Prairie Fires: Chapters 6-7

[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 6-7

(Tweet Link: Part 2) Okay, when we left the last thread: Laura had grown up and gotten married and had Rose before her husband got very sick and had a stroke that left him disabled. They are now replicating the bad decisions of her childhood: Hole up with a financially stable family, gain a few belongings and a foothold, sell everything, move to the latest land-grab in an attempt to strike it self-sufficiently rich, fail.

There are a few genuinely sad things here. One, Laura's white family is a cloud of locusts driving indigenous people from their homes and destroying the land. Two, the lack of real safety nets for disabled and impoverished people is the gale wind behind the white locusts. The people getting rich off the land-grabs are (a) the government and (b) the railroads and (c) the people selling farm equipment. That's pretty much it. Everyone else loses.

Rose Wilder (Laura's daughter) edited the books heavily to have a massive libertarian slant, and they're still wildly beloved by fundamentalists and Sarah Palin. These books are genuinely influential. Over half of all homesteads failed, and the only ones who managed to survive were basically communist/socialist communes: Large sprawling families who shared creameries, grain elevators, and warehouses, by pooling their resources. They were probably also managed by men and women who had to make decisions together, rather than just one Head Of The Family whose impulses were law.

Both Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder engaged in (reasonable) lies and deceptions to take advantage of the homesteading acts. Almanzo lied about his age to qualify, and then helped perpetuate a fraud by throwing up a claim shack for a friend (who paid him to do this) and pretending to live there. Charles lied on his patent application, swearing under oath that he'd never made a homestead preemption filing before. I feel like this is important, because the Wilders are presented as the epitome of how Good Honest Hard-Workers can survive, but (a) they failed at everything they tried, and (b) they weren't even honest. They had to lie and cheat to survive, and then they failed anyway.

Charles joins a populist party which agitates for the government to nationalize all this shit, because the railroads are royally fucking everyone over. What we're seeing is that rich farmers can get richer by sitting on their stores until the market fluctuates, then selling high. But poor year-to-year farmers can't do that, and just get poorer faster. In other words, the Invisible Hand of the Market is bullshit. Fielding questions about Charles' populism that Libertarian Rose erased: It was called The People's Party and Charles joined; they demanded government takeover of railroads, currency reform, and a system of federal warehouses where farmers could keep their crops.

Charles sells the De Smet homestead, pays off his debts, and moves his family into town to be a merchant. He just couldn't make a living as a farmer. I mean, which is... not surprising? He had no surviving sons to work the farm, and no extended family in the area that might provide cousins or nephews to work for him. He's getting elderly and farming is brutal work. His daughters are disabled and/or frail. So it's not, like, a mark of shame that he can't make farming work for him. But it's noteworthy because these books kinda insist that anyone can, if they just try really hard. He tried hard, but couldn't.

Laura and Almanzo and Rose move back to De Smet, buy a tiny house, and sleep on the floor. "Laura was determinedly cheerful, saying they were 'camping' and 'wasn't it fun?' Her daughter was not fooled: 'I knew she wanted me to say yes, so I did.'" Almanzo works odd jobs. "For one glorious five-week stretch he served on jury duty, earning two dollars a day."

"We have no wheat, we have no oats,
We have no corn to feed our shoats,
Our chickens are so very poor
They beg for crumbs outside our door...
Our horses are of broncho race;
Starvation stares them in the face.
We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away."

Climate change happens because it turns out that (a) wheat is a really thirsty crop that will utterly ruin your soil, and (b) removing all native plant life in an area causes the ground to heat the fuck up.

L. Frank Baum is mentioned. (The Wizard of Oz author.) He was absolutely fanatically racist, running a paper in which he repeatedly called for the genocide of all remaining Native Americans. He'd never lived in Kansas, but he had lived in the Dakotas and the prairie descriptions in Oz are ones that Laura would've been familiar with.

There's a lot here about the American idolization of the "frontier" and the self-made "backwoodsman" who is lonely and thoughtful and rugged and willful and manfully jerks off into a campfire while gazing at bald eagles in the skies above. I wonder how much our "frontier fantasy" ties into the gun culture we're steeped in now. A lot of gun owners seem to think they're Pa Ingalls, ready to shoot intruders and go skin beavers for fur at a moment's notice. Not to mention the way frontier fantasy intertwines with racism and white nationalism. We've populated the frontier, dammit, it's no good if people of color "seep" back into the spaces we cleared for white folk.

