I think I read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books when I was a kid and I watched the TV show for at least a few years when it ran. While I enjoyed the novels and the TV show, I don’t remember re-reading or re-watching them, so I am what you might call a casual fan as opposed to a fanatic. Still, when I read last summer that the “true story” of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life — in her own words — was being published, I was curious. The first time I checked the Amazon web site, Pioneer Girl had not yet been released but was available for pre-order; then when I checked again in November, I saw that it was already on back order. Stories have run on NPR and in Slate about the unexpected popularity of Pioneer Girl and how its publisher, South Dakota Historical Society Press, was completely unprepared for it. I received my copy (directly from SDHS Press) a week ago, and I was impressed. It is a beautifully compiled book. In addition to the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, editor Pamela Smith Hill provides a thoughtful and well-researched Introduction as well as copious, fascinating footnotes that flesh out the text. The actual text of Pioneer Girl runs somewhere around 150 pages; the annotated version, including Appendices, runs 370. Lovers of the novels and those interested in the history of Western expansion will revel in Pioneer Girl.
Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing her autobiography sometime in early 1930. She had retired from a successful career as a newspaper woman and was living with her husband Manly in a nice little house just down the road from her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a successful writer in her own right. For Laura, this was an opportunity to preserve the memory of the stories her father had told while she and her sisters were growing up. She had hoped, with Rose’s help, to get her autobiography “Pioneer Girl” published in serialized form in a national magazine, but despite Rose’s connections in the publishing industry, there were no takers for the manuscript as either a series of articles or a non-fiction book. As the Great Depression took its toll on Laura and Rose’s finances, Rose worked on re-writing the manuscript and promoting it while Laura, at Rose’s suggestion, worked on turning Pioneer Girl into juvenile fiction. The rest, as they say, is history, but this process of getting the novels written and published, the dynamic between mother and daughter in accomplishing that, is a fascinating story in and of itself. Pioneer Girl served as the basis not just for Laura’s novels, but also for some books and short stories that Rose wrote as well. The relationship between the two women could have become explosive, and yet they seem to understand and respect one another, with Laura in particular really coming into her own as a fiction writer.
The actual text of Pioneer Girl will be recognizable as a skeleton of the Little House series. As a stand alone piece — without benefit of the previous novels or the editor’s footnotes — I think it would be of limited interest to many readers. The text jumps quickly from story to story, often without much detail or context. Laura frequently is confused with chronology and historical facts, which is not surprising when you consider that she was writing about events some 60 years in her past (to her credit, she did try to research facts and make her novels as historically accurate as possible). As other reviews have noted, Pioneer Girl does include some stories that did not make it into the juvenile fiction novels. For example, stories of drunken neighbors and their acts of violence (shooting at a wife, accidentally setting oneself on fire) appear in Pioneer Girl but not the Little House novels.
… Dr. Hoyt would get whiskey somewhere and give it to Will so that he was drunk most of the time. Pa said he was trying to help Will drink himself to death so that his wife Matie would get all their father’s property.
Laura also left the birth and death of her little brother Freddie out of her novels but covered it in Pioneer Girl. For her novels, Laura also changed other parts of family history, created characters, and put herself at the heart of events that she did not witness in order to make her novels better reads for her audience. (Point of interest: Nellie Oleson was not a real person but a combination of several people whom Laura knew.) So, on the whole, Pioneer Girl provides a unique point of view and some interesting reflections on daily life among settlers in the American West, but it is rather episodic.
In the footnotes and appendices, however, some of the most interesting information is found. Editor Hill and the South Dakota Historical Society staff have unearthed some amazing information about the Ingalls family, their neighbors, the environment in which they settled, and the events that Laura describes. They provide a much larger and more detailed context for Pioneer Girl and published the manuscript, Laura and Rose’s dream! While some footnotes can be a bit dry (there’s a lot of census information regarding neighbors and relatives mentioned in the text — verifying their existence or indicating that such people could not be found), others provide some truly revelatory information. For example, footnotes in the section of Pioneer Girl called “Kansas and Missouri, 1869-1871,” examine the Ingalls family’s decision to move away from the Osage lands that they had illegally settled. Did they expect to be evicted by US soldiers? Or were they going to have to pay more for the land than they had expected once the Osage sold it to the railroad company? Or did they need to return to their unoccupied farm in Wisconsin? In Little House on the Prairie, Pa says that he wouldn’t have moved to the lands if politicians hadn’t encouraged them to, but that eventually, white people will settle the whole country. In Appendix C. “The Gordon Party,” we learn that Ma’s brother Thomas Quiner was part of a group of men who illegally settled territory in the Black Hills, staked claims and found gold; once the government opened the territory to settlement, they would have beaten the rush. They did not expect US soldiers to evict them from their settlement, burn it to the ground, and arrest them.
Some wonderful photographs, maps and drawings are presented throughout the book as well. Photos of the Ingalls family and other characters known from the Little House novels really bring the text alive. Photos from the horrible winter of 1880-81 make you feel bad for complaining about any snow you’ve had this year. It’s obvious that the people involved in putting this book together did an enormous amount of work and probably loved what they did. Pioneer Girl gives us Laura Ingalls Wilder’s voice, her real family stories as she might have told them to others, and it gives us accurate facts and supplemental information to place them in context. By the way, today, February 8th, 2015, would have been Laura’s 148th birthday!