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Prairie Fires

Cundill Prize for Historical Literature, 2018

ebook / ISBN-13: 9780708898666

Price: £20

ON SALE: 23rd November 2017

Genre: Biography & True Stories / Biography: General / Biography: Literary

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Just as gripping as the original novels . . . As pacy and vivid as one of Wilder’s own narratives, this surprising biography is immensely revealing both about Wilder and about America’s founding myths’ Sunday Times

‘”Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser devotes to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth’ New York Times Book Review

Millions of readers of the ‘Little House’ books believe they know Laura Ingalls Wilder – the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains as her family chased their American dream. But the true story of her life has never been fully told.

Drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries and public records, Caroline Fraser masterfully fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography, uncovering the grown-up story behind the best-loved childhood epic of pioneer life.

Set against nearly a century of unimaginable change, from the Homestead Act and the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Wilder’s life was full of drama and adversity. Settling on the frontier amid land-rush speculation, her family endured Biblical tribulations of locusts and drought, poverty and want, before she left at the age of eighteen to marry Almanzo. This is where the books end, but there is so much more to tell; deep in debt after a series of personal tragedies, Laura and Almanzo uprooted themselves once again, crisscrossing the country, taking menial jobs to support the family. In middle age, she began writing a farm advice column, prodded by her journalist daughter Rose. And at the age of sixty, fearing the loss of almost everything in the Depression, she turned to children’s books, recasting her extraordinarily difficult childhood as a triumphal vision of homesteading – achieving fame and fortune in the process.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life is one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches stories in American letters. Offering fresh insight and new discoveries, 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.


A fascinating tale, which spans an extraordinary period of American history . . . Whether you're a Wilder fan or have never picked up one of her books, this is compelling stuff - and as a history of the American dream, it's hard to beat
Caroline Fraser's expert account of both Laura and her troubled daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who is widely thought to have over-influenced her mother's oeuvre, minutely dissects their related lives and careers to explain and illustrate modern America's inviolate founding myth . . . should stand as the last word on a long life...Her story is everything you never knew and, now more than ever, need to understand about a defining element of the national character and the great American dream
Country Life
Fraser's gripping account is much more than a biography. Hugely recommended, even if you haven't read Wilder
Claire Lowdon, Sunday Times, Books of the Year
Engrossing... Exhilarating... Lovers of the series will delight in learning about real-life counterparts to classic fictional episodes, but, as Fraser emphasizes, the true story was often much harsher. Meticulously tracing the Ingalls and Wilder families' experiences through public records and private documents, 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
Publishers Weekly
Fraser's meticulous, smart, historically informed biography shows where the books hew to - and diverge from - the facts of Wilder's long and eventful life...Fraser got a head start on her work for this biography when she edited the Library of America editions of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing. Even readers who have already enjoyed those annotated volumes will find a trove of new material in Prairie Fires, which puts the books in a richer, more complicated context without undermining their value. Fraser concludes, "They are not, as Wilder and her daughter had claimed, true in every particular. Yet the truth about our history is in them. ...Anyone who would ask where we came from and why, must reckon with them
Sarah Harrison Smith, the Amazon Book Review, An Amazon Best Book of November 2017
In the twenty-first century, the tense and secret authorial partnership between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane has emerged as the most complex and fascinating psychological saga of mother-daughter collaboration in American literary history. Caroline Fraser's deeply researched and stimulating biography analyzes their controversial relationship and places Wilder's influential fiction in the contexts of other myths of pioneer women and the frontier
Elaine Showalter
A fantastic book. We've long understood the Little House series to be a great American story, but Caroline Fraser brings it unprecedented new context, as she masterfully chronicles the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family alongside the complicated history of our nation. Prairie Fires represents a significant milestone in our understanding of Wilder's life, work, and legacy
Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie
An absorbing new biography [that] deserves recognition as an essential text.... 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.... Meanwhile, 'Little House' devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser devotes to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth
Patricia Nelson Limerick, New York Times Book Review
Unforgettable... A magisterial biography, which surely must be called definitive. Richly documented (it contains 85 pages of notes), it is a compelling, beautifully written story.... One of the more interesting aspects of this wonderfully insightful book is its delineation of the fraught relationship between Wilder and her deeply disturbed, often suicidal daughter. But it is its marriage of biography and history - the latter providing such a rich context for the life - that is one of the great strengths of this indispensable book
Booklist, starred review
Memories can be both "treasures" and "consuming fires of torment", as Laura Ingalls Wilder knew. Caroline Fraser's rigorously researched biography shows how the author's life was so much more painful than it appears in her writings. Having combed through manuscripts, letters and other documents, Fraser has gained insight into the history that shaped her, including the dust bowl and the great depression. She explores the dreams that sustained the writer - and gets to the heart of a pioneer spirit. Here is an atmospheric portrait of places as much as of a person, too: the log cabin in which Wilder was born, the Great Plains, the dense forests and, of course, the prairies
Anita Sethi, Observer
[This new biography is] just as gripping as the original novels . . . As pacy and vivid as one of Wilder's own narratives, this surprising biography is immensely revealing both about Wilder and about America's founding myths
Eleanor Mills, Sunday Times
The sweep of the story is magnificent
Laura Freeman, The Times
The definitive biography...Magisterial and eloquent...A rich, provocative portrait
Star Tribune
Tells a story that is far more intriguing than the myth