Prudence on the Prairie

prudence prairie fires little house on the prairie laura ingalls wilder american literary history

Alice Temnick for AdamSmithWorks

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books captivated generations of readers. Now the author is the subject of an award-winning historical biography by Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires.
I admit to having been skeptical about reading Pulitzer Prize-winning Prairie Fires. I am well versed in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as well as the work of her colorful daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who I read later in life. However, I was not at all disappointed! Caroline Fraser expertly overlays historic documentation into events depicted in the classic Little House series, while shining a light on the author’s choices, embellishments, and omissions. 
Sadly, younger generations than mine are more familiar with the saccharine Little House TV series starring an often bare-chested Pa (the late Michael Landon). The books however, were a life raft for me. As a preacher’s kid who was uprooted constantly and showed up as the “new kid” in school on a random Wednesday, I found solace in familiar books. Upon arrival in each new town, my father would take my three sisters and me to the local library where we signed up for library cards. We would check out the maximum weekly allotment of books. Librarians were skeptical when we returned in one week to replenish. “Did you really read all of these?” Of course I did. It took time to make friends in each new place. The eight Little House on the Prairie books were a staple in my life for years. I read each book countless times with no adherence to sequential order. I remember the smell of the pages, those worn hardcovers, and can recall so many of the thrilling pencil illustrations by the great Garth Williams. 
It was later in life, perhaps when reading the series to my daughter, that I realized an allure these books held for me at a very young age. I was drawn to the thrill of the freedom and liberty sought and fought for by these brave pioneers. While some critics blame Wilder for propelling a myth of successful self-sufficient farm life, free from the need for government intervention, I caught enough nuance to appreciate that it was an excruciatingly difficult life. Every move to a new home was predicated by financial ruin and government loans, laws and railroad routes were critical to motivating the choices the family made. 
The books were also laden with values. I was introduced to the honorable virtue of prudence, which I certainly couldn’t fully grasp at the time, or name. I spent my angst-ridden pre-teen and teen years resenting my family’s unstable financial and logistical status. Laura Ingalls Wilder honored this virtue in her version of the Ingalls family travails most notably through her descriptions of Ma, (Caroline Ingalls’) quiet competence in keeping house, correcting behaviors and demonstrating stoic optimism about an uncertain and downright frightening future. “Laura, was that the right and proper thing to do?” was Ma’s recurring, gentle reminder to a young, spirited Laura. Wilder inferred that parental decisions were made jointly, constantly and with a remarkable amount of luck on their side, all family members lived to late adulthood. Perhaps the erratic Charles Ingalls would have made even worse decisions for the family without Caroline’s prudent counsel. 
In my adult years I began a repeated reading of Adam Smith’s books, during which I connected his rich description of this virtue to Wilder’s writing.
The qualities most useful to ourselves are, first of all, superior reason and understanding, by which we are capable of discerning the remote consequences of all our actions, and of foreseeing the advantage or detriment which is likely to result from them: and secondly, self-command, by which we are enabled to abstain from present pleasure or to endure present pain, in order to obtain a greater pleasure or to avoid a greater pain in some future time. In the union of those two qualities consists the virtue of prudence, of all the virtues that which is most useful to the individual. 
I find Smith’s eloquent and multi-faceted description of prudence to be both expert and apt. I think about prudence as I make my life choices. It is about agency and personal responsibility. It is up to us to consider tradeoffs, choose carefully, and to deal with the outcomes, no matter how painful or difficult. Loud and clear is Smith’s overt Enlightenment nod to the power of reason. We are indeed quite capable of prioritizing our self-interest, understanding our own and considering others’ preferences, and making complicated decisions with the information available to us. 
The Little House on the Prairie books are works of fiction, loosely historical and lovingly nostalgic. Laura Ingalls Wilder did not begin crafting her childhood memories into the famous books until her late adulthood. A glaring fault is the anti-indigenous person depiction. Fraser reveals multiple omissions and discrepancies between Wilder’s descriptions and the historical events regarding the land that the Ingalls family traversed, bought, sold and even squatted on. 
Generations of Ingalls families including Laura’s had traveled light, leaving little behind as they sought security from hunger and deprivation. Caroline came from desperately poor living conditions of frontier settlers in Wisconsin, of which she spared her daughters the stories. Caroline and Charles married about the time of the Homestead Act (1862), the ruling that further infuriated the separate bands of “Dakota Indians” who were duped out of payment for millions of acres of Minnesota Territory by the federal government. Lincoln’s Free Soiler argument “gave” land to U.S. citizens including single women, immigrants, and freed slaves. Waves of settlers poured in, unleashing the U.S. Dakota War. Governor Alexander Ramsey’s call for the extermination of the Sioux (the U.S. name for the Dakota), a grotesque public execution of ten Native Americans in Mankato and the eventual shooting and scalping of Dakota leader Little Crow followed. It was the Minnesota Massacre that cleared the way for multitudes of whites to expand westward into the Great Plains. Fraser points out that Laura once wrote, “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre” though it happened five years before she was born. Charles and Caroline were across the Mississippi in Wisconsin at the time, deeply fearful the conflict would reach them, but it did not. Young Laura once shared that “Ma hated Indians”.
Early in the series Wilder depicts the dangerous wagon ride that brought the family to Kansas, a place she describes as “lonesome and so still with the stars shining down on the great, flat land where no one lived”. In fact, Kansas, a state since 1861, was known as the “Squatter State” as strips of narrow land that were designated to randomly assigned tribes such as the Creeks, Choctaws, Osages, and others were overrun with whites who now wanted the land. Free soilers and pro-slavery posses faced off in an early Civil War battle and continued feuds and land seizures, while establishing towns and newspapers. Charles and family squatted on land that was part of the Osage Diminished Reserve with hopes that the government might clear the land of Native Americans so that he could claim ownership. This scheme, like many to come, failed. 
In the latter half of Prairie Fires, Fraser explores the relationship of mother (Laura) and daughter (Rose) and their competitive co-author/mentor writing careers. Amazing nuggets are revealed here, along with questions left unanswered. Rose's impact on the initiation of the American libertarian movement is only lightly addressed, though incredibly interesting. I will share my thoughts on this separately.  
I wholeheartedly recommend this book and consider it a highlight of this teacher’s extensive summer reading list. Please comment on how the Little House books have affected you and if you have read, or plan to read Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires.


Alice Temnick, On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith