Review: "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder"

At least half of this biography about a complex family during a fraught period in American history centers around the co-dependent and tempestuous relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

Lane's unbylined authorial partnership with her mother — forged despite Lane's narcissistic, attention-seeking tendencies — led to the publication of the Little House novels during America's Great Depression and Dust Bowl.

As soon as the chronology of the biography shifts to Lane, she steals the show with her bizarre behavior, exhibiting mood and personality swings that worsen as she ages, and which, to me, sound like untreated bipolar disorder.

Lane got her start writing yellow journalism — not even bothering to conceal that her work was either fictionalized, plagiarized or flat-out false — as well as unauthorized and wildly inaccurate biographies of celebrities such as Jack London, Charlie Chaplin and Herbert Hoover.

Around the time of WWI, Wilder began writing a farm column for her local paper, and Lane took it upon herself to become her mother's unsolicited writing coach.

She would return over the years to borrowing or stealing stories from her parents' lives — including those Wilder planned to publish in a memoir and the Little House books — showing that Lane never drew from her own well to create stories but fed off and distorted the stories of others.

Lane was obsessed with homes, a product of her childhood poverty and rootlessness, yet never bought her own. Instead, she rented and renovated homes during her travels in the U.S., Europe and Africa.

After tiring from globetrotting, she returned to Mansfield, Missouri, kicked her parents out of their farmhouse, built them a new house on the back forty and commandeered their old house.

During alternating periods of mania and depression, she castigated friends about their relationship choices while suffering from her own — she was a divorcee and had other affairs but refused to marry again — and even went so far as to start a smear campaign against FDR for his New Deal, calling him a dictator and comparing him to Lenin.

She also fancied herself an expert in agriculture and commodities prices and predicted a book of matches would soon cost $25,000 — $463,000 in today's dollars.

These are just a few of the strange facts enumerated about Lane. She died in 1968 at the age of 82, despite decades of predicting her death was just around the corner.

A 23-page introduction to the book offers unsugarcoated historical context by examining Lincoln's Homestead Act of 1862, which was both a byproduct and sponsor of manifest destiny. It resulted in the slaughter and forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans in less than a decade, which is why Wilder in her "Little House in the Big Woods" book sentimentally describes the Minnesota woods as having "no people." There were about 50 Native Americans left in the vicinity at the time.
After this intro, the biography zooms down into the lives of the Ingalls and the struggle of white settlers as they "pioneered" the frontier.

If you're looking for a thoroughly engrossing read packed with historical details and drama, this book is for you.

For more info on the Dakota circa 1862, see "Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota."

Have you ever experienced real grief? Debilitating loss? Deep pain? If you have, you know platitudes don't cut it. People's assurances that "God has a plan" are salt in the wound. 

But what if there is something that could pull you above your grief — not beyond it, but above it, if only just for a moment?

I never do this, but I'm going to blog about a book I'm reading before I've even finished it. 

This book, "The Gospel of Ruth," by theologian and writer Carolyn Custis James, had my eyes welling over today during my lunch break because it's so over offering cliched explanations for why the main character, Naomi, is angry, bitter and despairing. It's beyond judging her for what she is feeling, which sadly, is what a LOT of Christian takes on Naomi do.

First, a quick synopsis about the source material. 

The biblical Book of Ruth, which is the background for Custis James's book, is set in Israel "during the time of the judges," which was a period sometime around 1100 B.C.E. when everyone in the Ancient Near East was warring and killing and famines were happening (so basically like all other time periods ever). Many scholars believe the story was written by the Prophet Samuel, between 1011 and 931 B.C.E., so about a century after the events in the book. (Source: article, "Book of Ruth.")

The story centers on Naomi, and Ruth, her daughter-in-law. Naomi's husband and both her sons (one of which is Ruth's husband) die in a 10-year period after the family has emigrated to a neighboring territory called Moab because of the famine in Israel. 

After her losses, Naomi is angry. Justifiably so. She decides to leave Moab and go back to Israel, since there is nothing keeping her there. Ruth decides to stay with her instead of sticking around in Moab waiting for a new husband to show up. She says the famous, poetical lines to Naomi...

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

The chapter that really struck me today was Chapter 5, "The Power of Hesed."

