Prairie Fires (Fraser)

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Caroline Fraser, 2018
Henry, Holt & Company
640 pp.

Winner, 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
Winner, National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls—the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains, and the woman who wrote the famous autobiographical books.

But the true story of her life has never been fully told.

The Little House books were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, a profound act of myth-making and self-transformation. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series—masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books and uncovering the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life.

Set against nearly a century of epochal change, from the Homestead Act and the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance.

Settling on the frontier amidst land-rush speculation, Wilder’s family encountered Biblical tribulations of locusts and drought, fire and ruin. Deep in debt after a series of personal tragedies, including the loss of a child and her husband’s stroke, Wilder uprooted herself again, crisscrossing the country and turning to menial work to support her family.

In middle age, she began writing a farm advice column, prodded by her self-taught journalist daughter. And at the age of sixty, after losing nearly everything in the Depression, she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a triumphal vision of homesteading—and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories in American letters.

Offering fresh insight and new discoveries about Wilder’s life and times, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman who defined the American pioneer character, and whose artful blend of fact and fiction grips us to this day. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—SEattle, Washington, USA
Education—Ph.D., Harvard University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize; National Book Critics Circle Award
Currently—lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Caroline Fraser is an American writer. She won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, and the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography, for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Formerly on the editorial staff of the New Yorker, her work has also appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and New York Review of Books, among others.

In addition to Prairie Fires, she is the author of God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (1999), Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (2009), She is also the editor of the two volumes of the Library of America's Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House Books (2012).

Fraser was born in Seattle to a Christian Science family. She obtained a PhD in English and American literature in 1987 from Harvard University for a thesis entitled A Perfect Contempt: The Poetry of James Merrill.[2]

Whitney Balliett (1926–2007), himself a former Christian Scientist, described in God's Perfect Child as a "critical history that… casts a clear, merciless light" on the religion. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/20/2018.)

Book Reviews
Caroline Fraser's absorbing new biography…deserves recognition as an essential text for getting a grip on the dynamics and consequences of this vast literary enterprise.… For anyone who has drifted into thinking of Wilder's Little House books as relics of a distant and irrelevant past, reading Prairie Fires will provide a lasting cure. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, Little House devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth (front page).
Patricia Nelson Limerick - New York Times Book Review

Fraser discovers failed farm ventures and constant money problems, as well as natural disasters even more terrifying and devastating in real life than in Wilder’s writing. She also…opens her subject to new scrutiny, which, for Wilder’s many fans, may be both exhilarating and disconcerting.
Publishers Weekly

[A] great way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth. Fraser draws on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records to address gaps in Wilder's story and put to rest charges of ghostwriting. Fans are frothing.
Library Journal

Unforgettable.… magisterial…. Richly documented…, it is a compelling, beautifully written story.… One of the more interesting aspects of this wonderfully insightful book is… the fraught relationship between Wilder and her deeply disturbed, often suicidal daughter.

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Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Thanks to the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood is one of the most legendary in our literature. Discuss how the factual account of Laura Ingalls’s real childhood in Prairie Fires differs from the  ction. How does an understanding of Wilder’s life affect our perception of her work?

2. Fraser writes, “Wilder made history” (page 5). How is this true, and in what ways does the biography bear this out? Discuss how women made history in earlier eras and how female historical  gures depart from traditional male spheres of politics, government, and the military. How do Wilder’s life and reputation differ, for example, from those of famous frontier icons such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett? How reluctant are we to acknowledge women as heroes and why?

3. Discuss the Dakota Boom of the late 1870s and 1880s. Why was it a bad idea for homesteaders to farm in Dakota Territory? Since the government knew about the arid nature of the Great Plains, why did it encourage settlement there?

4. Discuss Laura and Almanzo’s courtship and early marriage. Why did they come together, and how were they compatible (or not)? How did the tensions that developed between them affect their later lives?

5. What kind of mother was Laura? How did her experience of caring for Rose compare to what we know of Caroline Ingalls’s mothering skills? How did Rose respond to the tragedies of her parents’ early married life—Almanzo’s illness and disability, their loss of a child, the house lost to  fire—and how would it affect her later life and relationship to her parents?

6. In 1894, after failing to make a go of it in Dakota Territory, the Wilders joined a mass exodus out of the region, journeying to the “Land of the Big Red Apples” in the Missouri Ozarks. How would Laura’s exile from her family affect her, and why would she return to De Smet only once in the next couple of decades, for her father’s death? Why do you think she did not return to see her mother or her sister Mary?

7. Women’s clubs, farmers’ clubs, and book groups were crucial to the development of Wilder’s writing career. Does such networking still play a central role for urban and/or rural women?

8. Discuss Wilder’s development as a farm columnist—how did her writing for the Missouri Ruralist shape her ambitions and style?

9. Talk about how Rose Wilder Lane’s return to Rocky Ridge Farm in the 1920s and 1930s affected her life. Why did she build another house for her parents, after their successful completion of their own farmhouse? What do you think the Wilders thought of the Rock House?

10. Laura Ingalls Wilder worked for ten years for the National Farm Loan Association. So why did she object so vehemently to the New Deal programs designed to help farmers? Why was federal aid acceptable for her and not for others? If you were a rural farmer in the 1930s, how would you have felt about the federal government?

11. Do you see the influence of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in Wilder’s memoir and the Little House books—and if so, how? Discuss the other, more personal events that led to her writing.

12. The way in which Wilder and Lane passed manuscripts back and forth between them has been described as a “collaboration.” It’s even been called “ghostwriting.” How would you describe it? Do you know of other mother/daughter professional writing relationships?

13. How have perceptions of the Little House books changed over the years, or even over the course of your own life? How has Prairie Fires changed your perceptions?
(Questions issued by the publishers).)

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