Prairie Fires: Chapters 1-5

[Prairie Fires Content Note: Racism, Settler Violence, Nazis, Child Abuse]

Prairie Fires: I started and stopped a Little House deconstruction awhile back, but the subject matter stayed with me. This book--a new and informative expose on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane--was recommended to me so I picked it up on a lark. I was not prepared. This is a record of my live-read on Twitter.

Prairie Fires, Chapters 1-5

(Tweet Link: Part 1) Wow, I'm really liking Prairie Fires so far. (New... expose? biography? of Laura Ingalls Wilder.) "Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich." I wish the author had specified white American children. I hope race is explored more, because it's inextricable to the Wilder legend. Her mythic story is a white story.

Chapter 1 is about how the Wisconsin "Big Woods" farm, land, and maple sugar trees featured in the first book were freshly stolen from indigenous people. Like, extremely freshly. I knew that the other books (Silver Lake, Prairie, etc) were about LIW's white family stealing indigenous land, but I hadn't realized Big Woods was part of that pattern as well.

I'm not sure yet when Pa's family shows up, but noting that he was born in 1836, the 1855 German and Bohemian settlers migrated into the Big Woods by moving into indigenous homes while the owners were our hunting, then refusing to leave when the owners came home.

[TW] I have bearings now: the US-Dakota War of 1862 (which drove out most of the indigenous people in Minnesota) was 5 years before Laura's birth in 1867. "By 1867, there were only fifty Dakota left in Minnesota." This book is brutal, and I didn't know this about LIW.

Okay we're talking about the trail from Wisconsin to Missouri and how one woman had her tenth baby on the trail. Spare a thought for tenth-baby-on-the-trail woman, whoever she was. Mormon women surrounded their pooping sisters and spread their skirts as a privacy shield. Smaller, non-Mormon groups just had to avert their eyes from poop activities.

Holy shit, okay, so Pa Ingalls just moved in on an indigenous person's land while they were away, and built a house there expecting the government to back him up as a white guy. Like, imagine someone building a little shack in your backyard while you're on vacation and then expecting you to give them your property when you came back home. Pa Ingalls did that.

He had to have known, too. I've always had white people hedge at me that he was probably just mistaken, but given the context I'm getting in this book... He had to have known. I find it noteworthy that the family who moved down with them immediately turned around and went back home when they saw they'd be settling on indigenous land. In case people wanna "well everyone was racist back then". Don't.

Oh, okay, yeah. He knew. A census taker informed then they were living on Osage land and that Pa had no right or title to the land. So he was just blatantly stealing logs by cutting down trees at this stage.

This book is too nice. Like, what do you do with sentences like this? "Charles Ingalls had labored to improve land that was not his own... He gained nothing from it." He stole valuable trees to build an unwanted shack on someone else's land. I have no pity for him. If someone moves into my backyard, cuts down my trees to build a shack, and tries to oust me from my home, I'm not like "ah, this person's labor improved my land". Because, like, it didn't.

The government didn't even force him out like Laura thought! The government backed the white people! Charles either left because he misunderstood or (more likely) because he didn't have the cash to pay the government for the land he was squatting on.

Oh my god, remember the locusts that ate all their crops at Plum Creek? That same thing happened a year before they moved there, destroying everything green. And Charles knew about it. He just assumed it wouldn't happen again?? I'm going to travel back in time to punch this man in the face. The swarm that ate their crops was the largest in recorded human history, and I blame that on Charles too. It's like the earth herself wanted to punch him.

Amusingly/Horrifyingly, Laura left out a sequence of her life in which they lived above a saloon, very bad things happened, and her dad just plain skipped town on his debts. I don't even totally blame him for skipping town on his debts, but it's a very white privilege thing that he could skip town and survive.

[TW] I'd heard there was an instance of a guy trying to molest Laura that didn't make it into the books, but here's a different instance I'd not heard of. I've always been angry at how the books downplay the massive amounts of sexual violence faced in these communities, so there's that. Like, eventually Charles will move his family of girls to live a few hundred feet from an enormous camp of men and just. Charles. But we haven't gotten there yet.

