Books

Author reveals unsettling truths about 'Little House'

Writer Caroline Fraser plans talk about the controversy surrounding the beloved children's books

By Tamra Testerman
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 12/13/18

Santa Fe writer Caroline Fraser was working in her office detached from the main house she shares with husband Hal Espen, a writer for Outside Magazine. Inside their home, Espen was …

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Books

Author reveals unsettling truths about 'Little House'

Writer Caroline Fraser plans talk about the controversy surrounding the beloved children's books

Posted

Santa Fe writer Caroline Fraser was working in her office detached from the main house she shares with husband Hal Espen, a writer for Outside Magazine. Inside their home, Espen was watching a Columbia University live stream announcing the 2018 winners for the Pulitzer Prize when he heard his wife's name.

Fraser recounted her husband standing in the doorway of her office telling her "you just won a Pulitzer."

Stunned is an understatement because she wasn't even aware her publisher had submitted her historical biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder for the prize. The two finalists in her category were biographies about poet Robert Lowell and President Richard Nixon. Fraser said she "was fortunate to win."

Tempo asked Fraser how she celebrated the momentous occasion. "We went out for drinks that night with a few close friends."

Fraser, author of "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder," will read from her historical biography today (Dec. 13), 7 p.m., in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street.

Wilder is the author of the "Little House on the Prairie" books, the basis for a long-running television series. Fraser's book is one of The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year and the Pulitzer Prize winner for biography.

The Pulitzer Prize website describes her award-winning work as "a deeply researched and elegantly written portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the 'Little House on the Prairie' series, that describes how Wilder transformed her family's story of poverty, failure and struggle into an uplifting tale of self-reliance, familial love and perseverance."

Fraser grew up in Seattle, Washington. She told Tempo she read the Wilder books over and over as a child and "felt a personal connection to the Wilder stories because all of her family came from farming families in the Midwest although her grandmother did not paint a rosy picture and was unsentimental and bitter about farm life. The children were the labor force on the farm, the girls relegated to baking bread, cleaning and child care; it was a hard life."

From her childhood reading of the series and her grandmother's storytelling about farm life, she became interested in reconciling the historical truth saying "the real stories were more dramatic than the ones Wilder wrote about."

Two decades ago she wrote a piece for the New York Review of books about issues over the authorship of the books and Wilder's daughter Rose. Later, she edited the "Little House" books for the Library of the America. She kept detailed notes about the history and was fascinated by the span of history in Wilder's book and her life. These events led to the decision to write a new biography about Wilder, the pioneer woman who started her writing career in her 60s.

In the spring of 2018, Fraser wrote in the Washington Post about the controversy surrounding the racist language used in the books. "No 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of 'Little House on the Prairie,'" she said. "But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell."

On June 25, 2018, the Board of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, voted to change the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children's Literature Legacy Award.

"Laura Ingalls Wilder's books have been and will continue to be deeply meaningful to many readers," a statement from the ALA reads. "Although Wilder's work holds a significant place in the history of children's literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder's legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder's name."

Fraser continued in her article to say, "Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. For decades, her legacy has been awash in sentimentality, but every American--including the children who read her books--should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture."

She told Tempo, "It is a beautiful process to examine writers and look at what they are doing. With Wilder, it exposes our fantasies about the frontier, which involve the deep racism in our history. It reveals the emotional freight we bring to this."

Fraser told Tempo about her writing process: "I just get up and do it. I work best in morning and try to be dutiful in terms of not procrastinating. Some days it feels like nothing is happening."

The author said she'll be reading from the book and presenting a slideshow with images from Wilder's day juxtaposed with photographs of the land as it is now.

According to the author's website, Fraser holds a doctorate from Harvard University in English and American literature. Formerly on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, she is the author of two nonfiction books, "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church" and "Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution," both published by Henry Holt's Metropolitan Books.

She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside Magazine and The London Review of Books, among other publications. She has received a PEN Award for Best Young Writer and was a past recipient of the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, awarded by PEN Northwest.

Tickets to Fraser's reading are $10, $8 for Harwood Alliance members. For more information, call the museum at (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org.

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