The Sorting Pen: Learning the ag history of the region through biography
Years ago, after I had devoured normal first-grade reading offerings, my mom suggested I might enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. I dove in at age 7 and never looked back. For my ninth birthday, my parents bought me the box set of Wilder's books, from "Little House in the Big Woods" to "The First Four Years." I've reread some of them so many times that their covers are bent and faded.
The books exposed me to the basics of pioneer life — as they have for millions of other readers the world over. But they also created a spark in me to write, with the real world as my subject. From those first early readings, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
I, of course, moved on to other books and other subjects. But my mild obsession with Wilder's life and world never really subsided.
I'm still working my way through "Pioneer Girl," Wilder's previously unpublished memoir that was annotated and edited by a team at the South Dakota State Historical Society. And a few weeks ago, I dove into Caroline Fraser's Wilder biography, "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder."
Fraser's book came out in 2017 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. But I approached it with some trepidation. We never want to find our heroes to be something less than what we have built them up to be, and I was hesitant to learn what Fraser had uncovered.
I cannot begin to describe how happy I am that I decided, finally, to read this book. More than just a biography of a remarkable and complex person, it is a deeply researched, thorough history of the region in which I live, with a hyper focus on how the agriculture of the area developed and how that shaped the people on the land.
The book paints stark pictures of the struggles of pioneer life, but in the same way offers a mirror to Upper Midwest farm life today. Though we live more comfortable lives, we still struggle with the weather and the markets and forces completely out of our control. Farm and ranch families still often rely on off-farm income. Our reliance on things like crop insurance and government disaster programs was borne out of the problems of the late 1800s and early 1900s as the Dakotas were settled. Farm and ranch women always have played integral roles.
Fraser examines how the often-exaggerated descriptions of farm life's virtues have remained with us since the homesteading era. I certainly see myself and those around me in many passages, for better and worse.
Some of the tidbits in the book were revelations to me. For instance, I never had heard about Major John Wesley Powell's opinion back to 1877 that the Great Plains should not be homesteaded in the normal way west of the 100th meridian, which runs through the central Dakotas, as he felt the land beyond that point may not be suitable for traditional farming due to its arid nature. That land, he felt, was better suited to grazing than to crops. Later, he suggested cooperative irrigation systems would be necessary for farming in that area. Certainly those points will be on my mind during dry summers as we toil here near the 99th meridian.
I haven't completed the book, as of the time I'm writing this. But I'm writing this column now in the hopes that others will read it, too, so that I can discuss it with them. If you have an interest in farming, U.S. history, homesteading, immigration, writing or, of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder, you should read this book. Let me know if you do!