Tag Archives: 2018

Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires

As an avid fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, I felt I had to read Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser.  While it is marketed as a new biography and even won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, it seems to be so much more.  In her work, Caroline Fraser not only takes the time to ground very personal decisions made by Laura and her husband Almanzo into the larger backdrop of American history, she takes it several steps further.  She analyzes decisions made by Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, and Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, against their political leanings and larger political climate.

Frankly, if a book looks at least reasonably well-written (not fan-fic) and promises new insight on anything related to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and work, I am likely to pick it up.  However, that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything or there aren’t inherent biases in such work.  As much as I enjoyed Prairie Fires, there is one overarching issue I believe is being overlooked.

Before I get into the issue, which, as with all things controversial relating to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her work, involves her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, some background is needed.  First, I read this book this past spring.  I enjoyed it, and it just fermented for a while.  I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me about the presentation of politics throughout the book, until I happened to witness another conversation about the book.

A month or two after I read the book, I happened to be having lunch with some friends from Mid-Michigan Writers when two other women came to have a conversation with my friends.  One woman began gushing over Prairie Fires and stated that she would love to have a political conversation around the book. While I do not know this woman well, her politics proceeded her due to several mutual acquaintances.  I didn’t join in the conversation other than to say that I loved the book; however, it finally came to me why I felt something was off.

For those who don’t know, Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane is one of the founding members of the modern Libertarian party and all that that entails.  In fact, Rose deserves her own blog post or even series of blog posts.  There is that much material.  Early in the 20th century, Rose was the famous Wilder.  The political legacy she left is messy and quite complex.  While my own personal politics lean more towards that of Laura and Almanzo (center-right), particularly when considering fiscal matters, than Rose, I don’t feel that the Caroline Fraser understood any of the politics completely.  Caroline Fraser seemed to analyze the political tendencies of the Ingalls and Wilder families through a modern liberal lens.

The most glaring example of this bias for me comes when Fraser implies that Laura is perhaps a hypocrite for serving on a local farm loan board near her home in Mansfield, Missouri while not supporting the sweeping federal farm loan programs of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Actually, I completely get it.  Laura and Almanzo favored local control of government.  I do as well.  The implication and omission of this distinction stood out to me.

If Fraser didn’t understand the politics of Laura and Almanzo, she didn’t know what to make of Rose Wilder Lane.  In all fairness, I don’t if anyone will ever completely understand her life.  In her life, Lane goes from supporting elements of communism and fascism to standing up for the founding principles of the United States of America.  She did all of this, of course, while helping her mother complete her famous series of children’s books.

Perhaps we will never know where Rose’s influence began and ended when it comes to the Little House books.  It is an enduring debate surrounding the series.  Fraser comes right out and describes the mother and daughter writing relationship as “incestuous.”  I came to a stop for a minute at that description, silently accusing Fraser of sensationalism.  Then I thought about it.  As I stated earlier, there is no way to know precisely what role Rose played in the series.  While I do not believe that Rose largely wrote the books, I do believe that the books would not exist in their current form without her influence.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book.  Political bias aside, Caroline Fraser extensively researched her material.  Prior to reading Prairie Fires, I found Rose Wilder Lane to be a fascinating character.  After reading the book, I left even more intrigued.  As a fiscal conservative with libertarian tendencies, I can relate to some of Lane’s political ideas.  I love the fact that she promoted individualism, personal liberty, and self-determination.  Those ideas still hold value and are needed today more than ever in the face of increasing collectivism.  Can individualism and self-determination be taken too far?  Absolutely, and so can collectivism.  We need a balance.

By the way, I find talk surrounding the book to be politically divisive.  You can read a Slate review here (the reviewer really doesn’t get the politics).  In the book, Lane’s political activism is compared with the other two “mothers” of the libertarian movement:  Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson.  You can read more about them here.  If you are interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder, American history, or politics at all, Prairie Fires is a must-read.

