Prairie Fires: Chapter 12 (Part 1)

[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, Chapter 12

(Tweet Link: Part 7) If you're just joining us, this is a completely accurate summary of Rose Wilder.

 novemberness‏  @Laura_the_Wise  Let's see: -con artist -exploits ppl -serial sexual abuser -fake news -a racist superficially admiring of other cultures -pretends to be rich but rly in debt -many failed building projects -dates younger men -mom issues -vain af -fascist  It's. She. She's Trump. Rose is Trump

Can I just say that I re-read the first chapter of Big Woods last night and I can 100% see why I like/d it. The food descriptions are amazing and Laura is really good at making shitty things seem like amazing adventures. This was apparently a real-world talent of hers which Rose scorned, so it's interesting to see how that plays out in her writing. I really would love to know what Rose thought reading/editing her stuff. Reading between the lines of their letters, she wasn't thrilled.

Chapter 12 promises us that we're entering "the most editorially incestuous phase of their relationship." That's never a good sign.

Laura is now the celebrated author while Rose scrambles for material. Laura and Almanzo start writing Rose long letters to provide her meat for her next pioneer serial. Rose still refuses to visit but sends Almanzo an ad hoc questionnaire to fill out. His replies are terse. "My life has been mostly disappointments," he writes his own daughter. MOST PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE FAMILY EVER.

As a disabled person, I'm still kinda narky that everyone silently frames Almanzo's stroke as the family's Achilles heel preventing all their success. It probably saved them by making them town workers for wages instead of farming more. Almanzo's disability and either his or Laura's apparent infertility later in life (or maybe they were super better at birth control than everyone else) kept them financially solvent. Without both, I don't think Laura would even be famous.

Nor would we know Rose, since she relied heavily on her parents bailing her out as a youth. We know them both BECAUSE Almanzo's stroke led him to give up farming. No one has small-scale made a profit at farming in, like, never. At this point. So next time you read the books, before you accept Laura's framing of Almanzo's stroke as tragic, remember you wouldn't even have that book if he'd not been disabled. *disabled stare at the camera*

(Almanzo is allowed to feel how he feels about it, we're not going to police his feelings. But Laura and Rose can suck a sausage.)

The biographer notes it's interesting that Laura and Almanzo would supply material for Rose's new project ransacking Almanzo's life (after Laura was so upset about Hurricane), but a fair chunk of problem with Hurricane was its secrecy and lack of consent. Now by supplying the material by mail, Laura can shape the narrative to a certain extent. Plus, I can see them wanting to set up Rose to succeed. HAHAHA AND THIS: "And having seen Old Home Town [Rose's expose of Mansfield dirty laundry], she may have preferred that her daughter stick to stories of homesteading."

Rose meanwhile sells Silk Dress which is... basically plagiarism of Laura. Same plot points. "A commercial rewrite of her mother’s manuscript, the story’s pathos and sentimentality demonstrate the limits of Lane’s talents when left to her own." I'm increasingly disappointed that Laura doesn't sue her editor for stealing all her stuff. Rose then sells Free Land which is a rewrite of Little House on the Prairie. Characters sing the same songs and attend the same oyster suppers and minstrel shows as in the book. "It was as if Margaret Mitchell had a daughter who was selling a magazine serial about Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara while her mother was writing Gone with the Wind."

Free Land is also anti-government, anti-New Deal propaganda and loudly so. not a good idea. Once you start moralizing on page, the story suffers. Rose's Charles/Almanzo amalgamation character objects to the government giving land away to the poor, saying every man should pay his own way. Rose, your family never paid their way for shit.

"He declared the government is every man's enemy, failing to realize this land wouldn't even be available to him were it not for the government stealing it from indigenous tribes."

Laura is that white racist who appropriates POC culture; Rose just erases them entirely. They don't exist to her. Which in some ways is a good exemplar of how racism doesn't die out. Laura is slightly more aware of racism because she watched the indigenous people being forced out. Rose is so much less so; she didn't witness it, doesn't care, doesn't matter to her. (Rose is also grossly anti-Black and anti-Semitic, so she's just all around pretty shit.)