Back to the book, the Wilders are now saving to leave De Smet, leave the Ingalls, and go to Missouri. I refer you to this tweet: They are now replicating the bad decisions of her childhood: Hole up with a financially stable family, gain a few belongings and a foothold, sell everything, move to the latest land-grab in an attempt to strike it self-sufficiently rich, fail.

"The railroad would mail free to anyone who wanted them maps, timetables, and an eight-page illustrated monthly newsletter, the 'Missouri and Kansas Farmer'."

admiral akbar from star wars: It's a trap!

The railroad also provided an enticing fifty-three-page book, likewise mailed for free: 'AMONG THE OZARKS: The Land of Big Red Apples'.

sheldon from big band theory: It's a trap!

I cannot stress enough how each of these land-grabs was basically orchestrated by railroad companies in order to make money. Part 1 ends with Laura tearfully leaving her family forever. They don't feel like they can stay in De Smet with Almanzo's poor health, so they're going to try to farm the Ozarks.

a woman sarcastically saying "Solid Plan"

Holy shit, we're in a depression and the 1877 Chicago Tribune advises "homeowners pestered by tramps to spike (food) handouts with 'a little strychnine or arsenic' and poison men as if they were vermin." President Grover Cleveland "preached self-reliance and frugality. The functions of government, he sonorously pronounced, 'do not include the support of the people'." EAT HIM.

Laura is being weirdly classist, insisting that they're better than the other Dakota migrants moving to Missouri. "We're not covered wagon folk! We got above that. Pa and Ma got a home of their own, and we had one, and we're going to have one again." ...She is visually comparing other people's children to pigs.

Now she's crying and I feel bad. She knows she'll never see her family again. BUT WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS??? Russians give them food. Oh god, they're already running into wagons of people coming out of Missouri, warning that the Ozark land is rubbish.

They buy some really dubious rocky land with all their remaining cash. Now they have to clear it. A destitute family comes by begging for food and work. Laura wants to make them go away (with her gun, no less), but Manly shares the last of their food. The man does work and helps them clear the land. Rose goes to school and is simultaneously ashamed of her poverty and snobbish about the "unwashed barefooted mountain girls". I hate Rose and Laura isn't high on my list right now.

Okay! I'm back. Sorry about that, my spouse's car broke down in another state, so it's been stressful but everything will be fine now. I blame Charles Ingalls.

Rose isn't liked at school because she "excelled at spelling without much effort" but honestly I think being a classist jackass probably hurt her worse. Almanzo spends his days clearing their rocky hills and it utterly ruins his feet and I'm in a full-body fetal wince.

A countrywide debate over the gold standard leads to people planting different flowers in their yards. Yellow asters for the gold standard, white for silver. You thought your neighbors' Trump signs were annoying. The Ingalls and Wilders, Rose included, were for the Democrats and silver. But the gold won.

Almanzo continues to be disabled and it's really upsetting how much Laura can't seem to cope with or admit that. Because he can't work their farm, they lease it to someone else, move to town, and work for wages. It's interesting how so many books present Manly's disability as this curse on the family, but honestly working for wages probably saved them. Farms aren't turning a profit.

Almanzo delivers kerosene; Laura keeps company account books, makes and sells butter, cooks meals for railway passengers, and takes in boarders. I'm exhausted for her. Almanzo's dad, ruined by Eliza Jane's rice farming speculation, has just enough money to buy the Wilder's town house so they don't have to pay rent. Rich relatives for the win.

The Wilders then immediately sink all their money into buying up more farm land, because they still want to be farmers WHY CAN YOU NOT ACCEPT THIS IS A BAD IDEA?? 'We're a family of three and none of us are strong enough for farm labor, so let's BUY A FARM.'

This is making Charles look rational and level headed! At least he was PHYSICALLY ABLE TO FARM! None of the Wilders are! Open an inn! Run a restaurant! The money is in TOWN, not on a farm! What is WRONG with you, Laura!

