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Cover for Prairie Fires

Prairie Fires

The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Caroline Fraser


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (11/20/2017)
Hardcover (11/21/2017)
Paperback, Large Print (9/4/2019)
Library Binding, Large Print (6/27/2018)



One of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year

The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie books

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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser—the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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

Praise For Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

“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.”
The New York Times Book Review (front page)

“The definitive biography... Magisterial and eloquent... A rich, provocative portrait.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Impressive... Prairie Fires could not have been published at a more propitious time in our national life.”
The New Republic

“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.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“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

“Meticulously researched, feelingly told, Prairie Fires is the definitive biography of a major writer who did so much to mold public perceptions of the Western frontier. Once again, Caroline Fraser has shown that she is a master of the careful art of sifting a life, finding meaning in the large and small events that shaped an iconic American figure. Prairie Fires is a magnificent contribution to the literature of the West.”
—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

“At last, an unsentimental examination of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life on the frontier. Caroline Fraser rescues Wilder from frontier myth and gives us the gritty, passionate woman who endured the harshest experiences of homesteading, loved the Great Plains, and was devastated by their ultimate ruin and loss. Elegantly written and impeccably researched, Prairie Fires is a major contribution to environmental history and literary biography.”
—Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature and Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature

“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, author of A Jury of Her Peers and The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

“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. She also helpfully puts Wilder’s narrow world into larger historical context.”
Publishers Weekly

Picador, 9781250182487, 656pp.

Publication Date: August 7, 2018

About the Author

Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the author of Rewilding the World and God’s Perfect Child. Her writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She lives in New Mexico.

Conversation Starters from

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 fiction. 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 figures 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 in 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 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?