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Prairie Fires

Cundill Prize for Historical Literature, 2018

Paperback / ISBN-13: 9780708898680

Price: £14.99

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’ Sunday Times

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 where ‘as far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses’. Her books are beloved around the world.

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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser, the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series,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.

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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
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
[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
Tells a story that is far more intriguing than the myth
The definitive biography...Magisterial and eloquent...A rich, provocative portrait
Star Tribune
The sweep of the story is magnificent
Laura Freeman, The Times
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
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
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
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
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
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
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