I apologize for the long wait for another post. It’s just been very hard to stay focused when you have no real deadlines to speak of. With that said, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy by reading books semi related to our current crisis. Last time, I reviewed Dharma Bums and Jonathan Van Ness’ Over The Top. For this installment, I have read two books dealing with the pioneer days of America: Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography Prairie Fires and Willa Cather’s My Antonia.
Prairie Fires tells the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the famous Little House of the Prairie series. It goes into how Wilder’s books were developed and what her work meant in a social as well as personal context. The stories were based on her nomadic, struggling family as they tried to make a new life in the Midwest. They lived in Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa before finally filing for a house in South Dakota. Throughout their journey, they endured bad crops and even the death of a child. These accounts were fictionalized and edited for the series with the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
Wilder’s history of self reliance and coming of age during the era of manifest destiny resulted in her being rather conservative, opposing Roosevelt’s New Deal and the early women’s movement. This was even more true of her daughter who later sold the rights to the series to a former libertarian party candidate named Roger Lea Macbride.
While the Little House books may represent the conservative side of the pioneer days, Willa Cather’s My Antonia represents a more gender diverse look at life as a pioneer. A young boy, Jim Burden, goes to live with his grandparents on a farm in Nebraska where he meets the Shimerda family who come from Bohemia. He forms a bond with the family’s oldest sister, Antonia who presents as masculine rather than feminine; taking on physical labor and wearing her father’s worker clothes. He matures with the family, having adventures and helping the family with farm work after Mr. Shimerda passes away.
The novel exudes a sense of solidarity and embrace of different cultures as opposed to the traditional setting of Little House. There is a few issues of racism and classism within the book; there’s a stereotypical African American character who plays the piano and Jim’s scoffing after seeing Antonia growing up to be a mother when compared to his girlfriend,a dressmaker in London. Overall however, it’s a moving look at life in the 1800s and it is recommended for both people who grew up with Wilder’s books or who are interested in Pioneer history after reading Fraser’s book.
Prairie Fires and My Antonia compliment each other; Willa Cather shows how things actually were while Caroline Fraser depicts the after effects of that hard life. These books also reflect the news of today; think of how many people are trying to survive this pandemic without a job and how many others believe we don’t need extra medical supplies to cope because they lived through the “good ol days”. The latter belief reflects Wilder’s conservative views perfectly. Cather’s My Antonia, meanwhile, reflects the dream we all want and should have; a stable community of people who help each other through difficult periods so that they can all prosper. In studying history, I believe it’s important to not only examine historical accounts but also study the people who survived after eras have ended. These two books are perfect examples of each.