Laura offers to give Rose the manuscript for The First Three Years so Rose can polish it up and publish it as her own and as the "adult" cap to Laura's 7 volume MG/YA series. Rose panics and assumes this means her mother wants to write adult novels, warning her off her turf with advice that is contrary to what she herself believes (that money is in the adult market rather than the juvenile one).

Free Land is published as an amalgamation of Laura's life story, but Rose leaves out all their failures because it would hurt the propaganda. No diphtheria, no lost baby, no fire. No giving up and moving away. "Intent on proving there was no such thing as “free land,” Lane larded the story with antigovernment statements while glossing over individuals’ responsibility for embarking on complex agricultural enterprises without the capital to pay or to absorb the risk when they failed."

Instead of losing everything (as in real life), Almanzo's father shows up and bails the young couple out at the end. This alters the entire tone of the novel. Laura's novels are about exile and longing to return. Rose's are about being ideologically right.

Oh christ on a cracker. While Laura writes Silver Creek and struggles with her feelings about Mary's blindness, Rose pressures her to not make fictional-Mary blind at all. WOULD THAT GET IN THE WAY OF YOUR LIBERTARIAN FANTASY, ROSE? Laura decides it's too sad to the reader (and to herself) to detail Mary's illness, so she just glosses over it and jumps in media res, so to speak. That always confused me as a kid, lemme tell you.

“It seems to me that beginning the story with hard times and sickness and Mary’s blindness would be making the story sad,” Wilder wrote, “while beginning it with the funny little R.R. journey and touching on the sad part as lightly as I have done makes pleasanter reading.” And I mean... Yes? But no? It is sad that Mary was sick, but this cozification of frontier life is really harmful and there's some ongoing ableism that this was just The Worst Thing Ever.

In a just world, Mary would've written her life story and it would've been fiercely socialist and we'd all be little radicals. And really now that I've had that thought, it's interesting that we identity with Laura as the underdog when she's very much the strongest in her family, all things considered. Mary is disabled, and Carrie is frail all her life because Caroline was sick (Charles' fault) while pregnant. Grace seems frail too. Laura was the one who had the most food, both as a child and as a fetus, basically. She's the strong work horse of the family. She's also the one who escapes and thrives while the rest of them remain much poorer. I wonder how the Wilder tour would hold up if you saw Caro and Mary's house right after.

Oh god, the main reason Laura wants to keep Mary's blindness in is because otherwise Laura being forced into being The Teacher doesn't make sense. PRIORITIES?? Understand that I am super angry at Caroline for foisting her frustrated dreams on Laura but still that's not the primary best reason to write Mary as she really was!!!!

Rose correctly points out that if fictional Mary is going to stay blind, the reader does need to be oriented to that fact. Laura can't just skip over it entirely. "[Laura] repeatedly refused the notion of beginning with “a recital of discouragements and calamities such as Mary’s sickness & blindness. I don’t like it!”" tfw your homesteading past isn't as rosy as you'd like it to have been.

"At one point, she sharply instructed Lane not to work on the manuscript any more, saying she was going over it carefully and would not be describing Mary’s illness or Jack’s death. “The reader must know all that but they should not be made to think about it,” she said." THIS WAS THE LINE YOU DREW, LAURA?? My god this woman needed counseling to have been invented.

If it seems I'm being mean, that's because I am. I'm pissed that Mary's disability is all about how Laura and The Reader feel. There's no suggestion she thought about what Mary would've wanted. When I write scoliosis rep (BUY SURVIVAL ROUT. AVAILABLE WHERE BOOKS ARE SOLD.) I'm thinking about how to bring disability rep to the page for disabled readers. Not whether it'll make abled readers ~sad~. Laura is making Mary's disability all about her and I can forgive a little bit of that (it did impact her life dramatically) but I have a limit. You're a grown woman, Laura. You can deal with your sadfeels.

