[Prairie Fires Content Note: Racism, Settler Violence, Child Abuse]
Prairie Fires, Introduction
Friends, it has been a whole year and now it is time for me to re-read Prairie Fires.
The book opens with a convenient map showing several major locations in the Wilder's lives, and it strikes me that I really wish the map had made clear, by name, which indigenous nations owned these lands. Considering that the Wilder story is one of repeatedly displacing and stealing from indigenous peoples, that seems a glaring omission. Maybe they can fix that in a second edition.
The introduction opens strong, pointing out how many copies the Little House books have sold (LOTS), and how the "autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation." The "myth-making" part is REALLY important. When I did this read last year, a lot of people criticized saying that the Little House books are 'clearly fiction', but they were 100% fed to me as autobiographical and essentially factual and true. They are not.
The books are not history, and they are profoundly revisionist in ways that have entrenched racism, and built up a harmful myth of the rugged American individual and family farming. I do not think there is a single example in this book of a family farm surviving long term, UNLESS it's a big enough "family" that we're talking a sprawling extended family of dozens of people--a commune or medium sized business at that point. Which isn't to say that small family farms can never work, but that the idea that all it takes is gumption and determination is, well, false. But I'm jumping ahead.
We receive a thorough overview of Laura's life in the introduction (and Fraser really is an *excellent* writer) and we note Almanzo's stroke which left him unable to farm and led to him taking delivery jobs which paid actual money. I'll talk about this more later, but I contend that Almanzo's stroke--which was treated by Laura and Rose as a tragedy--is probably the reason he and Laura found *any* kind of financial stability. His stroke led to him giving up the (impossible, ruinous) dream of being a rugged individual farmer, leading to both he and Laura taking on jobs which earned *cash*, which led to them actually being able to survive.
I'm jumping ahead again, but I just want everyone to remember that as we go forward and people treat Almanzo's disability as ~teh worst~ because I'm a feisty disabled.
Laura wrote to Rose that reliving her childish memories was hellish, yet she "reimagined her frontier childhood as epic and uplifting. Her gently triumphal revision of homesteading would convince generations that the American farm was a model of self-sufficiency." Interestingly, this will dovetail later when we talk about Laura's last "found" manuscript and how the public was appalled by the raw tragedy and anguish in it. They preferred the candy-coated version of her past to the actual truth.
"She transformed poverty into pride, showing readers the heroism of endurance. ...she celebrated every day under shelter, every warm fire, and every mouthful of nourishment, no matter how modest. Not by accident are her books about “little” houses." That's an interesting quote, and has got my brain turning around the "tiny house" phenomena we see right now, where people pay exorbitant prices for tiny houses dolled up to look modernly virtuous. I don't mean this as a slam of actual small houses--there is nothing wrong with wanting a small house--but rather the trend of super expensive tiny houses that are trendy with a privileged set. Chuck Wendig had a good piece on those which I enjoyed. [Link. TW: Diet Talk.]
Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE books are some of the first books many of us read as children. She romanticizes the smallness of the houses, and intertwines the simplicity with virtue. They are Tiny and they are Good. Perhaps it's not surprising that many of us come years later to romanticize, say, $1400 micro-apartments with shared bathrooms. (Which, again, is not to say that small spaces are bad, or that people who want them are bad! This is more a statement of the "trendyizing" and "upselling" of the concept in harmful ways.) (Parsing that nuance is hard in a tweet thread, but I just want to be clear that I'm not anti-small homes, nor am I anti-family farms.)
"Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich. That too formed a powerful part of her mythology." So here's where I'm going to differ with the book, and I want to be clear about this too. When you're writing an autobiography for a beloved person, I recognize that you have to employ a gentle touch. Prairie Fires is damning in content but was clearly not written to look and sound like an attack. I get that. And if it *had* sounded like an attack, most of the people who needed to read it would've dismissed it. So I get that too.
But when the book says Laura taught children to be "poor without shame", it's important to recognize that she was teaching WHITE children. Her books were racist against Black people and indigenous people. She and Rose were also fiercely antisemitic. (We'll come to that later.) Racism was a large part of Laura's teaching white children to be "poor without shame". They're taught to take pride in whiteness: in their white 'ownership of' the land and 'manifest destiny' to tame and claim it.
It's really important to call that out as we go. You cannot separate the racism and white supremacy from these books as just some added sprinkled-on flavor. White supremacy lies at their very root. The racism in the books aren't a matter of a "few bad scenes" that are a "product of the author's time". The premise of the books is itself racist. (Which is one more reason that opening map *needs* to show the indigenous nations, imo.)