Okay, Mary is blind (the book doesn't mention this, but this is also Charles' fault; I'd known that one already) and they're going west again. Now I must bed. Charles also needs to stop making Caroline pregnant. Fucksake, Charles, use your hands. Those debts Charles skipped out on were a doctor's fees for delivering Caroline's babies. Remember these books are beloved by anti-choicers who say we should just stop fucking. Goodnight!

Okay, I was too sleepy last night to explain why Mary's blindness was Charles' fault. Strap in. There's a bit in the books where Charles wants a watermelon. The watermelons are growing in this marshy area where mosquitoes live. People who go and get watermelons in that area get VERY VERY sick. So Caroline says "pls don't get watermelon". Charles is like "pfft, watermelon aren't dangerous!" and goes to get watermelon. He brings back mosquitoes and deathly illness.

The illness never really leaves Mary and she loses her eyesight. Carrie (who was a fetus during all this) is born weak and frail and stays so for life. And, sure okay he didn't understand mosquitoes but he was capable of noticing patterns. Other people who went to harvest melons got sick. He just felt he was exempt.

Okay, now we're on to the western land rush which literally everyone knew was a bad idea, but the railroads printed unspeakable lies in papers to tempt the foolhardy. Guess what Charles will do. "In Minnesota, the Ingalls had...a reliable 23 to 39 inches of precipitation every year. In Dakota territory...thirsty crops could expect only 15 to 23 inches annually--if they were lucky."

It's noteworthy that Laura believes they're the first anywhere they go because the land is unspoiled. They're not! Each time, it's indigenous land. The land is "unspoiled" because white people don't live there spoiling it. (Laura and her family then spoil the land.)

Now they're by the shores of Silver Lake. Charles runs the company store and helps a dude cheat the company out of money. LOL, this guy. I don't mind that he cheats the company wherever he goes--I'm Chaotic Good, guys--but I mind that he thinks he's a moral upstanding Christian whilst stealing his way through life.

We're at the blizzard and them sending Cap and Almanzo to go buy the only wheat in the area, and I can't get past the fact that Libertarians would let them all starve. This book is actually a horrifying tale of how private charity doesn't work: after each prairie fire or locus swarm, the government does nothing and private charities fail to meet the need. Like, there's a bit after the locust swarm where newspapers are like "but if you give FOOD to FARMERS, they'll become indolent and never work again" and basically this is why "but private charity!" doesn't work.

Okay, I need everyone to understand that--whatever your feelings for the books!--Laura and her family were those aliens from Independence Day. The ones that move form planet to planet, strip-mining them into rubble? Those. One of the indigenous people quoted in the book compares the white settlers to the locust clouds and it's a very apt comparison. They just... swarm in, build railroad towns, strip the place to the soil, and die.

One of the most infuriating things about all these "misadventures" for lack of a harsher word is that people knew about the blizzards and drought and that this land was not suitable for English-style gardens. But they keep doing it. They're just so determined not to listen.


Cat Mara‏  @catmara73  But, but, "rain follows the plough"!  (Seriously, have you ever encountered anything as revoltingly self-deluding as this? "White folks are so special we can make it rain anywhere!")

I'm only 14% into the book so maybe this is coming, but I'm irked that parental abuse hasn't been touched on. Those books are rife with it.

Anyway, speaking of, we get a side bit about Almanzo Wilder's family. The book convincingly argues that Almanzo was probably named after a romance novel hero in a popular "Crusader fable" that was a reskinned Romeo and Juliet tale. ...I did not know that. I had always assumed he was named for a relative. This is like your mom calling your baby brother "Fabio" while everyone else is named Eliza and Jane and Alice and Laura. (Almanzo's actual sisters' names.)

I can't get past this naming thing. Like, everyone had to know when they met him?

"Almanzo? Oh! The 'fervid Moorish admirer' in the Ladies Companion serial??"
"That's the one!"

Do you think this is why he went west?