I find it interesting Laura's choice of words. “The reader must know all that but they should not be made to think about it.” For the record, her editor Rose was right: the brief "Mary is blind, Jack is dead, moving on, mustn't dwell" opening in the books is hella confusing as a kid. Like WAIT WHAT. Even as a kid, there was an almost physical blow behind that revelation. In the series, hardships up to that point had been characterized as impermanent. Suddenly, they weren't.

Anyway, Rose denigrates Laura's writing and threatens a loss of income until Laura backs down a little. A wary uneasy truce is formed. They struggle with chronology, since they're basically leaving out years of disaster. Homelessness, the death of Laura's infant brother, Charles skipping on his debts. "She was driven to rescue her father from his less-than-flattering past, beginning one Silver Lake draft with the assertion that “Pa was a good farmer, on the banks of Plum Creek, for four years.” A bit later she wrote, “Pa paid all his debts.""


Rose writes: "It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts.… Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts.… It is not a fact, but it is perfectly true to take them west from the house on Plum Creek." The thing is... those years are actually the most formative in Laura's life? "It would suppress, as well, any suggestion that Charles had been a less than reliable provider."

And, I mean, Charles eventually goes full populist and heavily pro-government. His daughter and granddaughter aren't just sanitizing him, they're using his memory to promote a Libertarianism he would've vehemently opposed. The biographer feels Laura is protecting her father but I kinda feel she's erasing him and giving herself the father she wanted in his stead. A father who never failed her, whose failures never resulted in her being imperiled and near-molested at Burr Oak.

Okay, I'm reminded that I skipped over a gem: when Laura and Rose were fighting over edits, Rose "said in a huff that her mother was 'one of the few writers in the country who would turn down a collaboration with RWL.'" I love everything about this egotistical snit fit, not least that Rose refers to herself in third-person initials.

Arthur Chu‏Verified account  @arthur_affect  “Everyone in the world knows I’m a genius except you, MOM” *stomp stomp slam*

Literally this. And note this is all being done BY MAIL.

[TW] Okay, apparently I startled everyone with the near-molestation thing; it was in an earlier chapter but I glossed over it because triggers. Basically, at age 11, Laura was working in a hotel. And despite the wholesomeness of the series, she was getting a pretty ugly insight into, well, the things people do at hotels. And she read dirty romance serials.

[TW] Laura was a paid babysitter to a child & her mother (prone to fainting fits). She fell asleep and: "One night, Laura awoke to find Will Masters looming over her, smelling of whiskey and apparently intent on molesting her. She threatened to scream, and he backed off."

[TW] Anyway, this was all at Walnut Grove when she was 11. All of it was (a) pretty formative on her and (b) cut entirely from her MG/YA novels. Back to Silver Lake and editing drama, Rose squabbles with Laura over a scene in which Laura has to fend off with a knife a male cousin who tries to kiss her. (I think, but am not sure, this is the cousin who was stung by yellow jackets.) Rose "found it exaggerated, as if Laura were 'a slum child' protecting her virginity."


Meanwhile, Rose wants Laura to include a scene where Laura and Mary watch the railroad men work, and Laura is horrified because they would never. (Because railroad men peed without stopping to find an outhouse.)

Rose wanted to leave out references to adults (Aunt Docia, among others) stealing from the railroad, while Laura felt this was gritty realism. I hate them both, how can they be libertarians after going through all this. HOW.

Laura capitulates and tells Rose to write the book however she damn well pleases, and Rose puts in the bits with Mary and Jack while trying to maintain her mother's wishes. They honestly just both seem sick of the book. Laura moves on to Hard Winter. "She was concerned that the mere struggle to survive might not provide enough of a plot."


Laura writes again and again about how her family were basically indigenous because of their experiences and attitudes and THAT IS NOT HOW THIS WORKS, LAURA. Christ, she's trying to Dolezal herself.

