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Cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By: Caroline Fraser

Publisher: Macmillan Trade

Imprint: Metropolitan Books

Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9781627792769

On Sale: | Pages: 640

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The first comprehensive historical biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the beloved author of the Little House on the Prairie book seriesMillions 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 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 Now, drawing on unpublished manuscripts, letters, diaries, and land and financial records, Caroline Fraser--the editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House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.
Drawing from a rich archive of never-before-published correspondence, original manuscripts and financial documents, Fraser offers a revealing look at Wilder's pioneering life on the Great Plains, showing us where the author's real life matched up with the autobiographical Little House series and where it departed. Comprehensive in scope and meticulously researched, the book is a joy from start to finish, an exquisitely written examination of how life on the harsh, 19th-century prairie shaped both the written work and worldview of one of the most famous women in American letters.... Here and throughout the book, Fraser pulls off an impressive balancing act: She avoids overly simplistic characterizations of the homesteaders as villains, but she offers an unflinching account of the plight of American Indians.... Prairie Fires is not short, but it zips along at a novelistic pace. Like Wilder's own writing, it conjures tears, shock and admiration for the people it portrays without over-sentimentalizing individual lives or the broader history they helped create. Wilder's fans will not be disappointed, and readers of pioneer history should rejoice.
—Dallas Morning News
Comprehensive and incredibly well-researched, Fraser's biography traces Wilder's life from before her birth to her ongoing literary legacy, consistently placing Wilder's life and work in its historical and political contexts.... Fraser's outstanding biography invites readers into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder --- and I suspect more than a few of her readers will be inspired to crack open their own well-worn copies of the Little House books to read with fresh eyes.
—Bookreporter.com
Rendering this biography as effective at racking nerves as it is at provoking thought, the story of Wilder's emergence as a major sculptor of American identity pushes far past the usual boundaries of probability and plausibility. 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. Just as effectively, for readers with a pre-existing condition of enthusiasm for western American history and literature, this book will refresh and revitalize interpretations that may be ready for some rattling. Meanwhile, “Little House” devotees will appreciate the extraordinary care and energy Fraser brings to uncovering the details of a life that has been expertly veiled by myth. Perhaps most valuable, “Prairie Fires” demonstrates a style of exploration and deliberation that offers a welcome point of orientation for all Americans dismayed by the embattled state of truth in these days of polarization.
—New York Times
...[a] magisterial and eloquent biography... From politics to art, "Prairie Fires" is virtually a double biography of mother and daughter and the work they forged in the crucible of their torments, creating an awesome achievement in children's literature.... She's given us the definitive biography of a self-taught writer whose pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology cloaked the shame of poverty and airbrushed a life perpetually teetering on the brink of doom.
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Fraser brings a learned hand to this substantial biography of Wilder, learned and substantial though also light on its feet, washed with color, and opinionated.... Fraser's color commentary freshens the story time and again... Fraser's volume feels as secure in its verisimilitude and necessary guesswork as those cozy fireside-reading sessions out there on the glorious prairie, that burning, pestilential, heartbreaking, health-sapping, dust-broiling, dark, and wintry prairie. The book will stand true – a testament to bootstrapping work by both Fraser and Wilder – a lot longer than those sod huts.
—Christian Science Monitor
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