Santa Fe’s Caroline Fraser, photographed at the Hotel St. Francis, won a Pulitzer for biography for her book ‘Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Engalls Wilder.’ Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican
As a girl, Caroline Fraser invested a chunk of her childhood into reading and re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.
Fraser, who lives in Santa Fe, won a coveted Pulitzer Prize Monday for her biography of Wilder, titled Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“It’s stunning news,” she said in an interview with The New Mexican after the award was announced. “I’m surprised and thrilled and just feel very fortunate. I worked on this book for a long time, and I’m very grateful to my editors at Metropolitan [Books].”
Wilder’s beloved Little House novels were originally published from 1932-43 and had a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s when the Little House on the Prairie television show captured the imagination of millions of modern little girls — including Fraser.
Prairie Fires is the first scholarly biography about Wilder written for adults. In 1994, she wrote an article about Wilder’s work for the New York Review of Books, an experience that led her to edit the Little House series for the Library of America.
“I knew at that point that she needed a new biography,” said Fraser, whose other books include God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (1999) and Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution (2009).
Born in Seattle, Fraser has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in English and American Literature. She has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine and The London Review of Books.
She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Prairie Fires, and it was named a New York Times Best Book of 2017.
To form a full portrait of Wilder, who was often conflated with the characters she created, Fraser examined unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records. In addition to fleshing out Wilder’s childhood of poverty and manual labor on the frontier, she delves into her early marriage and motherhood and her life as a working woman.
She waited tables and took in boarders before becoming a writer of children’s books when she was 60 years old. Fraser fills in the social, political and historical landscape of the Wilder family’s many moves in search of a better life, touching on Manifest Destiny and the Great Depression, among other themes related to the American Dream.
“The sheer misery of that time for those living in the worst affected areas can scarcely be imagined,” Fraser writes of the 1934 Dust Bowl-era drought. “Intense heat sparked static electricity that made it dangerous to drive, and cars routinely dragged chains to ground them. Men stopped shaking hands. People feared being buried alive in ‘black blizzards,’ coughing black phlegm. Conditions were particularly hard on children and the elderly.”
“I had a personal relationship to the books. Like a lot of people, I read them when I was a kid,” she said. “And my own grandmother was Swedish from a family of Swedish immigrant farmers who farmed up in Minnesota. So, that’s always been interesting to me: The books really open up that experience.
“She [Fraser’s grandmother] was always telling me stories about kind of how horrible it was to work on the farm and how much work it was and how she had to take care of all her brothers and sisters,” she continued. “And so, it was really interesting to read a kind of fictional account of what were some of the good aspects of that, as well as the stuff I was hearing. It really made it clear to me how tough a life it was.”
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