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Little House, Small Government

How Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier vision of freedom and survival lives on in Trump’s America.

Illustration by Hsiao Ron Cheng

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the “Little House on the Prairie” books, lived a good two decades of her 90 years in a covered wagon going west. Only in late middle age did she become the author of the most successful series for children ever written about the settling of the American frontier. In the stories these books tell, the Ingalls family embodies that extraordinary hunger for pioneering that, through the second half of the nineteenth century, sent a few million men, women, and children out into the prairies and mountains of the mid- and far West to farm, raise cattle, mine for silver, pan for gold. One and all, they went in search of a life free from the restraints of the socialized world, to a place where survival depended on the exercise of one’s own wit and strength and backbreaking labor.

Metropolitan Books, 640 pp., $35.00

Ultimately, that same drive to be alone with the wilderness got converted to a founding myth of individualism, out of which emerged an ideology that visualized freedom from government as an equivalent of freedom itself. The descendants of that myth are among us still. If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump, many of whose followers yet believe that he will restore to them the dubious glory of the frontier America that Wilder so passionately celebrated in her books.

Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is an impressive piece of social history that uses the events of Wilder’s life to track, socially and politically, the development of the American continent and its people. The frontier, by definition, has always been a place just beyond the point where land meets sky. In America that longing to move beyond the horizon, which is common to all cultures, became not only synonymous with an idea of the national character, but a vital ingredient in the American brand of democracy. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner ardently believed, in fact, that “that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism” attributed to the frontier was the major influence on American democracy’s development.

What the people in the covered wagons did not grasp was that to a large extent they were pawns in the hands of political and business interests—especially those of the railroads—that needed to see ground broken across the entire continent. The pioneers never understood the hucksterism behind the “go west, young man” rhetoric that urged them to go where none had gone before, with no hard knowledge of what actually lay before them. All the pioneers knew—in their fantasies, that is—was that just over the horizon lay adventure, opportunity, possible wealth, and certain freedom.

The first Homestead Act, passed in 1862, promised 160 acres of uninhabited land (forget the Native Americans who were actually there) to anyone who would clear and farm it for a good five years. And indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century 270 million acres of land—about 10 percent of the American continent—had been given away to 1.6 million people. What the Act did not say was that to reach this land one had to journey through hell; live for years like an animal; and then deal forever with the torments of wolves, blizzards, tornadoes, failed crops, swarms of locusts, isolation, and penetrating loneliness. The unpublicized reality was that more lives were broken on the frontier than prospered, more homesteads abandoned, more miners exploited and cheated, more ranchers killed as they defended their cattle. Nevertheless, the settlers kept coming and coming and coming. For the most part they were people like Wilder’s father, Charles Ingalls, a man who saw the trek west as a chance to reimagine himself every time his homesteading failed (which it did repeatedly) and the family was back in the covered wagon, heading out once more into the place where others were not.

Wilder was born in 1867 in a log cabin deep in the Wisconsin woods to a mother of calm and steady temperament and this adventure-seeking father, whose larger-than-life character she equated with the eternal romance of self-reliance. For the young Laura, Charles was a man who not only laughed heartily, told tall tales, played the fiddle, and displayed infinite humor and tenderness; he also built houses out of trees, hunted deer successfully, fought fire, flood, and locusts, and endured crop failure without complaint. Above all, he instilled the whole family with a deep and abiding passion for what he insisted was the beauty and benevolence of the Great Plains. His wife and four daughters adored him, and were ever ready to follow where he led.

When Laura was two years old, the Ingallses headed for Kansas, where the wide, open prairies promised not just new life but more life. Very quickly, however, the much-heralded new start ended in devastation—an experience that, one way or another, was to repeat itself throughout Wilder’s childhood. The land that Charles Ingalls had determined to settle on had in fact been promised by the government to the Osage Indians, too. So it was that within a year—during which Charles built a house, planted crops, and kept the family alive—the government, now apprehensive of war with Native Americans, forced them off their claim.

Thus began the years-long wander that was to become the Ingalls family’s existence. First, it was back to Wisconsin, then on to Minnesota, after that to Iowa, then back to Minnesota, and at last on to the Dakota Territory, where, now on the brink of old age, the Ingalls parents lived out the rest of their days. Wherever they went, they had encountered the viscerally undreamt-of horrors that were routine on the frontier: Indians who threatened, locusts that devoured, blizzards that blinded, crops that failed. The Ingallses found none of this disheartening. Imbued with the adolescent conviction that every failure was a new beginning, each time they pulled up stakes and tried again. Laura sat in the back of the wagon looking up at a sky full of brilliant color (there are no skies like the skies in the Great Plains), smelling the sweet grass of the vast open prairie, and feeling the excitement of starting anew. Charles Ingalls was truly Huck Finn lighting out for the territory and Laura was, if nothing else, her father’s daughter.

