Monday, September 7, 2015

Book: "Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

If you're like me & enjoy reading footnotes, have I got a book for you!!

I heard about "Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, expertly edited by Pamela Smith Hill, a few years before it was released last year, and I have been following its progress through "The Pioneer Girl Project" blog of the South Dakota Historical Press. The publishers vastly under-estimated the interest in this book, which created huge backlogs in orders. It wasn't even available in Canada for a long time, but I was finally, recently, able to get my hands on a copy.

Like many of you, I'm sure, I grew up reading the "Little House" books and watching the television series.  I bought a boxed set of the entire series early in my marriage, intending to read the books with my kids someday, and one of the happiest memories I have of my pregnancy is sitting up in bed with my hand on my swelling stomach, reading "Little House in the Big Woods" aloud to my tummy while dh smiled at me from the doorway.

In past blog posts, I've reviewed several "Little House"-related books, including "The Wilder Life" by Wendy McClure and "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" by Allison Arngrim (TV's Nellie Oleson). I've also read "Prairie Tale" by Melissa Gilbert (TV's Laura) and (back when I was in high school or university), "Laura," a biography of Wilder by Donald Zochert.   

So I was fairly well versed in Wilder's life story. Even so, there was plenty here that I did not know, had forgotten, or thought I knew but did not know the full story.

"Pioneer Girl" is really three stories in one.

First, it brings to the public for the very first time Laura Ingalls Wilder's unpublished handwritten memoir, "Pioneer Girl," which became the basis of all the subsequent "Little House" novels. In many ways, as some reviewers have noted, it's a much darker and more complex story than "Little House" readers will remember. For example, the novels gloss over some of the Ingalls family's wanderings, entirely skipping over the unhappy time the family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa (where the family helped run a hotel next door to a saloon, and Laura narrowly escaped molestation by a drunken man who entered her bedroom one night). The novels also don't mention the existence of Laura's baby brother, Freddie, who was born in Iowa and died as an infant.

Second, it's the story of the manuscript itself, and of an editorial and creative process: the introduction and footnotes detail how Wilder worked to refine the manuscript with her daughter, author/journalist Rose Wilder Lane, and how it changed and evolved into the Little House books that so many of us grew up knowing & loving. Many have thought that Lane was the actual author of the books (and she clearly helped herself to material from her mother's stories for use in her own works);  "Pioneer Girl" puts that theory firmly to rest. She obviously played a major role in editing the story and marketing it to potential publishers, and in shaping the books that followed (particularly the earlier ones), but Laura's voice and vision of what the books should be is clear and unmistakeable.

Third, as I mentioned earlier, "Pioneer Girl" verifies the historical facts underlying the manuscript and, by extension, the "Little House" books themselves. ("I don't suppose anyone will take the trouble to look it up," Laura wrote in a note to her daughter, after arguing whether a historical point should be altered to make a better story. Boy, would she be surprised....!)  Editor Hill and her team of researchers have done an absolutely amazing job of fleshing out Wilder's manuscript and adding to our knowledge of the books and the author's life by researching & verifying the stories, characters and places referenced (and pointing out the discrepancies between Wilder's manuscript, the finished books, and what the historical record would indicate).  Using census, newspaper and other records, they tell us more about people such as Soldat du Chene, Robert & Ella Boast, Reverend Alden, Cap Garland, Mary Power, and Laura's aunts, uncles and cousins, and what happened to them. (Nellie Oleson was a composite figure, drawn from three different girls Laura knew in both Minnesota and Dakota.)  They pinpoint the actual or likely dates of events Laura describes (everything from cyclones to blizzards to ice cream socials);  they find lyrics to songs that Laura herself could only partially remember.  The pages and pages of footnotes, photos and maps (plus a detailed introduction, conclusion and appendices, as well as bibliography & index) outnumber the pages of the manuscript itself.

This is not a quick read -- jumping back & forth from text to footnotes and back again -- but it's fascinating and absorbing and, if you are a big Wilder fan, an absolute must.  It's also beautifully designed and laid out, coffee table book size.

And now I want to go back & re-read all the "Little House" books again. :)

This was book #21 that I've read to date in 2015. I've now surpassed the number of books than I read in all of 2014!


  1. Oh thank you for this! I had not heard of it, but I am a HUGE fan of the Little House books. I'm actually about to purchase a boxed set because my childhood set are lost (either passed along to a younger cousin or donated to the school where my mother was a teacher). I'm sick of not owning them (and I also want to read them to E.).

    Now I am clearly going to need to get this as well!

  2. You are a reading (and reviewing) machine!

    1. Funny you say that... I am doing pretty well vs other recent years, but in general, I read FAR less than I did, pre-Internet. :p