First great read of the new year: Prairie Fires.
10 January 2018
I actually read my first great book of 2018 in December of 2017. Let's apply a phrase I believe in and use a lot: "Close enough for guvmint work."*
The book in question was Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and WOW, was it fantastic.
It is, of course, basically a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books continue to loom large in our reading and pop culture. And WHAT a biography. Fraser covers not only the woman's life, but also how her books (largely presented as factual, or autobiographical) were actually very careful amalgamations of fact and fiction and personal philosophies (both Wilder's and her daughter's).
Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it is actually a dual biography: not only are the details of Wilder's life explored, so are the details of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane's, work and life and loves. And what lives they were. The more I read details of how hard life was on the frontier, trying to build your own house and grow your own crops and stay safe from numerous prairie blizzards, the more I am stunned by how easy life is now. Here I sit in the arctic blast, anxiously listening to my furnace and hoping it continues to kick in. I can't imagine huddling in my little sod or wood homestead, depending on wood I had to cut myself or hay I had to twist myself just to try and keep warm enough to survive. It boggles the mind.
When I first started reading the book, I thought it was a little dry, because when I read biographies I pretty much want all the gritty details. (My main question, of course, involves procreation and parenting, because those are always the details I am interested in: why did Wilder, when she had her first baby in her late teens and her second baby--who, tragically, died shortly after birth--shortly thereafter, never have any more? What was her marriage to Almanzo Wilder really like?) But then I realized Fraser wasn't really holding back, she was just sticking to the facts she knew, which was tricky enough, considering that most of the details about Wilder's life comes from her books, and her books are not actually 100% true nonfiction. And by the time I was done with the whole book, which is excellent and wide-ranging and both clear-eyed and sympathetic, I found that I really had all the details about Laura's, her family's, Almanzo's, and Rose's lives that I needed.
I also had a healthy new appreciation for how great it is to live in this time and place. I spent the next few weeks after reading this book telling the CRjrs, when they went to the bathroom, "Imagine having to go outside to go to the bathroom, to a little wood shack with a hole in a plank. Imagine having to clean that poop pit out yourselves. In this cold weather!" And they both looked at me like I was crazy, but then asked more questions about that whole deal. Because both my own parents used outhouses in their very early years, I was also able to make it personal. "When Grandpa was your age he had to go outside to poop! And go out to care for their animals on these subzero mornings! And grow a lot of his own food!" I probably bored them to death but I certainly reminded myself that my life, filled as it is with indoor plumbing and access to antibiotics, is truly something to be thankful for. Not a bad way to start 2018, actually.
Do read this book. It needs more pictures and it slightly drags in parts but overall--a fantastic and important read.
*A corollary to my overall life motto, as noted earlier, of "Fuck it. Close enough."