This romantic view permeates the “Little House” books, and gives them the extraordinary vividness that has made them beloved by generations of young readers. And indeed, the books are animated by the stir and liveliness of their author’s own rose-colored memories. The sheer level of detail gives joy to the reader: In Kansas, where Pa builds the first house, we follow closely as he cuts down the trees, planes them into logs, and notches them so that they will fit tightly together. This alone takes months, during which Ma and the girls are camping out in a tent or in the wagon, happily keeping things tidy and cheering him on. A few more months and the mud floor is covered with wooden planks: pure delight. Then, wonder of wonders, there is glass to be fitted into a window. What more could a settler’s daughter want? Meanwhile, Pa goes hunting and we learn how to skin a deer; he secures a cow and we learn how butter, milk, and cheese are made. Of course, there are the natural disasters to weather, and the wolves and the Native Americans. But, hey, Pa can handle it all.

At every step of the way, the family experiences the intense pleasure of comfort purchased through the miracle of one’s own endurance and ingenuity. For the reader, the pleasure is equally if not more intense. I never opened one of these books until I set out to write this review, but once I did, I was right in there with the whole Ingalls tribe, as absorbed as any of them in the challenge of the moment, and believing as they did that survival was a test of one’s own worthiness.

Agnes Smedley’s autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth, published in 1929, gave its readers an altogether different look at the same set of experiences. “I write of the joys and sorrows of the lowly,” she begins, “of those who die ... exhausted by poverty, victims of wealth and power.... For we are of the earth and our struggle is the struggle of earth.” Smedley’s masterful work of realism concentrates on everything that Laura Ingalls Wilder either ignores, leaves out, or flatly denies. In this book, capitalism makes a mockery of the illusion of freedom-just-ahead—the promise that sent millions traveling west during those same years when the Ingallses were loading and unloading their covered wagon and then loading it once again.

Smedley was born in 1892 in Missouri into a family of farmers who labored long days in the field and never seemed to get ahead. The father, like Charles Ingalls, was handsome and restless. A lover of music and tall tales, he was possessed of “the soul and imagination of a vagabond,” Smedley wrote. The open road called to him. The mother, unlike Caroline Ingalls, desperately did not want to leave the farm but the father wore her down and at last they packed up and headed out. “And from that moment,” Smedley writes, “our roots were torn from the soil and we began a life of wandering, searching for success and happiness and riches that always lay just beyond—where we were not. Only since then have I heard the old saying ‘Where I am not, there is happiness.’”

The father did not want to homestead; rather, he thought to join the army of miners, loggers, and teamsters who were rushing west right alongside the settlers. Missouri, Colorado—on the Smedleys moved, from one mining camp to another, always working like dogs, always being cheated of their wages, always just barely surviving. “Existence meant only working, sleeping, eating ... and breeding.... A book was a curiosity ... a newspaper was a rarity; to read was a recreation of the rich.”

The family joined the exploited underclass that got the country built. Men like Smedley’s father, with all his brute strength and hunger of spirit, never realized that they were forever up against the exploitation of the owners of the mines and the railroads, who had the government in their pockets. Smedley himself proved an ignorant and frightened man, helpless before a world he could not fathom, much less define himself against. In time he loses his taste for the songs and the stories that sustained him; he becomes a bully, starts to drink, and beats his wife. Of her mother, old at 30, Smedley writes, “her tears ... they embittered my life!” It is above all the hardness of the narrator’s voice that makes Daughter of Earth so unlike anything Wilder could have imagined. For Smedley, the ideology of American individualism proved a bitter punishment, for Wilder the fulfillment of what she took to be a God-given promise.

When the Dakota Boom hit at the end of the 1870s, the Ingallses were among those who responded to the government’s call to settle the territory. This time it really was a scam. In 1877, Fraser tells us, the scientist John W. Powell gave a speech on “The Public Domain,” arguing that the government should not be urging the Dakota Territory as a destination for homesteaders. Less than 3 percent of that arid, bleached-white land, Powell said, was suitable for farming. Nonsense, replied the railroad owners and the government along with them. And again the pioneering spirit surged.

“Fundamentally,” Fraser writes, “the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear.... In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators [they owned] brushed Powell’s analysis aside.” If the government had been willing to act on the advice of its own scientists, thousands could have been spared hardship and misery.

So the Ingalls family traveled to the Dakota Territory, where they entered the “tornado-scarred, wind-whipped plains” of a different world—a world the writer Hamlin Garland, who spent a year there in 1883, described as so desolate “the birds were silent” and “the sky, absolutely cloudless, began to scare us with its light.” But Laura, sitting in the back of the covered wagon, “drank in the hot, sweet scent of the sun-warmed prairie, reveling in the intoxicating, airy sense of unbounded freedom ... leaving houses and roads behind ... moved to recall the setting sun, a ‘ball of pulsing liquid light.’” And even Garland could not forget “the endless stretches of short, dry grass, the gorgeous colors of the dawn, the marvelous, shifting phantom lakes and headlands, the violet sunset afterglow.” Wherever they went, Fraser observes, “these troubadours of the prairie carried it with them,” and none more devotedly than Laura Ingalls Wilder. For her, life on the Great Plains was ever a trial by fire, inflicted by nature on the settlers so that they might achieve the transcendent independence they associated with America itself.