Laura finds a more confident footing and starts pushing back on Rose's terrible ideas, and even giving Rose advice on how to write less like shit. She starts putting back in stuff that Rose cuts, ordering Rose not to cut various bits, and trimming out anachronisms. Fuck yeah, Laura, I am on your side against Rose.

Rose returns to politics, devising a personal grievance against the income tax system as uniquely evil. Apparently her animus is rooted in the fact that her payments on Free Land were eaten by back taxes she'd been dodging to that point. Which must be hyperbole, because she then uses the money from Free Land to pay off her debts. So she's left with basically 0 money after debts and taxes, but she had been massively in debt.


How do you???

You get paid a ridiculously high sum for rummaging through your mother's literary trashcan, pay off all your massive Depression era debts, pay your back taxes, finally come out debt free...

...and you're resentful?

Rose is the most privileged, lucky motherfucker in the world and she's pissed because people aren't licking her arsehole. THERE I SAID IT.

She's listing her parents and "an adopted son" as dependents on her taxes and I wish to every star in the sky the IRS had audited her ass. Just tunneled right up in there and demanded receipts for the past 7 years. I am almost sorry Rose is not alive to be on Twitter because my god she'd be like the romance novel version of Joyce Carol Oates on here.

Now debt-free, Rose immediately goes back into debt to send John and Al Turner (her "adopted sons" who she is abusing in some way or another) to Europe for a year with a paid tutor. Apparently at Rose's request, they send her a portrait of Adolf Hitler, "the stamp cancellation a swastika".

Nazis are in my live-read again, how is this happening.

Laura and Almanzo plan to plow 20 acres on their farm. A government man informs them that they can't go over 30. Laura, incensed, decides to go over 30 JUST TO SHOW HIM. Then she realizes that would be bad for her land (THAT IS WHY THE RULE EXISTED, LAURA) so they don't. Rose embellishes the story (because of course she does) in a long screed against the New Deal because Rose is incapable not of lying. She's like a fairytale princess but instead of pearls dropping from her lips, it's lies.

Rose is scandalized by a performance of The Cradle Will Rock, which has accusations of Communist influence and which (I guess?) she'd expected to like, but it WENT TOO FAR in a "vicious fury of its attack on everything respectable." She weeps for a few weeks about government spending on the arts and how awful it is. Because obviously that money would be better off in her pocket, et cetera.

Free Land is published to rave success, though Kirkus notes that it's basically a repeat of her earlier Hurricane novel. George Bye--friend and perpetual money-lender to Rose--begs her to stop with the politics, that she "need have no fears of communism". She should just keep writing (and stop taking all his money).

She sends $2,850 (nearly $50,000 in today's money) to her Albanian "son" for him to buy property for himself and her to retire on. He's forced to divulge his relationship with her to the government, which is very unsafe for him to do so. Thanks, Rose.

God, she got nearly $4,000 at one point for Free Land, so that's... $75,000 ish now? Authors, can you imagine a $75,000 advance for one book? Where is all this money coming from? She previously got $4,000 for Free Land and that went to taxes and debts. Now she sends 2,800 to Albania and spends 2,600 in Connecticut on a house and farmland. She pays the $2,600 in cash and there's a $900 mortgage. The farm is basically Rocky Ridge, Connecticut version.

She tells Laura she must live in Connecticut because there's no state income tax. Ironically, she got the farm cheap because the last owners couldn't pay their taxes or the mortgage. "She was so concerned about inheritance taxes that she was going to have the deed made out to both herself and John Turner. ...He was now 18 and Lane had never formally adopted him." Okay, (a) she's been claiming him as an adopted son on her taxes and (b) I still think abuse.

