Prairie Fires: Chapter 1

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

Friends, it has been a whole year and now it is time for me to re-read Prairie Fires.

Prairie Fires, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 starts out at Maiden Rock and Lake Pepin, which Laura would later call "legend-haunted". Fraser notes that the stories, "like everything else", belonged to the Dakota people. I do appreciate that she keeps drawing the reader back to what is stolen. Whites stole the land, but also the stories. And Laura's own stories, while not exactly 'stolen', will later enrich her without helping the people and places she left behind.

"Charles’s childhood coincided with America’s first great depression, the Panic of 1837...Horace Greeley made the first of his famous entreaties to pull up stakes: “Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here.” Charles Ingalls' family was poor and when even worse poverty struck during the 1837 depression, they moved out west to Illinois. By 1853 they were moving again, this time to Wisconsin--where Charles would meet Caroline.

Caroline's mother was a widow struggling to survive and keep her children alive all by herself; Dakota people would sometimes take pity on them and share their game meat with the starving family. The book doesn't linger there, but I'm struck by that kindness. Here these white people stole the land but they're literally starving to death because they don't know what they're doing so the Dakota people fed them. That's so generous. And will contrast so strongly with Laura's and Rose's "fuck you, fuck charity, got mine" libertarian attitudes later. SO MANY TIMES, the Wilders/Ingalls would have been dead if someone hadn't fed them out of the goodness of their heart.

Charles and his dad lose their farm when the south secedes, the Wisconsin state banks fail (they'd been invested in southern bonds), and crop prices suddenly tank in inverse response to railroad hikes on shipping. Charles and Caro decide to move: "their timing was propitious. At the very moment they decided to relocate, Wisconsin was embroiled in a deeply controversial drive to draft men into service in the Civil War." The Wisconsin draft was unpopular and Charles essentially dodged it. "By the following year, so many men had fled to parts unknown that the exodus was characterized as a “stampede.”"

I think the fact that Charles was a draft dodger is really important to emphasize for several reasons. The people who lionize the Ingalls as Real Americans tend to have a very jingoistic, pro-war outlook that dovetails with looking down on people who try to avoid war (either at a high government-policy level or a low draft-dodging level). For two: If Charles had died in the Civil War after being drafted, Laura's life would have been vastly different than it actually was. (Considering she wasn't born until 1867, she likely would not have been born at all!) Laura's existence as she knew it hinged on Charles having the privilege and ability to avoid fighting in the war. That shouldn't be forgotten when the people who idolize Laura *in the now* press for us to go to war.

1862 and we come back to the Dakota uprising that we talked about in the introduction. "Charles and Caroline would presumably remember it all their lives." Laura knew about the Dakota uprising despite not being born yet: "So, indeed, would Laura [remember], though the uprising happened five years before she was born. “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre,” she would one day write." In the aftermath of the governmental crackdown on the indigenous peoples in the area (Dakota and otherwise), Charles found land and leveraged a mortgage on the property. ($335 price; $35 down and the rest on mortgage.)

Mary is born (1865), the civil war ends, a fraction of the Wisconsin draftees returns, and the state settled into "postwar recession, a time of bank collapses, falling prices, and stagnation. One of the bank failures cost the Ingallses their meager savings." Two years later (1867), Laura is born to the little savings-less family on land they don't own twice over (once because it's mortgaged, and twice because it's stolen from the Dakota people). Thus ends Chapter 1.


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