By Laura Ingalls Wilder
Edited by Pamela Smith Hill
Pioneer Girl is the original manuscript of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoir that eventually became the Little House on the Prairie series. Laura originally wrote her story in “four Fifty Fifty and two Big Chief lined tablets” (p. lxi); Pioneer Girl is simply the transcribed, typed version of Laura’s handwritten text. Since it is a very rough draft, all the spelling and grammatical mistakes remain, and Laura makes parenthetical remarks to her daughter and editor, Rose Wilder Lane, throughout the story. The introduction discusses the creative process of writing the manuscript as well as the journey to publication. Since Rose had already made a name for herself as a writer, she served as Laura’s editor and liaison to various publishing houses. Pioneer Girl went through several different editors and versions, including a “juvenile” version where Rose attempted to get the memoir published in the young reader’s market. (Ironically, Rose didn’t believe that there was a market for children’s books!) The autobiographical story, however, did not appeal to the Depression-era publishers. Therefore, Rose and Laura made the decision to take Laura’s girlhood experiences and turn them into a more fictionalized account of the pioneering Ingalls family. The text of Pioneer Girl is annotated and includes many insights into Laura’s words, including pictures of historical figures, maps of the towns where she lived, and general information that expands on topics she addresses.
Benefits of Reading the Annotated Autobiography:
- While the original manuscript had no chapters or marked sections, Pioneer Girl is divided into sections based on the geographic location of the Ingalls family during each particular time period. The editor provides maps of each area so the reader can literally see where the family lived as well as the surrounding areas.
- Hill gives biographical information on characters as Laura introduces them in her narrative. Some of these, like Pa’s information, is quite lengthy and different elements of his character and history are discussed as they become relevant to the storyline. The people who are mentioned once or appear for just a short time each get their own annotations as well. Most of that information comes from census records from the late 1800s. Seeing the pictures of Cap Garland and Ida Brown, for example, reinforces the truth of Laura’s work. I find it incredible that Laura accurately retained the names of so many acquaintances for 50+ years between the events in her life and when she wrote them down! On the other hand, however, it disappointed me that Laura used her literary license for Mr. Edwards! Apparently no record of him exists. He is such a memorable character and so important to the fictional Ingalls family; maybe Laura combined several good-hearted neighbors her family had over the years to create Mr. Edwards. At least I can hope so. Likewise, Nellie Oleson is also a created character, although Laura stated that she was based on a couple of her schoolmates. I would love to know if the real-life version ever read Laura’s books and saw herself! (Hill mentions that there is no record that she did.)
- Historical context is important in two time periods: when the story took place (1870s-80s) and when the story was written (1930s). Hill makes sure to include pertinent information about the Depression and events surrounding Laura’s writing. For example, the overall theme of the Little House books deals with the pioneering American spirit, something that people dealing with the economy of the early 20th century would have related to as they pulled themselves out of the Depression. Hill also mentions other popular writers of Laura’s childhood, including Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott.
- Hill uses the annotations to discuss the editorial changes that the Pioneer Girl manuscript went through during its various editions as Rose and Laura worked to find a publisher. I found much of this information fascinating; different editors obviously had different visions for the final product and their changes reflect that.
- I enjoyed reading the rough outline of Laura’s life; different stories reminded me of the ones that ended up in the Little House books, while others gave me insight into Laura’s life that I didn’t previously have. Since Laura ultimately wrote her story for children, she made decisions to leave out certain scarier/more adult issues (i.e. a would-be rapist, the family’s financial difficulties). Seeing the reality of Laura’s life shows both how her stories are not quite nonfiction, but also are an accurate depiction of her experiences. However, as Laura’s character ages and matures, so do the circumstances with which she is forced to deal.
- I can’t decide whether it’s more impressive that Laura wrote her entire memoir in so few pages or that she expanded it to fill eight books! I enjoyed seeing how one short paragraph can turn into an entire chapter—Laura’s experience in writing for newspapers served her well in being succinct. From the pages of Pioneer Girl, however, you can see the writing style that made Little House famous was already evident; Laura learned quickly how to develop from a newspaper contributor to a full-fledged novelist
- I guess somewhere in my head I knew that the Little House books couldn’t be exactly true, but since I read them so young and so often, I had a hard time admitting that. I read a biography of Laura sometime in middle school probably and was incensed that the author didn’t get the facts right! As an adult, I can see that the reality is that no one’s life progresses in such a way that follows the perfect narrative plot, complete with rising action and overarching themes. Hill’s annotations point out how Laura moved some events around, condensed others, and carefully crafted characters to fit better into the big picture.
- Many letters passed between Laura and Rose as they discussed the manuscript of the novels. Rose, as the more experienced author, suggested to her mother how events could be altered to fit the pioneering theme more effectively. Laura understood eventually that she was making “fiction from nonfiction.” All of the lovely description that fills the pages of the Little House books probably isn’t exactly true, but that is what makes the stories memorable. It would be interesting to read the entirety of the correspondence between Laura and Rose (as I’m sure Hill did) to see how the women worked together to polish Laura’s biography into part of the American children’s canon.
- The “big” theme of the Little House books is the pioneering spirit of the Ingalls family and how they lived the American dream of “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” so to speak. One thing that I enjoyed learning from reading Pioneer Girl is that the Ingalls family wasn’t quite as alone as is depicted in the novels. Once the fictional Ingalls family leaves the Big Woods, they have very little contact with any of their relatives ever again. The reality is far from that. The real Ingalls family lived fairly close to several of their relatives and saw them on multiple occasions. I admit that this revelation made me feel much better about Laura’s childhood! The independent, isolated, enterprising, frontier-facing family makes for a much better American dream archetype than one surrounded by helpful friends and relatives.
I LOOOOOVE the Little House books. I clearly remember my mom reading the series to me starting when I was around four years old. I conservatively estimate that I have read those nine books 20 times each—I can practically quote them. But when I heard about Pioneer Girl’s publication, I hesitated to read it. I knew I would either love it, my beloved Little House books, and Laura Ingalls Wilder even more, or it would ruin it all for me. I decided to risk it, and I have to say that it was a good choice! I worried that my image of Laura would be shattered, that I would find out everything was made up and/or elaborated, and I would have to find something else to read to my kids. However, the editor did an excellent job of revealing the creative process and making sure the reader understands that while Laura used her experiences as the basis for her stories, the reality is that it is “not a history but a true story founded on historical fact” (p. 328). Not every detail can be accounted for, but the events did occur, and most of them can be proven. Not every story is told in the exact order in which it happened, and some characters are imagined and added, but the overall effect and goal is to illustrate the pioneering American spirit of the 19th century.
I would encourage adult fans of the Little House books to read this one. Since it’s an annotated text, reading it is a little difficult as you have to skip around between the original text and the notes from the editor. If you haven’t read the original books, I don’t think this one would keep your attention very long!
Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:
My Rating: A
- Obviously, not as good as my Little House books, but definitely enlightening.
- A must read for Laura Ingalls Wilder-o-philes. 🙂
Clean Factor: A
- Yes, there are seedier scenes than in the children’s books, but still very clean.
- Only if your book club has read the Little House books!
- Lots of talking points though.