Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

Author:Caroline Fraser
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Indian Country

There was something wrong with the weather. The Wilders had seen it during their trip to South Dakota, when it was so hot and dry and dusty they had to pour water over their dog to keep him alive. But with good rains in the spring of 1933, everyone had taken it for merely a hot spell. No one realized what it was: the beginning of a decade-long drought that would touch off dust storms so dense they would suffocate people, kill children with “dust pneumonia,” and decimate animals throughout the southern plains.

Across the high plains of Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle, southwest Kansas and northeast New Mexico, and on into Colorado, normal precipitation fell by 40, 50, and even 60 percent.114 One Oklahoma county where the annual rainfall usually measured more than seventeen inches received only twelve in 1932 and less than nine in 1934.115 Ten inches is a desert.

Scientists estimate that it took a thousand years for an inch of topsoil to accumulate on the arid high plains. It was the work of a moment to blow it away. Topsoil exposed by the disc plows turned to dust, and the dust began to eddy, roil, and lift on the wind. “Rolling dusters,” they were called, or “black blizzards.” There were fourteen of them in 1932. The year after that, thirty-eight. One of them lasted for twenty-four hours. Continental winds powered by the jet stream swept the plains, blowing soil eastward, out of Kansas and Oklahoma into Arkansas and Missouri. The humor was as black as the skies. “Great bargains in real estate,” read a sign in a store window. “Bring your own container.”116

The dusters began rolling into Missouri in 1933. That was the year of the rift between Wilder and her daughter, the year Rose Lane couldn’t stop crying, the year Wilder paid off the Federal Farm loan and accepted 5 percent royalties for Farmer Boy. It was the year Wilder started working on what she called her “Indian Country” book, at a time when she felt so stretched for cash she was using the backs of letters and pages of her Little House in the Big Woods manuscript to begin the new novel. She had pleaded with Ida Louise Raymond to tell her if her books were still selling, “both as a matter of sinful pride and as a hope of addition to an all too small income.”117 Sitting in her daughter’s Rock House, a monument to extravagance in a world despoiled by human folly, Wilder embarked on the book she had been waiting her whole life to write.

“Indian Country” was a true departure, celebrating a prelapsarian landscape, a prairie Eden. Her first two books were a hymn to agrarian domesticity and security: cows in the barn, pigs in the pen, and storerooms packed with meats, cheese, and pumpkins. Her third took flight from that safety, reveling in the ecstatic wonders of wilderness and wolves and Indians. In it, fears were transient, subsumed in awe.

Her drafts—three survive—demonstrate a painstaking working process.


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