Before Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book in the Little House on the Prairie series, perhaps before she even thought of writing her story in that format, she wrote her family’s history out in a draft called Pioneer Girl on Big Chief tablets by hand. She gave it to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, an established, well-known author at the time, to edit and shape up for publication. They made several attempts to have it published as a non-fiction book for adults, with no success. But that’s just as well, because if it had been published as it was, we likely would not have the Little House series.
Laura could not have known, when her first book was published in 1932, that years later people would diligently seek out information about her family, visit her family homes, try to discern fact from fiction, and have debates over whether she or her daughter wrote most of the books. To deal with some of these issues and bring Laura’s first book to light, Pamela Smith Hill edited and annotated Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, which I am sure will be the definitive source on everything Laura Ingalls Wilder for years to come.
Hill did an amazingly through job. There are footnotes concerning every single person mentioned in the book all the way down to the flowers Laura referred to and the kind of crabs that nipped at Nellie Oleson’s toes. But my favorite notes are the ones that cite correspondence between Laura and Rose about the book or tell how an incident was phrased or expanded upon in the different manuscripts and the Little House books.
I mentioned the debate about authorship: some scholars (both professional and armchair) feel that Laura wrote the text and Rose just edited it for print and used her contacts to get the first book published. Others feel that Rose was basically a ghost-writer for the series, and, though the main story is Laura’s, Rose was the real writer. I’ve always believed it was closer to the former situation myself, and I think this book and the annotations confirm that. Rose was more involved than the average editor, and there was some collaboration, but the voice is definitely Laura’s. In many of their cited letters where there was a difference of opinion about what to include or how to frame a scene, Laura’s reasoning won out most, perhaps all the time.
Hill begins with the history of how Pioneer Girl came to be written, its search for a publisher, Rose’s involvement, and the different manuscripts that developed from it at different times. Then the text of Pioneer Girl itself is presented, with multiple annotations, photos, and maps. Finally, four appendices include a manuscript of “Juvenile Pioneer Girl” that Rose rewrote for children.
There is so much to this book and I have noted so many points of interest, it’s hard to narrow it all down and decide what to share. It’s a large book: 9 1/4″ wide, 10″ long, and 1 18″ thick. It’s a gorgeous book: the front cover is just lovely, and there are numerous photos of Laura’s family and the places and things she writes about. It’s a historic book not just about Laura’s family, but also about the times and culture in which she lived.
But I wouldn’t call it a page turner, except in parts. Obviously the final Little House books are much better because the book went through five different revisions even before being turned into what became the Little House novels, and an incident that may have taken a page or two in Pioneer Girl was often expanded into a chapter in the final novels. Some readers might not want to read every single footnote and annotation. I did want to, because I have read so much about Wilder in the last few years, but I’ll admit sometimes it was a little tedious, and some notes were much more interesting than others. But overall I really did enjoy delving into all the minutia as well as Laura’s first attempts at a book.
I think I’ll share some points of interest by way of list:
- There is much made of the fact that Laura got dates, names, and even her age at certain times wrong occasionally. But she didn’t start writing this book until she was in her sixties. I’m only in my fifties, and I can’t say for sure I’d know what incident from my childhood happened what year and how old I was at the time. Plus she didn’t have the resources we have now, and many of her family members she would have conferred with had passed on. So that doesn’t bother me.
- She did, however, deliberately fictionalize some sections by the time she got to the LH books. Hill cites the reasons why where known. Sometimes it’s because she felt it would make a better story. For instance, during The Long Winter (referred to as the Hard Winter here), there was actually another family living with the Ingalls, a young couple and baby. The man was evidently lazy and selfish, and though Laura wrote about them in this book, she decided to leave them out of the LH books as they would distract from rather than advance the story. Also, in the scene in By the Shores of Silver Lake where Pa takes Laura to see the men working on building the railroad never happened, but framing it through the fictional Laura’s eyes seemed the best way to tell it for young readers.
- She left out some parts because they didn’t fit “in the picture I am making of the…family” (p. 95, note 99). Besides, probably no one tells all in an autobiography.
