The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books
One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year
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 saga of her life has never been fully told. Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser―the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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. Revealing the grown-up story behind the most influential childhood epic of pioneer life, she also chronicles Wilder's tumultuous relationship with her journalist daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, setting the record straight regarding charges of ghostwriting that have swirled around the books.
The Little House books, for all the hardships they describe, are paeans to the pioneer spirit, portraying it as triumphant against all odds. But Wilder’s real life was harder and grittier than that, a story of relentless struggle, rootlessness, and poverty. It was only in her sixties, after losing nearly everything in the Great Depression, that she turned to children’s books, recasting her hardscrabble childhood as a celebratory vision of homesteading―and achieving fame and fortune in the process, in one of the most astonishing rags-to-riches episodes in American letters.
Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history and our national mythology of self-reliance. With fresh insights and new discoveries, Prairie Fires reveals the complex woman whose classic stories grip us to this day.
An Amazon Best Book of November 2017: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books are perhaps the best known and beloved American stories for children. Some of the books’ fame is thanks with their afterlife in Michael Landon’s long-running television series, which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off.” But the question of verisimilitude doesn’t begin and end with television. Though Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, her politically cranky journalist daughter, defended the books’ historical accuracy, 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 looks, too, at emotional truths: Wilder’s father, Charles Ingalls, whom she called Pa, is the hero of her recollections. But he dodged service in the Civil War, put his family in harm’s way, and tried to settle on land he knew belonged to the Osage. This image of Charles Ingalls, Fraser writes, “contains elements of moral ambiguity missing from the portrait his daughter would one day so lovingly polish.” 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