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 As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical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.

The Oregon Trail: An American Journey, by Rinker Buck *****

theoregontrailBuck is a journalist and author who replicated (to the extent possible in modern times) the covered wagon crossing of the old Oregon Trail, much of which still contains the original wagon ruts. A creature of the Pacific Northwest myself, I thought I had the whole Oregon Trail story down cold, but I learned a lot from Buck’s wonderful memoir, which threads his own experience with the historical information he gleaned from a variety of sources into a fluent, fascinating, accessible yet hyper-literate narrative. My great thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the ARC. The book will be available to the public in August of this year.

Buck discusses his experience, and the book, here:

The germ of Buck’s idea to travel the old Oregon Trail in a covered wagon came from a favorite childhood experience. Buck’s father took his large family on a covered wagon vacation during the late 1950’s. They traveled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it is one of the author’s fondest memories. His brother Nick, who sounds like a real character, decided to join him on this adventure, and their skills complemented each other wonderfully in most instances, with Rinker having done a great deal of research and put up the considerable sum it took to buy the wagon, the mules, and so forth, and Nick having a wealth of eclectic knowledge about covered wagons and mules as well as tremendous mechanical aptitude in general.

Our author is one hell of a writer. His down to earth metaphors made his story accessible for modern people. For example, he says that the Conestoga wagon was the semi truck of the mid-1800s while the prairie wagon used by most families, which was made by Sears Roebuck, Studebaker, and John Deere, were more like the station wagon. The whole narrative is peppered with this sort of figurative language, and it’s both amusing and helpful. And I loved seeing the ways in which the problems of the early pioneers often became his problems also, sometimes in ways that would have halted an ordinary traveler right then and there. But Rinker and his brother are serious badasses, and they kept on going.

Think for a moment how high up the driver’s seat on a covered wagon is, for example, and how immensely soporific the repetitive clopping of hooves are on a very warm spring day. There is no safety belt; there is nothing whatsoever to keep a man from falling off and being crushed beneath the wagon.

Narcissa Whitman, one of the early settlers who together with her husband, founded the Whitman mission in Eastern Washington (part then of the Oregon Territory) made the trip on horseback. But she had no safety belt either.

The Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, did a whole lot of it on foot and pushing carts; those that lived through the experience populated Utah. But I agree with Buck that Devil’s Gate was not solely part of the Mormon experience, and President Bush had no business turning federal park lands over to the LDS Church. Frankly, it steams my clams all over again just writing about it…moving on.

I also have one small bone to pick with Buck’s research, though it isn’t enough to lop a star off my rating: he says that the 400,000 pioneers that crossed the Oregon Trail was the greatest overland migration in history. To be fair, when he wrote this, it was widely accepted as truth. But in 2010, Isabel Wilkerson documented an overland migration of 6 million African-Americans from the South to Northern Industrial cities and also to California between 1915 and 1970. The Oregon Trail, then, may be the second largest, but not the largest.

I also might have liked to see a citation accompany controversial facts tossed in, such as the claim that it was covered wagon makers, not Henry Ford, who started the mass assembly line. Generally I liked the flow of the text made possible by avoiding footnotes, but if one is going to butcher a sacred cow, one should back the assertion with a source.

But all these things are minor compared to the value, both in education and entertainment provided by the story of the Rinker brothers’ modern day reenactment, which is nothing short of spellbinding. I had just begun it when I came down with a case of flu, and I can’t tell you how comforting it was to curl up under my covers with my glass of orange juice and this book and immerse myself in their journey, which commenced in Missouri and like the original pioneers, continued across six states. And although I have never done the trail itself (and if I were to do so, I’d be one of the Winnebago set that made him half-crazy with their giant rigs that spooked the mules and their never-ending cameras winking at him and blocking his way), I have driven through all of the states he crossed through except Kansas.

It was useful to have traveled through most of the region that Buck described, yet his descriptions were so palpable that I think even if you have never been there and never plan to, you will see much of it in your mind’s eye.

I’m not sure what is the most remarkable part of this wonderful memoir: the novel aspect of the covered wagon trip during the 21st century, or Rinker’s voice, which switches seamlessly from that of historian, to that of family member with family issues, to that of the humorist who can appreciate life’s ironies even in adverse circumstances. All I know is that you don’t want to miss out on this one. What a terrific story!

Far As the Eye Can See: A Novel, by Robert Bausch ****

farastheeyeSharply evocative of time and place, Bausch’s novel Far As the Eye Can See is a treat and in some ways an education as well. Bausch’s fictional tale, set during the Grant Administration in the USA around the time of Custer’s last stand, draws on considerable research with regard to the Crow, Cheyenne, Nez Perce and other American Indian tribes. He uses story to drive home his message, which is that neither Caucasian nor indigenous people were either entirely good or entirely in the right, and that the conflict between the two was inevitable.

I only agree with part of that last bit, but I really enjoyed his story. Thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for allowing me an advance glimpse via an ARC.

Bobby Hale is a deserter from the US army some seven times over. During the latter part of the American Civil War, he took the cash bounty for signing on, went to fight, and left the first chance he got. By using a wide variety of names he was able to do so repeatedly, but he was nevertheless roped into participating in some terrible battle. Were he real, and were he alive today, we’d say he has PTSD.

And there you have it! I always know an author has done a strong job developing their character when I find myself giving out diagnoses. It’s just as well that the character is indeed fictional, since my medical credentials don’t exist either.

Hale is headed west, away from cities and civilization. The idea of holding down a job and answering to a supervisor is anathema to him. The classic (but not stereotypical) mountain man, he is willing to sleep in freezing temperatures out of doors when necessary, climb steep cliffs and slog through ravines, all in the name of independence. But even out west, he inevitably runs into other humans from time to time, and not being completely antisocial, he makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love. Twice. He finds himself having to make difficult choices a number of times. At other times, he is forced into action before he can really examine his options.

Here we check in with what I call the “ick meter”. Every reader has an independent threshold for bloodshed, human body parts, and other gore. Given that this is a soldier’s story, renegade or not, we would expect to find some of it here. I would not have cared to see Bausch add any more of it than he did; however, my own sense is that there was nothing added that was gratuitous or overdrawn. If you can’t stand reading war stories, you probably already know that by now, in which case, I wonder why you are still with me here.

Another noteworthy detail has to do with his use of place. When he describes the approach to the Rocky Mountains from the eastern part of the USA, I can see those blue mountains and all that sky, because I have driven across the USA a few times, and I have vacationed in Montana and Wyoming. Bobby Hale covers a tremendous amount of ground. If you are somewhat familiar with location in regard to the Black Hills, the Northern (inside the US) Rockies, and the Great Plains, you will probably enjoy the book more than if you don’t have a clue. I think if I were starting from scratch, I might have become confused, because he puts on a lot of miles without pausing to lay out which state lines he is crossing. Actually having been to at least one of these places, even if only to drive through it and notice the difference in elevation, climate, etc. will increase your appreciation and understanding.

As for me, I found it very satisfying. It’s a great read to have ready to hand beside a snug bedside. When Hale froze in the mountains and froze again on the plains, I burrowed deeper into the blankets and found myself even more content than when I began.

A great story for late fall and winter reading in a toasty nest.

One of Ours, by Willa Cather *****

OneofoursI 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.

I don’t have any publishers to thank here. I bought this novel on my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. Once I’d read the first chapter, I wondered why I hadn’t read it before. It’s not as if I’ve ever been too busy for books.

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 heartbreak. As a mother of grown sons, I identified somewhat with his mother, even though she is not a main character.