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2018 Heartland Literary Award: ‘Prairie Fires’ by Caroline Fraser sifts fact and myth to excavate the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By October 19, 2018No Comments

Source : Chicago Tribune   –   Elizabeth Taylor

Since 1988, the Chicago Tribune has presented awards to books that exemplify and perpetuate the values of heartland America. The 2018 Heartland Literary Award for Nonfiction will be presented to Caroline Fraser for her biography “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Fraser will accept the award and discuss her work with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich at 1 p.m. Oct. 27 at First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington St. For details, visit the Chicago Humanities Festival website.

​In “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Caroline Fraser has recast our understanding of Wilder’s life and times and affirmed her influence in shaping the myth of the iconic heartland. ​For this achievement, Fraser wins the Chicago Tribune’s 2018 Heartland Literary Award, which follows her previously awarded Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle prizes.

Through the “Little House on the Prairie” series, Wilder depicted self-sufficient pioneer life in sepia tones. Fraser argues that the series was a “profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation” by a woman who had reimagined her frontier life as epic and uplifting, with disappointment and loss transformed into parable.

​Wilder created a vision of the Midwest and the Plains states and saw herself as the embodiment of it. In sharp contrast with this tableau, Fraser draws on her own deep knowledge of westward expansion and close readings of the novels. Her extraordinary biography captures the full arc of Wilder’s life in three acts: poverty, struggle and reinvention.

Wilder projected her vision of the West and came to see herself as the embodiment of it. Reading about Wilder’s idyllic world where Pa’s business never failed, food was plentiful, and disease and hardship were conquerable, one would never know that Wilder began working as a seamstress in other people’s homes when she was just 9 years old.

​In “Prairie Fires,” Fraser demonstrates the importance of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in this mythmaking. Lane, a tabloid journalist, had encouraged her mother to earn money by writing newspaper columns. It was not until after the stock market crash of 1929, when Wilder was 62, that she began the “Little House” books. The two had a vexed relationship, as Wilder was thrifty and Lane was profligate; Wilder was anxious, while Lane suffered from wild mood swings. Fraser, working as a literary detective, takes on the enduring theory that Lane had ghostwritten the “Little House” books, and she meticulously shows how Wilder shared her drafts with her daughter to embellish and shape them, but that the writing was uniquely her own.

Mother and daughter were fiercely dedicated to their story of a hardworking pioneer family. Wilder yearned for what she imagined was a blissful past with Pa and Ma Ingalls, and she wrote with a wistful nostalgia that resonated with readers. Fraser expertly separates her life story from the one she represented in the “Little House” books, pointing out the crop failures, a failed hotel and the many deaths in the family. As the series expanded, Lane emerged a depressed and angry soul and cruel daughter.

Eloquently written and drawing from her deep knowledge of American literature and history, Fraser considers a cultural touchstone — “The Little House on the Prairie” — and magnificently places it in the American experience and imagination.

Elizabeth Taylor, Tribune literary editor at large, is past president of the National Book Critics Circle and serves on its board of birectors.

2018 Heartland Prize events

Caroline Fraser and George Saunders will accept their 2018 Heartland Literary Awards on Oct. 27 during the Chicago Humanities Festival. Fraser will accept the nonfiction award and discuss her work with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich at 1 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington St. Saunders will accept the fiction award for “Lincoln in the Bardo” and discuss his work with Tribune Books Editor Jennifer Day at 3 p.m. at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

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