2018 Pulitzer Prize winner: Open Book with Caroline Fraser

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In late June, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), voted to change the esteemed Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children's Literature Legacy Award.

"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," ALA President Jim Neal and ALSC President Nina Lindsay said in a joint statement. "Wilder's books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America's 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities."

Prior to this news (and the ALA's winter announcement that it was reconsidering the award's title), the late "Little House on the Prairie" author's name had been back in the headlines for less alarming reasons. In November of 2017, Caroline Fraser published "Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder" (Metropolitan Books), a biography that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for work in the genre this past April.

"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," a description reads on The Pulitzer Prizes' website.

After learning of the ALA's reconsideration, Fraser penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post that called out racist elements of Wilder's writing but also called for continued examination of Wilder's works. During a recent telephone interview with The Eagle, Fraser reiterated those remarks.

"I do understand why (ALSC) felt that they needed to do this because they are — that particular group within the ALA — is meant to serve children. So, of course, they feel a responsibility to serve all children. I also think it's a great opportunity to go back to the texts of Wilder's books themselves and look at what they're talking about. There are some very overt instances in Wilder's work, especially in 'Little House on the Prairie,' that involve racial stereotypes, and I think it's an important thing to look at that and examine it and debate it and talk about it," she said.

Fraser, who has also written books about the Christian Science Church ("God's Perfect Child") and biodiversity ("Rewilding the World"), had edited the Library of America's "Little House" books before embarking on the Wilder biography. She had known, for example, that Wilder worked closely with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. But she hadn't known that Lane was such a fixture in the yellow journalism scene.

"The fact that she was so heavily involved in that and started writing this whole series of celebrity biographies, including invented autobiographies, it was really startling to me," Fraser said. " ... I came to feel that that was pretty important in the later development of the 'Little House' books because, of course, the 'Little House' books began as her mother's memoir, really. And then Wilder decided to instead — when the memoir didn't sell — she decided to write for children, which was an idea she had had for a long time. But because of Rose's early experience in writing those kind of fictionalized biographies, I think that that really heavily influenced how free they felt to fictionalize Laura's experience."

On Monday (4 p.m.) and Tuesday (11 a.m.), Fraser will speak at The Mount in Lenox. The Santa Fe, N.M., resident answered some questions about her favorite books before the appearances.

What is your favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder book?

That's kind of a tough one. As a kid, my favorite was always "The Long Winter" because I just found that so dramatic and kind of dark. It's just a great adventure story — survival story, really. And I still am very fond of that novel. I think "Little House on the Prairie" is probably her most important work, and I love parts of all of them, but I guess I'd say "The Long Winter."

What is your favorite book about religion?

I have to have a good laugh at that. I don't know if you're aware, but my first book was about a religion. I'm not sure it would make anybody's favorite list, especially the members of the Christian Science Church. I'd say that my favorite book about religion is William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience."

What is your favorite book by Edith Wharton?

I guess "The Age of Innocence." I think that that was really pretty influential to me. I've never really thought about [it], but I love that whole period — the James family and Edith Wharton and that whole circle of people, John Singer Sargent.

What is your favorite novel set in New Mexico?

I guess I'd have to say Willa Cather's ... "Death Comes for the Archbishop" — kind of an amazing book.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I was really fond of "Watership Down" [by Richard Adams].

What books are currently on your nightstand?

I'm reading this series of books by Olivia Manning called "The Balkan Trilogy," which is actually three novels. She's a British writer who I actually had not really been aware of before, but [I] just was looking at a great biography of her ["Olivia Manning: A Woman at War"] by a woman named Deirdre David, who's a member of the BIO International group that I belong to. So, I was interested in her and just started reading it. It's a great series of novels about World War II.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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