 Arthur Chu‏Verified account  @arthur_affect  Idk if this is accurate but her fans on Wikipedia claim she got a total of $30k for serializing FREE LAND in the Saturday Evening Post, which would be a half million today

FOR ONE BOOK. How the hell do you make half a million dollars, fritter it all away, and then blame taxes. Rose opposes the entry of America into WWII, writes some histrionic articles, and is mildly chided by Eleanor Roosevelt. I can't even.

Rose writes angry letters explaining why Hitler is right. She tells Dorothy Thompson that Hitler and Stalin could not "destroy personal freedom on earth.... Don't be alarmed, darling." Rose then breaks up her friendship with Dorothy Thompson after Thompson warns journalists that they need to fact-check and independently verify the things they report. Rose takes this as a slight on her friend Isaac Don Levine.

(I don't know who told some of y'all that Rose was a lesbian, but even setting aside the bisexual erasure there, Rose seems to HATE all her girl friends, jsyk, and defends to the death her boys.)

Rose writes the most tantrum ever.

Lane wrote an excoriating riposte, echoing previous complaints in which she accused her friend of becoming “not the Dorothy I thought I knew”: Once you were a fine person, sensitive, intelligent, witty, poetic, ardent for truth and justice, sure in judgments based on moral and humane values. Now you are coarse and stupid. You surround yourself with sycophants and exploiters who would betray you and vanish at a rumor that the by-line was fading.… I see rotten trick after trick, half-truth and propaganda-slant, in your copy.… When have I, in the slightest degree, exploited you? Traded on my knowing you? Did I ask you for help in saving my Albanian son and his family, or my Albanian property? In nineteen years, when have I come to you with an axe to grind? Do you no longer know a genuine thing when you see it, or do you no longer value it?116

Thompson tries to repair the friendship but Rose is done, her precious cinnamon roll boy has been insulted and also she has been held to journalistic standards. THE DEEPEST CUT.

By the way, Thompson is the most famous woman journalist in the world right now and an expert on the European situation. And Rose tells her that her fears about Hitler are overblown. So.

The Levine-Krivitsky affair signaled another major depressive episode for Lane, this one typified by self-pity, professional jealousy, and increasingly unstable rhetoric. It highlighted Lane’s lifelong inability to recognize the existence or value of journalistic ethics, something that had hampered her early career as a biographer and would continue to cast a haze of confusion over the “truth” or fiction of the Little House books. As Lane tipped into yet another volatile period, it threatened to destroy the delicate balance in her mother’s work, introducing to it an element of propaganda.

"lifelong inability to recognize the existence or value of journalistic ethics"

Back in Rocky Ridge, Laura is still being terrible, I don't know. In any other book I would hate Laura, but she pales so much beside Rose. It's like Laura is a hate-moon and Rose is the hate-sun. ( ~ my metaphors ~ )

A Kirkus review for Silver Lake captures the uncertainty readers have about how true these books are: “One always hesitates as to whether these stories of Laura Wilder’s childhood belong with fiction or non-fiction,” the reviewer said, advising booksellers to “place this where you have found the others sell best.”

War starts in Europe and America sorta adjusts to the fact that this is going to be a thing. By 1940, 70% of American support compulsory military training for young men. ROSE IS ANGRY. She now breaks with Don Levine (the guy she broke up with Dorothy Thompson over) because Don (WHO IS JEWISH) says he would pick up a rifle and fight before ever submitting to Hitler.

Rose considers Hitler her cinnamon bun.




[TW: anti-Semitic bullshit!!!!]

I do not know what “the Jew” is. Facts are that he is not a race, a nationality, nor, as an individual, often, the adherent of a religious faith. I do not know what the reality is. I have been unable to see that any [such] reality, The Jew, actually exists.… yesterday [Ruth] coldly repulsed my efforts to save what has been a genuine and deep emotional attachment and did this by saying that Hitler’s actions probably do not mean to anyone else what they mean to “those of our faith.” What does she mean by “our faith”?142

I wanted to finish this chapter out, but I'm paranoid that Twitter will break the threading if it gets too long, so I'll cut off a Part 8 here.


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