Review: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder & Pamela Smith Hill

 By far and away, this was the book that I was most excited to receive for Christmas – although due to a very silly date of publication, it didn’t actually turn up until a few weeks later.  Since I first discovered that the Little House series was based upon an adult memoir, I looked high and low for the original.  Surely in the age of the internet, it would be available somewhere?  But no.  It was not until now, almost sixty years after Wilder’s death, that it has finally found a readership but it was well worth the wait.  Pioneer Girl has not just been shoved out as an afterthought or worse a gimmicky publicity stunt – Pamela Smith Hill has done a masterful job in editing and annotating this to bring Laura’s story to a new level, a new audience and a whole new understanding of Laura herself.

I read the first Little House book as a five year-old and have re-read one or other of them every year since but am always surprised by how few other people have.  Being a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder seems to be regarded as akin to liking The Archers, knitting and other grannyish pursuits (i.e. check, check and check for me).  The overly wholesome Little House on the Prairie tv series did not exactly help though with Melissa Gilbert and company skipping around ‘Walnut Grove’ and Learning Lessons About Life – to be clear, every episode I have ever seen of this show left me bristling with Reader Rage.  Laura Ingalls was a very early heroine for me – when there was a blizzard, she got not just one or two logs into the house, but the entire woodpile.  Laura’s adventures were rooted in the real world but set in a world utterly different to my own – I was hooked right from the very beginning.  Forget Cowboys and Indians, I used to play at being Laura.

Laura and her sisters

Wilder’s writing always seemed to celebrate and honour the work of women; although Laura herself told her future husband Almanzo that she did not wish to vote, time and again her writing emphasises the hard work of keeping up a home, a family and a life under the harsh conditions of the frontier.  My mother always recalled the way that Laura’s mother would iron her daughters’ dresses even if she had to do it in the wagon itself – standards had to be maintained.  The Ingalls family were never idle, always had a task to do and a song to sing while they went about it and no matter how hard the situation, they came through it together.

Yet while Laura’s Ma, Pa and sisters were familiar figures, I had always had an uneasy view of Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane.  She was not born until the events of Laura’s last book, The First Four Years, a story which was left unfinished due to Wilder’s death and then Rose herself took over the reins of the narration which I found even stranger.  To me, Rose felt like an interloper.  Worse still, as I got older and read more about her, I discovered the theory that Wilder had only contributed the outline of the Little House series and that the majority had been written by Lane.  Cue bristling of Reader Rage once again.  Rose Wilder Lane became fixed in my mind as a bossyboots who tried to snatch away her mother’s glory and who Spoiled Things.  Yet through reading this book, I realised that although absent from the events, Rose’s part in the story is just as integral as Ma or Mary – or indeed any of the other characters.  Rose is another pioneer girl, but the frontier she pioneered was a literary one.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

The lengthy preface details the process via which Pioneer Girl came to be written, how an idea that seems to have ‘simmered’ in Wilder’s mind for twenty-odd years finally came to fruition.  The death of Laura’s beloved Pa seems to have first inspired her but it was not until twenty years later when Mary died too that Wilder seems to have decided to take the bull by the horns and actually put her memories down on paper.  By this point though, it was her daughter who had the established and ‘successful’ literary career and Rose seems to have had a briskly patronising attitude towards her mother’s writing, claiming that her mother sought ‘prestige rather than money’ and giving it all her trademark ruthless edit.  More hurtfully, as Pioneer Girl struggled to find a publisher – squatting uncomfortably with no clear market – Lane unabashedly pillaged her mother’s work for interesting events which she then re-fashioned into adult novels of her own.  Lane made it clear that she regarded her mother’s child-oriented memoirs as ‘lesser’ than her own writing, but her most successful adult fiction was based on events borrowed from her mother’s life.  Now who’s copying who?