Ruth and Naomi get to Israel and Ruth immediately heads out to work in a field, where the landowner (Boaz) extends compassion and lets Ruth glean more grain than what Israelite law requires for landowners to offer the poor/non-hired hands. She eats a full lunch of toasted grain at his picnic shelter (it was probably granola, lol) and takes the rest back to Naomi, who is waiting on tenterhooks at home with bare cupboards.

This is where it starts getting good. I was unable to keep the tears from flowing as I read about God's "hesed" for Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. 

Custis James (who has studied Ancient Near East languages) said "Hesed" is the Hebrew word for the deep, caretaking and communal love that God expected Israelites to show each other — more than kindness or hospitality, but actual responsibility for one another's wellbeing, especially whenever a power imbalance was present in that patriarchal culture. The strong care for the weak. The rich for the poor. The neighbors for the widows. Hence, the gleaning laws that required landowners to leave the margins of the field unharvested so the poor could collect the excess.

When Naomi loses Elimelek (her husband), and her sons, Mahlon and Kilion, in a decade span, she grows bitter in her deep grief because she believes God has removed his "hesed" from her life forever, and she doesn't know why.

When Ruth comes home from her first day of gleaning in Boaz's field with an "ephah" of barley — or about 29 pounds, which is 15 times the average daily harvest for the paid servants, let alone the  foreign, widow gleaners — plus she has leftover granola for Naomi to eat immediately, Naomi's epiphany is swift, startling and authentic.

"Where did you glean today? [Read in a tone of astonishment.] Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!"

When Ruth responds it was from Boaz's field, Naomi is yanked out of her debilitating grief and says...

"The Lord bless him! He has not stopped showing kindness [hesed] to the living and the dead."

Naomi sits up and takes notice of incontrovertible evidence that God's "hesed" is still at work in her life. She is still part of his love, part of his tribe.

In this moment, she doesn't start matchmaking between Boaz and Ruth like most Christian books usually assume. That's not even a thought in her mind. All she knows is God has showed up through the actions of a distant relative (Turns out Boaz is related to her btw!), when she had believed her kin (spiritual and biological) were all dead, and there was nowhere left for her.

I don't think Custis James explicitly states this, but I think this was also a lightbulb moment for Naomi that Ruth is her new family. Maybe it dawns on her that her daughter-in-law isn't just a tagalong, lost-puppy character on the periphery of her grief.

No, Ruth is a force of nature, rising above her own deep heartache to care for someone else wholeheartedly. Isn't she a woman? Stronger than anyone knows, determined to fulfill her commitment to share Naomi's travels, homeland, people and God — and be buried next to her after death.

In that brief moment, the ashes of Naomi's grief turn to disbelief, then joy, then — incredibly — plans and ideas! She once again remembers how not just to exist, but to thrive.

This is where God's "hesed" will take us, and it's the whole point of Naomi and Ruth's story. There's a place, above our grief, where we can thrive in God's "hesed."

Last week I intended to write up a Wednesday/pre-Thanksgiving post about all the things about being a reporter that make me thankful. But then my husband swept me off to a movie, which I'm thankful we saw. (See what I did there?)

So consider today's entry the post-Thanksgiving, still-grateful-edition.

Here's what I count among my blessings when I'm on the beat:

1. I can't get enough of good conversations. When faced with interview prep, I'm often awash with concerns that my questions won't be sufficient. Then when I'm actually in the conversation, people open up to me in ways I never could have predicted, and I just go with it. I start asking questions that aren't on "my list," just because they've sparked my curiosity.

2. I still can't believe I get to write for an actual job, and actually get paid for it. It's like putting puzzles together at work. Put this piece here, and that piece there, work in some analysis, craft eye-grabbing leads and smooth transitions. Put together disparate points of view so that they balance and complement one another. It's all so very fun and fascinating.

3. I don't have to do the photography but I still get to be involved in the process. The rule of thumb is that we should request, assign or forage for a piece of art for every story. This can be headshots, handout photos or more photojournalistic pieces. Whatever it is, I've got to keep in mind that the story needs to be visually told as well as written. This is one of the more challenging aspects of my job. I'm still learning.

There are a lot of other things I'm thankful for, but I'll save those stories for another week.

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! May you be blessed in all your endeavors.