wesley Power contended the land was too arid for individual farming: instead, he said, it should be turned into collective farms of four square miles with shared irrigation. He predicted that small farming in the region would lead to bankruptcy. However, the prevailing ideology favored private ownership, and the railroads needed the profits that could be generated by shipping supplies to individual home and homestead owners. Fraser makes a convincing argument that the Ingalls and Wilders were never going to successfully make a living farming in the Dakotas, and she critiques a system that both ignored environmental constraints and put corporate profits ahead of the suffering of individual farmers.

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Another theme Fraser emphasizes is how much harder real life was for the Ingalls than is depicted in the Little House books, noting that Wilder softened and idealized the suffering for younger readers. Fraser notes that Wilder left out the period the family lived in Iowa, working next to a saloon, as too harsh and adult for a children's audience. As a preadolescent, Wilder had to work as maid, and encountered alcoholics and the possibility of sexual abuse. Also, she and her sisters could not attend school for a time because they couldn't afford proper clothing. Wilder, as well as others in her family, Fraser says, were deeply scarred by poverty.

Fraser also contests the theory in the book by William Holtz, The Ghost in the Little House, which argued that Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, actually wrote the bulk of the little house books. Fraser emphasizes that Wilder did write the Little House books and that Lane's edits made them worse: for example, Fraser argues, none of Lane's literary work has lasted, while Wilder's books are children's classics.

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