What Hill also made clear in the preface was how distinctive Laura’s own voice as a writer was, making it clear how far the story truly was her own rather than one picked over by her daughter. Reading Pioneer Girl felt at times a slightly eerie shift in perspective, catching snatches of Laura but this time in the first person.  It was very comforting to settle back into the familiar cadence of Wilder’s prose; in These Happy Golden Years, Wilder told of how as a teenager, she was marked highly for the very first composition she ever wrote and it is obvious that she was a naturally highly talented writer.  Still, tonally speaking, Pioneer Girl is a very different book to its siblings.  We have a far greater sense of Laura’s position as a child surrounded by adults, of the snippets of overheard and only half-understood adult conversation and the grimmer realities of life in a land that is still making up its rules.  From suggestions of possible adultery, elopement, a woman’s apparent death seeking an abortion – life on the prairie was nowhere near as squeaky clean as Melissa Gilbert would have had you believe.  Most terrifying of all was when the ten year-old Laura was sent to help the Masters family whose mother was ill and woke up to find the father standing over her with whiskey on his breath.  He told her to ‘lie down and be still’, she threatened to scream if he did not go away.  He did, and the next day Laura went back home to Ma.

Rose Wilder Lane

Yet more than anything, else, this book makes clear that Wilder’s work was a dialogue between mother and daughter, not only through Hill’s copious annotations concerning revisions but also through the text itself.  There are various points in the manuscript which are directly addressed to Rose herself, including one in the midst of a description of the prairie in spring:

In June the wild roses bloomed.  They were a low-growing bush and, when in bloom the blossoms made masses of wonderful color, all shades of pink, all over the prairie.  And the sweetest roses that ever bloomed.
(You are their namesake, my dear.)

Rose today is a forgotten writer aside from her relation to her mother and even in her own lifetime, she was criticised for falsifying facts to make a better story (quite a serious fault for a biographer) but Pioneer Girl seemed to bring a softer side of Rose to the fore and it gave the book itself a very warm core.  It feels very fitting that I received this book from my own mother.

Probably one of the main reasons why I have always loved Wilder’s books so much all my life is that is essentially a series of stories about someone’s family.  I love stories about people’s families – having heard Laura’s stories from when I was so little, I sometimes have to think about it to separate them out from the mythology which comes from my maternal grandparents who both grew up on farms.  This is actually true and has happened; aged seven, I was half way through explaining how Father Christmas had visited my Grandma when she was a little girl when I remembered that this was something that had happened to Laura instead.  Oddly enough, my Grandma has written a few things about her childhood and early life and tonally speaking, I do find her writing reminiscent of Wilder.  A lot of stories made reappearances in Pioneer Girl but the tone of them often felt very different, written as wry reminiscences rather than a linear story.

L to R: Caroline, Carrie, Laura, Charles, Grace, Mary

In the afterword, Hill noted that Wilder’s genuine talents as a writer are often dismissed by those who claim that she only wrote what happened in her own life but Hill makes it clear how much thought she put into crafting a streamlined story.  The fictional Ingalls family were not the same as the one that Laura grew up in, their story was guided carefully to fit the requirements of a good story and although Wilder felt her responsibility in using the names of real people, she was not afraid to alter the facts.  The three tough years during which her baby brother died and her sister Mary went blind did not serve the story and so were discarded.  Laura had two dolls rather than one and prefered one called Roxie over Charlotte.  Jack the Dog did not remain the family’s beloved and loyal companion until death but was instead sold along with some horses – this was a bit of a kicker given that his first disappearance, return and eventual death were all very emotional for me.  Clearly effective writing but reading all this now, I do feel slightly manipulated all those years ago!

However, although Lane advised her mother to drop the part about Mary going blind, Wilder argued against it, pointing out that the whole course of the family changed after that.  A major goal within the series is the battle to raise the funds to send Mary to the College for the Blind, this was why Laura went out to teach.  I was fascinated though by the lengthy discussion on how to explain Mary’s blindness; Wilder was herself hazy on the details after all those years and thought it might have been due to a stroke; so mother and daughter settled on blaming scarlet fever, partly inspired by Beth’s fate in Little Women.  That’s right, we can blame Louisa Alcott for that one.

Illustration from The Long Winter

I was most surprised though to read that during The Long Winter, there were three other people in the house with the Ingalls family.  When the blizzards broke out, Pa and Ma had given shelter to a young couple who had recently gone through a shotgun wedding, George and Maggie, and then shortly (very shortly) afterwards, they had a baby.  Half a century on, we sense Wilder’s pursed lips as she recalls how the two failed to help around the house, how George stayed in bed til nine while Pa was working chopping wood or later simply twisting straw to make a fire.  The rest of the family would ration themselves so Maggie and the baby could have more food but George would bound to the pan of potatoes and stuff himself before anybody else, becoming a byword for selfishness ever afterward.  Again, she reminds me of my Grandma.