"“Once upon a time … a little girl lived in the Big Woods”: the opening of the Little House series has the cadence of a fairy tale. The setting, too, feels like a place in a fable: As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them." We'll talk about this more later, but it strikes me how much the Wilder mythos relies on America being *empty* so that white people can expand their territory without any moral qualms about who already lives on, owns, and uses the land.
Later on, Laura's father will justify the outright theft of indigenous property as being valid because he (Pa) "used" the land in a supposedly more real/valid/effective way than the current owners. Even the justification is false, but it ties deeply in with the American idea of manifest destiny, white supremacy, and the Christian biblical charge to multiply and subdue the earth (as interpreted by American Protestants).
The "big woods" were not, in fact, empty of people. But Adult Laura needed her audience to believe that it was, because otherwise it is hard to justify taking the land from the people who lived there. Whether Child Laura knew that or not is ultimately immaterial. Child Laura didn't write those words -- Adult Laura did. Defenders of the work want to hold Adult Laura to a child's standard: "she didn't know better". SHE DID. Laura researched her family and the history around it exhaustively and we're not going to infantalize a grown woman in order to excuse her racism.
The Big Woods had been home to the Dakota people before white people drove them out in order to take their land. "It happened five years before she was born, but it reshaped the American landscape for centuries to come. The dispossession of the Dakota, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the war that they touched off set the stage for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life." That "five years before she was born" bit is important; the dispossession wasn't "ancient history" (not that time excuses white atrocities!) but rather was essentially contemporary with Laura's life. Her parents were complicit in these acts of dispossession.
"Tied to the seasons, [the Dakota people] lived by hunting, fishing, gathering wild produce, and growing crops. ... At the first thaw, women tapped maples in coveted groves to make sugar, while men hunted muskrat, geese, and ducks." I want to point this out because it's a big part of why I say white supremacy is at the root of the Wilder books and not just a seasoning sprinkled on. The books contend that the Wilder family has a moral right to the land they steal because Pa is "using" under-utilized land. The indigenous people are treated as primitive for seasonal farming, hunting, fishing, and maple-tapping the land.
Whereas Pa is treated as good and industrious for... seasonal farming, hunting, fishing, and maple-tapping the land. The things Pa does are deemed right and good *because* he is white. The entire premise of the books is one of white supremacy: that farming/hunting/scavenging is primitive when people of color do it, but Noble and Rugged when white people do it.
The US government stole the Dakota land and sold it off cheaply to whites, encouraging a land rush to crowd the indigenous people out. The settlers built on land that the indigenous people had already broken and planted with corn. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862. “I am in favor of cutting up the wild lands into parcels, so that every poor man may have a home.” Again: it's really critical to clarify which men we're talking about here.
Backing up to 1853, "a group calling itself the German Land Company...called for immigrants from Bohemia and Germany to stake their claims to riverfront acreage in Minnesota". They sold Dakota land that didn't belong to them to would-be settlers. "The first settlers arrived during the winter months of 1855, while the Indians were away, hunting. They moved into bark houses belonging to the Dakota. When the original inhabitants returned, the squatters refused to budge". By 1859, the German and Bohemian settlers passed laws "requiring the Dakota to present a pass before entering “the lands, claims, or settlement of the white inhabitants.”"
"Two years later, in 1861, Henry David Thoreau arrived in the Big Woods. Forty-three years old, suffering from the tuberculosis that would soon kill him, he recorded in his journal a brief but penetrating account...Thoreau witnessed arguments between the Dakota and the Germans, noting that the Dakota had "the advantage in point of truth".
In 1862, the Dakota people were starving because white people had driven away all the game. Stores (racistly) refused to extend credit to the Dakota people, who were waiting on land payments they'd been promised but which were "delayed". The Dakota people decided to fight back and there's a lot about that and it's hard to summarize. But it's worth noting that at least one white family in the area was named Ingalls. It's unclear how those Ingalls were related to Laura and her father, but it just ties all in together how Laura's family--young and old--were involved in the dispossession of Dakota people from their land.
"It took only days for Minnesota’s governor, Alexander Ramsey, to seize upon the massacre as the pretext for doing what state and federal officials had wanted to do all along." Sept. 9, 1862, the governor calls for the Dakota people to be exterminated. Whites begin attacking indigenous people, whether they're Dakota or not, in order to steal more land. "By 1867, there were only fifty Dakota left in Minnesota. That year, a baby girl was born just across the Mississippi, in a little house in the Big Woods."
The Introduction ends there. It's a brutal chapter, but really important to understand that in Laura's *recent* history, the lands she lived on were stolen with violence. Her parents would have known about this history. Her grandparents would have known. Adults would have talked about it. All the settlers participated, in some form or fashion, in this widespread theft.
A reminder that you can learn whose land you're living on here. [Link.]