Prairie Fires

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

I am a history…geek doesn’t seem like a strong enough word. I am fascinated, enthralled by it. And this is, hand on my heart, one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

Like everyone else in the western world, I’ve seen dozens of thinkpieces about Trump voters and flyover country and why the white rural vote in America is so overwhelmingly Republican.

And while it is not the ostensible subject of the book, it still shows the cultural forces that have created our present better than any other analysis I’ve encountered.

One of the things that comes across pretty strongly is that the central states of America have ALWAYS been pretty rough places to live. The government opened them up to homesteaders – against the advice of their own scientists, who said the climate wouldn’t support arable farming – and effectively created the Dustbowl within fifty years. (Nothing ever changes when it comes to climate science, it seems). And when hundreds of thousands of farmers were ruined, they were effectively abandoned by their own government to starve or go bankrupt or sell themselves to the highest bidder.

It’s not hard to see how that fostered the attitude of extreme self-reliance that Wilder argues for in all the Little House books, or how that attitude could curdle into a vicious rejection of anyone ELSE being helped or supported.

And when the author sketches out Rose Wilder Lane’s links to libertarianism and, through that, the Koch brothers… I had one of those moments where I could perceive how the present is entwined with the past, how we are in the grip of forces that were set in motion long before any of us were born, and how that malign inheritance will not just go away with the passage of time.

(Though, that said, there are one or two moments that are incredibly jarring to a modern reader – such as Lane’s condemnation of the Armenian genocide…at least when America slaughtered the plains Indians it was because they wanted their land, not because of a religion… as though that’s somehow better?)

Needless to say, aside from the politics of it all, of you grew up reading the Little House books, as I did, the details of Wilder’s life as well as editorial decisions she made in telling her story, are enthralling. (And I can say how relieved I was to discover that, whatever else, her parents seem to have been exactly as loving as she described them).

It was not that long ago.