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.