Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

prairiethe_Are the classic “Little House” books memoir or historical fiction, and were they written by Laura or by her daughter? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In this epic, absorbing biography of her great-grandmother, Fraser tells us. Between her congenial narrative and careful, detailed documentation, this author has created a masterpiece. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers. This book is now for sale.

Laura’s early life was considerably harder than the sepia-toned, heartwarming stories with which she recounts it. Little children could not stand to hear the grueling poverty and crushing losses her family sustained.

 

“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 As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical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…Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich.”

Wilder was a legend unto herself, a fierce, strong woman that could survive anything, anything, and everything. Her story recounts not only personal hardships, but the wide sweeping history that she lived through, from the Westward movement and Manifest Destiny to the suffrage movement, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, as well as the elephant in the room: Indian removal and genocide.

The book, some 600-plus pages, recounts not only Wilder’s story, but that of her daughter, Rose Ingalls Wilder, who was, frankly, a real piece of work. Their lives were so intensely intertwined that to do this any other way would render Wilder’s story incomplete.  And I appreciate the scholarly objectivity with which Fraser treats her subject; it’s not without warmth, but she is clearly not manipulating facts, as some authors do when writing about famous relatives. PrairieFires

And although I previously named a different title as the go-to biography of 2017, I have to recognize that Fraser’s book is a contender.  Highly recommended.

One of Ours, by Willa Cather *****

one of ours

I always seem to love Willa Cather’s writing. Just imagining the country as it was a hundred years ago or more is time-travel of the imagination, and Cather can help a person get started, with her meticulous research and careful, thought-provoking shaping of the protagonist and other characters as well. I feel that the cover description provided on this site is a spoiler, since it takes the reader at least halfway through the book; if you haven’t read it yet and like strong historical fiction, save the goodies as a surprise.

Claude is a wonderful protagonist; he is flawed, and I find myself wanting to go up to him, as if he were before me, and tell him he needs to stand up for himself. And I want to yell, “Don’t DO it! Don’t marry her!” But he is at Cather’s mercy, and she shows us what love and beauty look like, but poor Claude also sees some real heart break. As a mother of grown sons, I identified somewhat with his mother, even though she is not a main character.