Ew, they're living in a whites-only sundown town. There's a sign, even, so there's no way Laura didn't know. There's a reason I said at the start of this that her story is a white story.


Laura and Charles and Caroline were active members of the Masonic Order of the Eastern Star. I... did not know this. She helped found the Mansfield chapter.

Am I being trolled?

Fuck, Charles just died at age 66 from tobacco heart and I'm crying. Laura is 35 and travels home to see him one last time. The Rocky Mountain locust goes mysteriously extinct after Charles dies, proving that they were in fact his fault.

Caroline and Mary sew for money; Carrie supports them with her newspaper wages until she goes to try her own homestead-- NO WHY WHY WHY




Carrie is constitutionally weak and has constant asthma, WHY would she try homesteading?!?!?!

This is like if Toronto Restaurant Guy's daughters grew up to do the EXACT SAME THING.

We here read excerpts from teenage Rose's school notes. And look, I try not to judge teenagers. I was a shithead. I get it. But teenage Rose was a shithead.

On one occasion, asked to paraphrase Tennyson’s “Break, break, break! On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!,” she told the teacher that it was impossible to summarize poetry: a literal interpretation could not capture the poet’s intent. When another student gave a more satisfactory response, the instructor lectured Rose on perseverance. “I stood up,” Rose later recalled, “slammed my books on the desk, said in fury, ‘I will not stay here to listen to such stupid, stupid…!!’ and went home.”101 According to her, she did not return for the rest of the school year.  In time, her outbursts may have gotten her expelled. She later boasted that she rarely completed any full year of school, “because for some reason I was ‘mad at the teacher.’”102 She claimed her departures were voluntary, but one wonders whether authorities would have agreed.

tfw you scream at the teacher and drop out coz you're a Libertarian Rebel. "Rose’s belief in her superiority, a self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it, took hold in her earliest days. It would become deeply ingrained."

Oh gosh, she writes self insert Twilight novels in which her expy is sexually adventurous and precocious and her mother is an immature meanie who never mentally evolved past being a 19yo child bride and doesn't understaaaaaaand her.

Rose is now traveling all over the country seducing men at 17 and/or being seduced by them. Rose's sexy older boyfriend gets her a byline in the newspaper, which is really just fiction writing at this stage of journalism. The marriage was one of those "shit maybe we shouldn't have married just because the sex was great" affairs, apparently.

Rose is organizing women's associations to join all women in the bonds of friendship. I remind you that she reads books praising the KKK in her spare time and her mom lives in a Sundown Town and that is why "universal sisterhood" is a lie.

Money runs low so apparently Rose and her husband fake or suffer (?) a minor accident on the railroad, then bluff the railroad out of a thousand+ dollars in a lawsuit settlement. LIBERTARIANISM.

Wow. Laura starts writing rosy advice articles on Rose's urging, and becomes Part of the Problem. "[Laura] Wilder assured readers that a five-acre farm could comfortably support a family through poultry, fruit, and dairy production."

Literally, literally, you have never once in your life seen this work. Not once. She just straight up lies that she has a 5-acre farm (they don't; they own more land than that, like 80 acres at this point and it's still not enough) and that it supports her "family" of two. And it doesn't; they have to heavily supplement their income with wage labor!

Laura, I am goddamn disgusted. I thought you were an innocent dupe and Rose edited your words, but you were complicit.

"I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you! How dare you?"

I can't get past this! It's not, like, nostalgia for her childhood and rosy glasses! She's lying about her current status in order to sell this failing lifestyle to others! Just! Outright! Lying!

Rose makes money selling up bad California land to desperate dust bowl Oklahomans. These people! are terrible people! Like, I can almost forgive Laura for writing the life she wishes she had instead of reality, but she's giving advice to people! Advice she knows will not work!

Rose moves to California and "gets rid" of her husband and she's such a garbage fire but moments like these make the book worth it. Laura comes out to California to visit Rose and ends up writing "international recipes" for French croissants and Chinese almond cakes. I... I'm not sure she'd ever made either.

