Pulitzer Winning Laura Ingalls Wilder Biographer Featured at 2018 Festival of Books

'Little House' in the Real World: Pulitzer Author's Book Set on South Dakota Prairie and Plains

By South Dakota Magazine

Editor's Note: This feature story was originally printed in our 2018 South Dakota Festival of Books Guide, which was produced by South Dakota Magazine. Download a free copy here or by clicking the button below. 

Fraser Featured in 2018 Festival of Books History/Tribal Writing Track

Caroline Fraser read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series as an 8- or 9-year-old girl, and her impressions sound like those of countless other children who were transfixed by the pioneer stories.

"The world she was talking about was one that had meaning to me because all of my grandparents had been farmers in the Midwest — in the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Minnesota," says Fraser.

"So I would hear them talking about these things, and what it was like. Especially my grandmother."

Fraser is part of the History/Tribal Writing track at the 16th annual South Dakota Festival of Books, which will be held Sept. 20-23, 2018 in Brookings and Sioux Falls. Other tracks include fiction, non-fiction, literature, children's/YA, writers' support, and poetry.

Her latest endeavor and featured work at the 2018 Brookings and Sioux Falls event is "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder," which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Prairie land in South Dakota is one setting of 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Festival of Books author Caroline Fraser’s book, “Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

Prairie land in South Dakota is one setting of 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning Festival of Books author Caroline Fraser's book, "Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder."

Fraser, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning work is especially popular with South Dakota readers transfixed by the Laura Ingalls Wilder saga and its local ties to De Smet, S.D., said her grandmother helped her understand the realities of life on the farm.

"She would often talk about the work she had to do on the farm outside of Duluth, and she really didn't have any kind of romantic feelings about it. It seemed to be pretty grim and hard work — up before dawn, baking bread for this enormous family.

"So I had all these stories in my head, and what the 'Little House' books did for me was put them in some sort of context that a child could understand."

Digging Deeper into the Laura Ingalls Wilder Narrative

Unfortunately, that initial read is where many of us stop. Fraser is among the more dedicated fans who read the series multiple times, but she went even further, exploring the lives and times of Laura and her family members through several research and writing projects as an adult. She wrote newspaper articles and book reviews and edited the Library of America's edition of the "Little House" series.

"Prairie Fires" places Laura, her friends and family, and the fairy-tale-like stories found in her books within the historical context of the era in which she lived.

For example, readers learn that one factor behind the almost nomadic life of Charles Ingalls may have been misfortunes that befell him due to unscrupulous railroads and the nation-wide depression known as the Panic of 1873 — concepts foreign to preteen readers.

"As a kid you're focused on the happy endings," Fraser says. "You read them as adventure stories, and you love all the characters. Some of them are among our most beloved figures in children's literature. They come across to a child as fairly uncomplicated and wonderful and warm.

"As an adult, other things leap out at you. You can sense the real peril they were in, and that may not come across to children quite as readily."

Visitors travel from across the globe to the wind-swept prairies to walk the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder and tour her family's historic homes at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorical Society's tour site in De Smet, S.D.

Visitors travel from across the globe to walk the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder and tour her family's houses at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes in De Smet, S.D. Ingalls Wilder is featured in Caroline Fraser's 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Prairie Fires." 

Library Project Leads to 'Prairie Fires'

Fraser was working on the Library of America project in 2012 — specifically a chronology of events — when she saw the potential for a historical biography.

"Little House" readers may not immediately connect Wilder's mention of the "Minnesota Massacre" with the Dakota Uprising of 1862 and subsequent execution of 38 Dakota Indians at Mankato.

Fraser didn't, but it led her to look at Wilder's writing from a different perspective.

"When I looked that up and began reading about the background of that event, and what that said about what she was writing, I felt it was one of the most fascinating ways the book could be opened up to adult readers," she says.

"That one particular example really made me think about the historical import of the books."

More About Caroline Fraser

Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America's edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and the author of three works of nonfiction, including 2017's "Prairie Fires." One of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of the Year, Prairie Fires won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

Caroline Fraser 2018 Festival of Books Schedule

Brookings Events

  • "Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane & Yellow Journalism" on Friday, Sept. 21 at 10 a.m., South Dakota State University Student Union Dakota Rooms.

  • "Pioneer Girl Perspectives" with Nancy Tystad Koupal at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22 at Children's Museum of South Dakota Community Room.

  • "Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, and American Identity" on Saturday, Sept 22 at 2 p.m. at Children's Museum of South Dakota Community Room.

More About the South Dakota Festival of Books

To read more about Caroline Fraser and other authors at the 2018 South Dakota Festival of Books, and for scheduling information, click below to visit our website listing everything you need to know about the 2018 Brookings and Sioux Falls event.