Laura turned 18 in the Dakota Territory and married Almanzo Wilder, a neighboring homesteader ten years older than her. No sooner had the couple settled on Almanzo’s claim than they began to suffer an encyclopedic set of frontier disasters. First, Almanzo was crippled by a bout of diphtheria; second, a baby boy was born and died; third, they fell into overwhelming debt; then the harvest failed and the house burned down. The only good that came out of those earliest years was the birth of Rose, their sole surviving child.

Soon enough, much as Laura dreaded leaving her family, the Wilders decided they had to try their luck elsewhere. Once more unto the covered wagon. This time they traveled south until they hit Mansfield, Missouri, where they spent the rest of their lives. Laura became a successful farm wife and a participant in community affairs, and began writing a column in the local paper called “As a Farm Woman Thinks.” A few years later, Rose, now herself a successful journalist in San Francisco, persuaded her mother to start writing stories based on her own frontier life. She, Rose, would act as editor and agent for Laura. And so the “Little House” books were born.

The relationship between Rose and Laura and these books has been widely written about. Because so much of Rose’s editing helped shape the final manuscripts it is often claimed that, in effect, she wrote them. This is a theory I am unwilling to subscribe to. True, the “Little House” books are infused with a clear-spirited immediacy that Laura Ingalls Wilder, on her own, might not have achieved without her daughter’s superb editing skills. On the other hand, Rose herself, on her own, could never have written them.

Rose Wilder Lane (her married and professional name) was a piece of work. A well-known hack journalist and writer of commercial fiction between the 1920s and 1950s, she was a woman even more fiercely libertarian than her parents. As Fraser puts it, “A self-assured rejection of authority and those who wielded it took hold in her earliest days,” and grew steadily into a hatred of government regulation so alarmingly aggressive it approached an unhinged form of anarchism. Her parents shared her politics, but while Laura and Almanzo remained no more than tight-lipped, small-town conservatives, Rose became the kind of strident right-winger familiar to us today as the avenging populists who put Donald Trump in the White House.

When the Depression hit, both Laura and Rose fell into a blinding rage over Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Each of them announced that she now considered the American republic at an end, its people having fallen into the hands of a socialist dictator. This state of affairs had come about, Laura concluded, because the country was full of “shirkers.” Her daughter went her one better: “The more I see,” Rose declared in a letter, “the more I’m reluctantly concluding that this country’s simply yellow. Our people are behaving like arrant cowards. And it’s absurd.” She saw nothing “fundamentally wrong” with the country. At the very time Rose was writing this, in the early 1930s, 13 million workers lost their jobs, leaving nearly one-quarter of the country unemployed. Ten thousand banks went under, and industrial stocks fell to nearly 20 percent of their value. For Rose Lane, these statistics amounted to fake news.

But it was the Dust Bowl and the legislation that followed that very nearly undid all the Wilders. The early 1930s saw some of the worst droughts in American history. With no understanding of crop rotation or erosion control, thousands of farmers had cultivated the land so intensely over so many years that two to five inches of topsoil had disappeared from more than 23 million acres, leaving the Plains open to the devastation of suddenly ferocious winds. Storms “whipped up mile-high walls of dust so massive they were compared to tornadoes,” Fraser writes, leaving a huge area of the mid- and southwest very nearly destroyed. In response to this massive natural disaster, the government explained that it had to bring in soil scientists and ecologists to help restore the land. This meant “taking the most marginal land out of production and returning it to grassland.” In short, farmers would be paid to grow less, not more, and much would depend on their ability to adapt to a fundamental change in their way of life.

The directive was hard for farmers to wrap their heads around, and thousands could not, including the Wilders. They found the New Deal farm bills as traumatic as the conditions they were meant to alleviate. In fact, they looked upon these bills as the work of the devil. Laura Ingalls Wilder “lamented the arrival of the grasshoppers on her land but accepted it as divine retribution for the New Deal.”

Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life. In the 1930s, populists like the Wilders were a minority voice in America; it was rather the characters in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath who reflected the mood of the country. They resembled the people who, in their millions, greeted Roosevelt as a savior, convinced that his was the view required for national survival. Today, the balance of power has reversed. The Wilders among us now occupy a position so influential they have been able to elect someone of their own persuasion to the American presidency. The frontier mentality they still embody is less likely to shore up a potentially failing democracy than to wreck it altogether.