Reading this, I winced and thought that this sounded even worse than the original, but I can see how George and Maggie failed to make the cut to get into fiction.  As the annotations point out, The Long Winter is a story of a isolation, starvation and being pushed to one’s limits (the town is cut off and stuck in perpetual blizzards for seven months).  The Ingalls family sticks together throughout it all.  Three interlopers would only have undermined that – and as Wilder notes, if she had re-written George and Maggie to be better than they were, it would have detracted from the heroism of Cap Garland and Laura’s eventual husband Almanzo Wilder who went after the grain to save the town from starving.  Yet still, I had to laugh along with Rose when Hill explained that the publishers rejected Wilder’s initial title of The Hard Winter as ‘too depressing’ for young readers – as Lane exclaimed incredulously, if people were depressed by the title, how on earth did they expect to get through the book?  Even Wilder confessed that writing it had been ‘trying’, in having to relive such harrowing events.

Laura and Almanzo

Laura’s courtship with her husband Almanzo also takes place in a different way in Pioneer Girl.  Hill’s annotations detail Wilder’s uncertainty on how to write it, as well as some of Lane’s personal observations about her parents’ clearly very loving marriage – Wilder always seemed very shy about presenting this more personal side of herself but her love for her husband does sneak through (similarities to my Grandma once more abound).  Yet, unlike the fiction series, the real life Laura heads out to events with other young men until she decides that actually, Almanzo is the one for her.  Again, we have more of a sense of Laura herself growing up and growing in confidence in Pioneer Girl – it feels less structured in many ways but yet there is a keener sense of Laura the person rather than Laura the reader-proxy.  This is a memoir of Laura Ingalls rather than a series of books that allow young girls to imagine themselves into prairie life – the purpose is different and so it feels different too.

I have read Pioneer Girl to the end now but I would hesitate to say that I finished it.  With so many footnotes, annotations and appendices, this is no just-read-once kind of book and I preferred to get the flow of Wilder’s words and then go back over it again to pick up the references.  Hill has been exhaustive in chasing down virtually every named person from the text and providing their background history and later fate.  Wherever possible photos have been provided of the main players, pictures of the various artefacts – the detail is truly extraordinary.  I am pretty certain that this is the most impressive book that I own – my very first coffee table book.  Although if anybody drinks coffee anywhere near it I may very well throw a hissy fit – it is so very pretty as is.  Books that I Treasure may take a bashing but this is more of a book that I Revere.  I read a review somewhere that likened Pioneer Girl to the forthcoming Go Tell A Watchman, implying that as an unfinished draft, this book is of a lesser quality than the original material and so not worth reading.  I don’t know what Harper Lee’s new book will be like but I think that whoever that was has missed the point of Pioneer Girl – we have here the most in-depth analysis possible of the background behind Little House on a Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder herself.

Pamela Smith Hill’s annotations underline that Wilder was a true artist – Hill has worked with exacting and scholarly standards without ever seeming dry or didactic .  Without Hill, Pioneer Girl would have been an interesting companion piece, with her annotations though, it becomes something else entirely – part biography, part memoir, part literary analysis but whatever else, it is an essential read for anyone who has ever longed to fling off their bonnet, let their braids fly out behind them and go scampering across the prairie – eg. me – but I really doubt that I am alone on absolutely loving this one.  This book is a real labour of love, confirming once again that this is what was always at the heart of Little House in the first place.

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Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published by South Dakota State Historical Society Press on 2014
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Historical, Women, History, United States, 19th Century
Pages: 400
ISBN: 9780984504176

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4 thoughts on “Review: Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder & Pamela Smith Hill

  1. I'm also a fan of Wilder's writing and will definitely look this one up. Early drafts can be fascinating! I'm glad this has been given the treatment it deserves.

  2. It really has – the annotations have been done with a great deal of research and respect. Will look forward to hearing what you think of it – I know this is going to be a book that I'll enjoy looking at time and again. Happy May Day!

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