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The Rifle

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Stoddard’s Landing July 2017 – Busy Saturdays!     Photo Credit:  Garrett Russell

I admit it, I take the river for granted.  It is such an ingrained part of my life – and even who I am – it is easy to overlook its power, not to mention the role it continues to play in my life.  My parents own Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds and have since June 1977, a few months prior to their wedding.  They purchased the business from my paternal grandmother who continued the business after my grandfather passed away.  The canoe livery is as much of my family history as it is my personal history.  Without the river, it simply wouldn’t exist.

Some of my earliest and best childhood memories involve the canoe livery.  I spent countless hours swimming in the river, running around the campground, and generally spending my summers with my family as they worked.  I hope my niece and nephews – and eventually my own child(ren) – will grow up the same way.  Heck, not every kid can say that they have their own busing system!  As my childhood home is located behind our Crystal Creek Campground store, my sister and I could simply catch the bus to our main location in Omer after watching Saturday morning cartoons.  All we had to do was run down the hill at either 9:15 AM, 10:45 AM, or 12:15 PM, bathing suits in tow.  Later in the day, we would turn the buses into our private forts.

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Our main location in Omer – Trust us, walk the campsites first!

One of my earliest memories of the canoe livery is of my grandmother teaching me to play the card game war in our old walk-up store.  I also remember her teaching me how to find the big dipper in the night sky at around that same age.  As a teenager, I spent countless summer weekends working with Grandma Reid, Mom, and Dad.  Grandma taught me so much about business and customer service.  Dad taught me, and continues to teach me, what it means to own a business and the value of hard work.  Mom, of course, continues to keep it all running smoothly – now more than ever.

As for the river itself, it has provided our family with a wonderful quality of life for decades.  I think of countless river trips over the years.  One of my absolute favorites took place on August 1st last summer (also known as July 32nd if you are a teacher).  I spent four hours tubing with one of my best friends.  There may have been wine involved.  We spent four hours catching up and enjoying the perfect Michigan summer afternoon/early evening.  The weather was so perfect, we almost called my brother to pick us up downstream.  We wanted to do the hour and a half trip as well.

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My favorite part of Crystal Creek Campground – “Across the road, bottom of the hill.”

It is easy to forget the power of the river on a beautiful Michigan summer day.  The Rifle is spring fed and has a swift current (about 5 MPH) during the best of times, but it can become downright dangerous if the water is too high.  In fact, we won’t rent equipment if it is too high.  Add in ice and it becomes unbelievably destructive.  Fortunately, in the years my parents have owned the business, we have only experienced severe flooding and ice damage a handful of times.  In 1984, my parents’ mobile home was flooded shortly before we were to move into our new house.  In 1991, we had 4 ft. of water in our store in Omer and ice damage at Crystal Creek.  Due to ice jamming up at Pinnacle Bridge, which cuts right through Crystal Creek, we have experienced ice damage to trees and outhouses at Crystal Creek a few times as well.  Nothing could have prepared us for this year.

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The “back yard” of my childhood home: Crystal Creek Campground.

In late February of this year, those along the Rifle River experienced flooding not seen since the 1950s due to ice buildup.  Sadly, some people living in Pinnacle Park, which is located just up river from our Crystal Creek Campground, lost their homes.  Our Crystal Creek Campground continues to look as though it was hit by a tornado.  Dad and my brother Garrett are just now beginning to clean up.  It is awful.  Once it is finished, I will share pictures.  The electrical system in that part of the campground will need to be replaced.  On a lighter note, my parents’ home, the Crystal Creek store and shower house, and other out buildings are located on much higher ground and not affected.

Fortunately, our main location faired better.  However, it did not remain unscathed.  Our store in Omer took on two feet of water and mud, as did our pole barns.  Luckily, our electrical system held.  Overall, we were lucky.  Other canoe liveries in the area experienced damage to vehicles, cabins, and more.  Some even lost canoes and kayaks down river.  Throughout this process, we have learned a few things and will be changing some processes when it comes time to close this fall.

My brother and I may never experience anything like this during our tenure as owners, but we will be better prepared.  For so many varied reasons – many of which I can’t get into here – none of us will ever forget 2018.  Here’s to a great summer and a beautiful (even if late) spring!  I am looking forward to being back at my summer office.

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