To no surprise whatsoever, Almanzo is now breaking homesteading rules and scamming the government. Again, I don't disapprove exactly, but I remind you this is supposed to be people who succeeded through honest hard labor.

Almanzo is being a dick to Eliza Jane but I am 100% on her side, fight me. She's going to claim her own homestead at 29 because fuck marriage and men, and that's frankly way more sympathetic than Manzo and Royal. I mean, they're all trash fires stealing land from indigenous people, but at least she hates men and I respect that.

I cannot stress enough how every dude in this book is that Canadian guy who cashed out his retirement to buy a restaurant because he watches a cooking show once. OVER AND OVER AGAIN. "I've never done X before, but how hard can it be? I will not only excel at it, I will make double my investment! Time to throw all my money in a pit!"

Anyway, Almanzo loses a horse worth two hundred dollars despite being a horse expert and he blames Eliza because she was the one who wanted to get a rush on. They pick homesteads off a map when they get there, without scouting each area, so now they're the Toronto couple who bought a house without looking at it. I have to assume they were planning to flip their property? Who settles forever on land they didn't look at first??

I fucking love how many of you in my mentions are urging the Ingalls to just eat Charles.

When the blizzard hits, Eliza Jane just goes the fuck home, intuiting that food is going to be a problem and honestly she's the most sensible person in this town. Almanzo and Cap find the one  dude in the state who harvested wheat before the blizzard hit and "with negotiation and pressure they prevailed, paying him $1.50 a bushel".

"Negotiation and Pressure"

I remind you that Rose Wilder tried her damndest to stuff this all into a libertarian paradise framework, and libertarians would've charged $150 a bushel and shot Cap for being mouthy.

 Mrs. N‏  @BtwnThesePages  Is there anything in there that explains why TF Royal, the eldest son, would leave what seems to be a lucrative farm gig with his dad?  Because I never got that.

Re: Why Royal and Almanzo left what was a rich farm in Farmer Boy, the farm basically wasn't rich anymore. There'd been a bad drought, plus prices on produce were fluctuating rapidly. So the Wilder farm was probably still self-sustaining, but they weren't rich as kings anymore. I get the impression that Royal and Manzo wanted to be masters of their own domain (plus their dad was, imo, abusive as fuck) and the family farm wasn't rich enough to prevent them dreaming of bigger things.

Oh by the way, I forgot to mention earlier but Charles Ingalls was a draft-dodger.

Huh. This is interesting: a man gets rich selling pocketwatches to farmers. Why?, you ask. Surely those are a luxury item? Well, they were before the railroad schedules made them a necessity. Railroads weren't regulated at first and the time was what they said it was. Farmers organized and demanded the government sort this shit out. Populism gets a nod. (Rose, the Libertarian, wails in the background.)

Farmers couldn't adequately plan in advance what to plant, because shipping rates fluctuated dramatically. Wheat wasn't turning into cash after all. Charles turns to odd jobs to make money. I think this is something that doesn't get emphasized enough: these books are held up as homesteading manuals, but Charles stops farming and becomes a company man after, like, Prairie. He's farming a little for food, but the bulk of his income is things like:

- managing the company store
- running an informal inn
- carpentry
- odd jobs
- helping people con the railroads

Homesteading isn't profitable enough to feed his family on. Oh, and Laura is working flat out at odd jobs just for them to survive. Sewing shirts right now. And she's 14. Libertarians love child labor, but still.

I must say, I always hated Caroline for forcing Laura to be a teacher in order to have a teacher in the family, but I am slightly more sympathetic seeing just how profitless small-scale farming was at this point. One wonders if Caroline even tried to explain that to Laura but if Rose had to keep that out because it would've messed with her ~vision~. (Mind you, by all accounts Laura and Caro had a very stormy relationship regardless.)

Oh, by the way, remember the rag doll that Caroline makes Laura give away in the books? But she gets it back, so it's basically okay? The happy ending of getting the doll back was an invention for the books. *licks the tears from your cheeks*

Almanzo asks to walk Laura home on a dare from a buddy. We're now in She's All That, settler edition. An older woman advises Laura that she's going to end up marrying Wilder because she'll feel like it'll hurt his feelings if she says no. Reminder that it's okay to hurt boys' feelings and not marry them if you don't want to.