Rose's journalism job is to make up pure fiction, but Laura is oddly (and touchingly?) obsessed with insisting all Rose's fictions are "true". She... seems to mean that they feel real, as opposed to being factually correct. This book is a roller coaster and I'm not even 1/3 of the way through.

Low-interest government loans become a thing, and Laura evangelizes for them. They take out a loan against the entire farm. This feels ominous. In more race-related news, she's proud of herself for shaking hands with a black man who gets one of these coveted loans.

Laura has an advice column now (I think? ish?) and she does that humor-columnist Erma Bombeck thing of caricaturing Almanzo in ways I'm sure he was thrilled about. Poor dove. She starts working out her family issues, with Mary and Pa and Ma leaking into her columns. One wonders if Caroline and the rest of the family had a subscription to Laura's paper. I can't even scorn her; she's basically just blogging. Been there, doing that.

"She was beginning to taste the gratification that came from seizing control of the narrative, summoning beloved figures, settling scores, and addressing grievances." BLOGGING.

HOLY SHIT, meanwhile Rose just flagrantly writes an "autobiography" for Charlie Chaplin without his knowledge or consent, and markets it as HIS words with herself as the editor. After he sued to stop the book, Rose wrote him and said he must not have realized how well she'd written his story. OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG DIRTBAG ROSE.

Baby, I can make you so popular but don't expect any money because it won't sell.

Lane urged Chaplin to reconsider, unapologetic about her attempt to capitalize on his fame. Even in a career characterized by audacity, her letter stands out as particularly unprofessional, impertinent, and shameless. “Truly, I don’t believe you realize how very well that story was written,” she ventured, going on to remark, casually, “You’ve lived a life which makes a corking book … whose popular appeal is greater than that of a book any other hack writer is apt to write.”104 She complained that he had put her in a “perfectly frightful position with the Bobbs Merrill people.”105 His objection to the hijacking of his life must be, she supposed, that he expected “some of the money.”106 She could scarcely offer that, she said, since it would amount to a few hundred dollars at most—a tone all paparazzi would recognize.

After "Charlie Chaplin's Own Story" doesn't work out, she pens "Henry Ford's Own Story". Ford "repudiated the book for its inaccuracies".


She then bullied Jack London's widow into letting her write his biography. Literally all of it was fiction and awful and distressing to his surviving family. "[Widow] London was shocked to read an account of how she had lost a child due to the stresses of sailing the South Seas. This was 'flatly untrue', she said. (Indeed it was.)"


Rose then tries to wheedle London's widow into letting her publish the articles as a book, and she lies a bunch. London's widow says no. In, and I need you to understand my delight over this, ALL CAPS. Drink those caps in. Fuck you, Rose.

Belatedly, Lane made it clear that she expected to publish the articles as a book. She repeatedly tried to wheedle permission, falsely claiming that she was someone who had never done newspaper work because she had more of a “conscience.”116 She told London, “Surely, you can appreciate that I tried not to be yellow.”117 But London, denouncing the Sunset pieces as “an erroneous interpretation” of her husband, was having none of it.118 “YOU FAILED TO DO WHAT YOU TRIED TO DO,” she replied, calling the liberties Lane had taken “NOT NECESSARY TO GOOD WORK.”119 Contemporary scholars concur, describing the serial as having “little value,” relying on “fictional devices of imagined conversations, impressionistic descriptions, and tailored atmosphere … based on skimpy evidence.”120

Get yourself someone who loves you the way I love Jack London's widow and her WRATH CAPS.

Rose gets Laura a national article, then brutally edits her words, and they clash. Rose wins, and urges her mother to write a biography. Hurting for money, Rose writes a fictional account of her life. Things get awkward when people back home read her unflattering and false portrayal of Laura. (Rose has Laura borrowing money from her, when the reverse was true.)

Rose genuinely does not seem to have a conscience? Like, even the biographer says so, that's not just me. She doesn't care who she hurts with her lies. She just lies reflexively.

Chapter 7 ends...ominously. Rose decides to start sending yearly money home. Laura is like 'thanks but we don't need it?' and Rose is like 'NO YOU MUST TAKE IT.'

"They did not refuse the money. In time, the true cost would be revealed."

Libertarianism as a haunting Lovecraftian tale.


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