Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Caroline Fraser graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1979. Photo courtesy Caroline Fraser

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Caroline Fraser graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1979. Photo courtesy Caroline Fraser

Mercer Island Native Wins Pulitzer Prize for Biography

Caroline Fraser’s ‘Prairie Fires’ chronicles the life and times of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ author Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There’s quite a bit of distance between the little houses on Mercer Island and little houses on the prairie, but author Caroline Fraser expertly bridged that gap. And it just earned her a Pulitzer. Last week, the 1979 Mercer Island High School graduate’s book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder took home the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

“It was quite a surprise because they don’t tell you these things ahead of time, and of course you can never expect anything like that to happen,” Fraser said. “I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet to tell you the truth. It was quite a day.”

The path to a Pulitzer started for Fraser back at Mercer Island High School. She fondly remembers of a block class that she took about American literature and history.

“[It] was the first time I was exposed to reading literature with a background of history and I think that was really influential in my life and so I’m very grateful for that,” she said. “I don’t think that I would have realized at the time that it would eventually influence my own work in any way.”

After graduating from MIHS, Fraser earned her Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University.

Fraser’s Pulitzer-winning biography chronicles the life author Laura Ingalls Wilder, creator of the Little House on the Prairie series.

Fraser felt a personal connection to the Little House books when she was a child.

“All of my grandparents had come from farming families in the Midwest, so I had a sense from the stories that they told of what a tough life it was,” she said. “I really loved the books because I kind of felt like they filled me in on what our family background was.”

Fraser said she wanted to know more about who Wilder really was and if the books were truly representative of her life. She said it wasn’t until she began editing for the Library of America’s edition of the Little House books that she began to realize how Wilder represented an extensive era of history.

“She was really [one] of these figures that represented the log cabin era and pioneering the frontier,” Fraser said. “She’s become representative of all that history, and I thought it would be interesting to write a new biography of her that really featured her against that background.”

Through the biography, Fraser hopes that readers have a better understanding of who Wilder was in comparison to the fictional character that she constructed in her books.

“It’s really fascinating to see how she altered the narrative of her life and how she tended to want to capture her family and her father in the best light,” she said. “The byproduct of that, of course, is that the Little House books give you this sense of real progression, both for as the family as a unit but also for the life project they were involved in, which was American settlement.”

Fraser will be giving lectures and appearing at book festivals throughout the rest of the year. She said she is planning on starting a new project next year but hasn’t settled on an idea yet.

Since Prairie Fires was published last November, Fraser said it’s been most rewarding to hear responses from readers.

“It’s been really gratifying to see people make the connection between their own history and what I’m describing in terms of the real history of Wilder’s life, which really I think tells us a lot about things that are currently relevant—the ecological and environmental cost of developing the Great Plains was really a disaster for a lot of people, and you see that was definitely replayed during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which is when Wilder wrote her books. … It’s gratifying to see people responding to that part of the story and basically kind of embracing the idea that Wilder’s story is important in that way.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Mercer Island Reporter.

More in Arts & Culture

Hearts Beat Loud. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Opening Weekend

From Chinese internet stars to a classic Japanese masterpiece, our choices for the must-see films screening at the fest from May 17–20.

Beth Knowles is the Mayoral Lead for Homelessness and Rough Sleeping at Greater Manchester Mayor’s Office. Photo by Candace Doyal
Beth Knowles Discusses the U.K. Tackling Homelessness Through Art

During her Seattle visit, the head of Manchester’s homelessness task force talked about creative solutions to the global problem.

The West Seattle Bee Garden at High Point Commons Garden serves as the hub for the annual West Seattle Bee Festival. Photo courtesy West Seattle Bee Garden
The Buzz About West Seattle Bee Festival

The event’s sixth edition mixes environmental education and fun family activities.

Death Cab for Cutie To Play Free Concert for Paramount Theatre’s 90th Anniversary

Tickets for the June 23 show will be awarded via Ticketmaster’s random lottery.

Nordic Museum’s grand Fjord Hall. Courtesy the Nordic Museum
An Ocean Away

While it may look the part, the Nordic Museum feels hollow.

La Luz returns to its old stomping grounds for two nights of surf rock bliss. Photo by Chona Kasinger
Pick List: Paul Simon, Lady Windermere’s Fan, La Luz

Stay entertained with our picks for the week’s best events.

The women that run SIFF: Beth Barrett and Sarah Wilke. Photo by Amy Kowalenko/SIFF
Women Filmmakers Make Big Moves at Seattle International Film Festival

As calls for accountability and inclusions roil Hollywood, SIFF’s power duo leads the nation’s largest film festival into a fairer future.

Just a couple of normal buddies hanging out in Deadpool 2. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Alive and Quippin’

Deadpool 2 might not be as sharp as the original, but the barrage of pop culture jokes keeps things fun.

Illustration by Taylor Dow
Belly Flop

Mars and Uranus battle as Gemini season gets underway.

Most Read