Laura is working from 7 am to 6 pm sewing dresses, with only a few minutes break each day for food. Libertarianism! Charles finally has a decent job and a harvest that will feed his family so he wants to move again. Caroline puts her foot down and he backs off.

Okay, we're at the point that always horrifies me in the books: Laura goes to be an underpaid, underage teacher in another town, living in the home of an incredibly dangerous family. Almanzo rescues her every weekend, taking her home to her family. Laura straight up tells him that she's grateful but she's just using him for a ride and isn't romantically interested in him. He just keeps coming anyway. She's 14/15 and he's... 21/23? Ish? I'm not sure whether he's a nice guy or a Nice Guy or maybe a little of both.

Laura turns 16 and briefly considers going out with Cap (her old crush) when he asks her out but "didn't want to make the change" from Almanzo. I'm kinda sad/delighted/sad that she apparently found all this dating rather tiresome and obligatory. Ace feels.

Christ, she didn't graduate high school (to her forever regret) because her teacher held her back so the kids would all graduate together. Then she had to leave for work. *kicks teacher repeatedly in the shins* Okay, they're married and moved into their new house (which she loves) (and which, unbeknownst to her, there's a huge debt on the house). Chapter 5 and shit is about to hit the fan.

"'It was a carefree, happy time, for two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like," she wrote. It was the closest she ever came to saying they were in love." ARO FEELS NOW.

Oh god, Almanzo doesn't tell her the house is $500 ($13,000 in today-money) in debt. When he does finally tell her, she's upset at him for years. He puts them deeply in debt to buy farm machinery (probably not the worst idea, if everything had worked out--but it doesn't) and then hail destroys their crops in a single afternoon.

God, I think Almanzo might be worse at money than Charles and that is saying something, guys. He's got that "grew up rich" thing? Where every time he gets a little money he squanders it on, like, decorative clocks and stuff because he's used to owning nice things? Laura has to be like "darling this is a gorgeous clock but we are deeply in debt" and he's like "oh but soon we won't be" and yeah.

Almanzo has the stroke that left him permanently disabled and I need to remind you that social safety nets are a good thing and libertarians should be punched. God, it's just painful how much money they have to put against Mary's blindness and Almanzo's disability, when government aid should exist.

"Once again, as it had year after year since the Wilders' marriage, the harvest failed." MY GOD, IT'S LIKE THE LAND ISN'T SUITED TO ENGLISH-STYLE FARMING.

God. They've lost every harvest they ever attempted, lost a baby, lost their home, and Laura burned down their other house by accident. It's like... all of this is a bad idea and they just keep at it. There's an enormous drought and everyone is dying. "South Dakota's new constitution forbade the appropriation of public money to provide relief." Libertarians suck. The Wilders, now homeless, are going to go live with Almanzo's family. They sell all their stuff and the money goes to paying off debts.

Oh god, everyone is now land-rushing to take over lands in Florida. They keep leaving places of relative comfort by selling things of value (livestock, horses) and throwing themselves into land stolen from indigenous people. Then they lose everything, ruin themselves, and have to be bailed out by someone who cares about them.


Florida turns out to NOT be a paradise of health, perfect weather, and English farming (hahahaha!) so the Wilders give up after a year and leave. Gods know how much money they wasted. They sold all their horses for the trip to Florida.

Some numbers: Less than half of all homesteaders succeeded. The ones who did were basically engaging in communism/socialism: big extended families working the farms together and combining resources to buy and share mechanical equipment. So Charles' and Almanzo's tendency to keep moving away from their (admittedly awful) families and "go it alone" was basically doomed from the get-go without new 'found family' to pick up the slack.

I romanticize farming--like every other city dweller who plays Stardew Valley--and really do dream of Queer Valley where we milk cows and have barn dances, but dreams are dreams. By the way, if you've never read the Little House series and just really need to right now, it's finally on Kindle.


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