- I’m sorry to say I have never liked Rose. Some years ago I picked up a book about her (I forget which one), not knowing anything about her except that she was Laura’s daughter, and found she was quite a different person from her mother. What I read about her here only confirmed my initial impressions. “Lane had built her professional career by fictionalizing what she published as non-fiction…[She] wrote what was presented to her audience as ‘true’ stories, but they were loosely based on interviews and factual material that Lane embellished or re-imagined to heighten their market appeal” (p. xxx). “Henry Ford repudiated the biography Lane wrote about him for its inaccuracies, and [Charlie] Chaplin was apparently so outraged at the literary liberties she had taken…that he threatened to bring legal action” (p. xxxi). “Her aim was to get ‘at the truth rather than at the facts'” – as if you can bring forth truth from falsehood (p. xxxi). Plus she took information from her mother’s material to write her own fictionalized novel, Let the Hurricane Roar – without her mother’s knowledge or consent.
- It may seem inconsistent that I’m ok with Laura’s fictionalizing but not Rose’s. But Laura’s were minor for the most part, and she argued with Rose quite a bit about maintaining historical accuracy. And the LH books were presented as fictionalized accounts of her family, whereas PG was non-fiction. Rose took her fictionalizing way too far and presented it as fact..
- It’s interesting that though Rose was the “famous author” then, she is nowhere nearly as well known as her mother now, and I think people who do read her now do so because of interest in her mother.
- One of the reasons Laura wrote was to preserve her father’s stories (p. 37, note 42). Expanding on the details of how the family lived came after a suggestion from an editor (p. 31, note 26). But also, “As she told the Detroit Book Fair audience in 1937, ‘I realized that I had seen and lived it all–all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history'” (p. liv).
- Nellie Oleson was based on a composite of three different girls in Laura’s life.
- Laura couldn’t spell very well — odd since she was a teacher and even wrote of competing well in spelling bees. Then again, this was a rough draft written by hand. Probably she was just getting the information out there to shape up later.
- I’ve often wondered exactly what Laura’s religious beliefs were. I think you could safely say the family was God-fearing in the old sense that they believed in God and the Bible generally, but one can do that and still not have trusted Christ for salvation from one’s own sins. But she had a heightened sense that religion was a private matter, so she doesn’t spell it out: she speaks of someone who testified “at prayer meeting every Wednesday night. It someway offended my sense of privacy. It seemed to me that the things between one and God should be between him and God like loving ones [sic] mother. One didn’t go around saying, ‘I love my mother, she has been so good to me.’ One just loved her and did things she liked one to do” (p. 136). These days one might speak of one’s mother in such a way, but maybe it wasn’t done then. I’ve written and mused more about Laura’s faith at Saving Graces: The Inspirational Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
- One section that is troubling to modern readers in Little Town on the Prairie is when a group of men, including Pa, dress up in blackface and perform minstrel songs. Hill has a good section explaining how it was viewed at the time, saying that “Before the American Civil War, many abolitionists embraced minstrelsy as a way to reach a broader American audience, and some minstrel troupes performed songs with distinctly abolitionist themes” (p. 254, note 62). It was not considered offensive then, though it is now.
- Laura’s a little slow to warm up to Almanzo’s overtures, but I love when she says that after he had been away for three months, “I hadn’t known that I missed him, but it was good to see him again, gave me a homelike feeling” (p. 297).
- Laura seemed to share her father’s urge to go West, saying on one trip that they were “going in the direction which always brought the happiest changes” (p. 145). But one of the most touching parts of the book for me came at the end, just after Laura and Almanzo were married, when she concluded: “I was a little awed by my new estate, but I felt very much at home and very happy and among other causes for happiness was the thought that I would not again have to go and live with strangers in their houses. I had a house and a home of my own” (p. 324).
I’m very thankful to Pamela Smith Hill and the South Dakota State Historical Society for publishing this book with all of the historical information it contains. It is truly a treasure.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)