First, full disclosure: I am a bonnethead.
Like generations of children before and since, I harbor a besotted and lifelong love of Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved "Little House" books. The classic series, written for children and young teens, loosely chronicles her own pioneer childhood, traveling in a covered wagon as her family followed the outward waves of American frontier settlement.
Wilder, who lived from 1867 to 1957, wrote the books late in her life, during the 1930s and '40s. They have been perennial best-sellers, arguably exerting more influence on public perceptions of American westward expansion than any other literary source (I stand mute on the godawful 1970s television show inspired by the franchise).
"Bonnethead" is the informal epithet shared by devotees – mostly women – of the Wilder opus. We revel in the innocent pleasures of a simple and self-reliant past: farm chores, fiddle music, a stick of candy and a tin cup for Christmas.
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Legions of fans make pilgrimages to the real-life sites Wilder described: Pepin, Wis.; Walnut Grove, Minn.; Independence, Kan. The town of DeSmet, S.D., where Wilder met and married her husband, Almanzo Wilder, hosts a popular Laura Ingalls Wilder festival every summer. The woman who spent most of her life as a Missouri farm wife eventually became an icon of America's pioneer heritage.
But even as personal memoir, let alone history, Wilder's telling is highly selective and carefully edited. Her books were published as fiction, and the author herself, breathlessly asked by countless readers whether her recollections were "true," generally answered that they were in the main truth as she knew it.
That, perhaps, is the truth about truth: We shape it to the version that suits us. In a lengthy new biography, "Prairie Fire: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder," author Caroline Fraser does not so much debunk Wilder's view of history as examine the reality of its malleability.
Crediting Ingalls with "a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation," Fraser cites some hard truths about Wilder's own life and the broader story of westward settlement by white American farmers – a story that too often ended in failure and despair.
Even for non-bonnetheads, it's compelling reading. Fraser examines the essential role of myth creation and commercial hucksterism in the chaotic 19th-century land grabs smoothly papered over as "Manifest Destiny."
Fraser cites hard realities that Wilder did not, or could not, directly confront: The genocidal cruelty of forced Native American removal; public policy written to favor railroad interests; the ultimate futility of trying to turn the great grassland prairie into small-scale family farms; the massive government welfare program that offered free land to under-capitalized settlers.
Fraser is also candid about the Ingalls family's personal struggles. Charles Ingalls' repeated business and farming failures forced Wilder to work as a child, and not always, as she has written in her books, in such genteel settings as sewing and teaching school. She helped support her hard-up family by waiting tables, working in boarding houses, tending kids and sick elderly people. The burden, by modern standards, must have been crushing.
All this, in fact, is addressed only in the first portion of Frasier's meticulously researched book. There's a great deal more about Wilder's adult life, and in particular, the influence of her skilled but severely unbalanced daughter, who was a much better known writer than Wilder – and a notorious political crank – before the Little House series was written. That story is worthy of a book in its own right.
But I think the opening chapters of Fraser's book are particularly important to general readers. They speak to the heart of our nation's modern social fragmentation, of our own stubborn determination to embrace political myths and subscribe to the fluid, curated iterations of reality that suit us best.
Americans in general – and none more so than Texans – were raised on myth. All of us absorbed ideals of independence and exceptionalism as illusory as the orientation on a map: Turn it upside down, and you get an entirely different picture.
So the question remains: Can I still be a bonnethead?
Can I love the homespun innocence of Wilder's recollections, knowing that the truth was darker and more complicated than the stories she wrote?
Yes, of course, for two reasons.
First, because her art is a plain testament to the power of literature. Wilder's simple, straightforward narrative has charmed millions of children and adults, drawing them into a beguiling existence without Pop-Tarts and Instagram, where the human relationship to the natural world was a matter of everyday survival.
Secondly, because her work addresses timeless personal truths, such as devotion to her family, the value of work, the inherent virtues of patience and perseverance, resilience and optimism. If Wilder was reticent about the harsher chapters of her girlhood, we can still share the joy of a child overcome with awe to find a penny in the toe of her Christmas stocking.
Understanding the half-truths and outright myths in our own national history is key to maintaining a clear-eyed understanding of our current reality.
But even with the myths debunked, it's a grand story, a fascinating journey. So, yes: I'm hanging onto my bonnet.