*Today, welcome my friend Melissa R. Smith, who’s reviewing a book I am just itching to read … post contains affiliate links.
LAURA INGALLS WILDER, PIONEER GIRL: THE ANNOTATED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Pamela Smith Hill, editor
Either you love the TV show, Little House on the Prairie, or you don’t. There’s really not much middle ground. I don’t. It took me a Master’s Degree in History, a lot of years and two little boys to entertain one long autumn while awaiting a move to another house, much like the Ingalls family, before I took up the Little House series and began to read aloud.
To this day, I don’t really remember why I did it. I was pretty sure that if the books were anything like the TV show, my two rough and tumble sons wouldn’t want anything to do with prissy old Nellie Oleson and it wouldn’t matter that Laura didn’t like her either. Much to my surprise, however, my boys listened, wide-eyed, at the adventures and struggles of the Ingalls family in the Big Woods, on the Prairie, always travelling west and farther west. Much to my surprise, the Little House Books were wonderful. Even better, they weren’t an insult to my historical sensibilities either. They rang true—yes, there was sentiment, but not very much sap!
Midwestern lady journalist Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoir Pioneer Girl was written for her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in the 1920s. Hoping to remember the people and places that had shaped her, especially her much-beloved father, Wilder invested great care to make her memoir lively and accurate. It was meant to serve as a family history. Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls and a popular author herself, helped her mother prepare the manuscript, hopeful in the early years of the Great Depression, that her mother’s recollections would be marketable and find publication.
Although the original manuscript, and several subsequent revised versions of Pioneer Girl, never found a publisher, the recollections of 63 year old Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer childhood from the Big Woods of Wisconsin, onto the Indian Lands of Prairie Kansas to the Railroad towns of South Dakota became the backbone of the entire Little House series. Although the original was intended for an adult audience, the lack of a paying publisher induced Laura Ingalls Wilder to fashion a series of children’s books that were pioneering efforts in and of themselves. Laura removed the “adult” storylines like two neighbors who ran away together leaving distraught spouses at home. Although many readers assume that the Little House tales are entirely factual, they are in truth a fictionalized memoir. The adult Laura Ingalls Wilder took her Pioneer Girl manuscript, gave her life story vision, focused it, and created a coherent Little House World of the resilient insular and self-reliant pioneer family. Laura is still Laura, only more so.
One of the most interesting aspects of this annotated autobiography can be found in the insights into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing methods and style. With a clarity and true understanding of how to make the story come alive on the page, she amended and improved the individuals in her life to create more memorable, archetypal characters. Dang that Nellie Oleson , a composite of all the selfish, greedy girls that Laura met over many years of small town living. And of course, none of those girls looked a bit their their TV counterpart. But Nellie is so much more memorable for having been written in concentrated form.
Pamela Smith Hill, editor of the Pioneer Girl manuscript, has done something unique and amazing with the memoir. Through hundreds of annotations, she provides a wealth of information, images, notes, and research tidbits on every aspect of Pioneer Girl. She gives the modern reader insights on the accuracy of Wilder’s memories, the timeline, location, songs, books, maps, travels, challenges and struggles of the historically real Ingalls family. I had as much fun reading all the annotations as the actual manuscript itself! Hill went to the trouble to verify every name Wilder mentions on census records, identify every photo of the Ingalls neighbors, and to let us know where and when Wilder deviated from her memory to make the story more interesting in her published books.
I’m sure there are Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there who might dismiss me as less than a hard-core Little House fan. They would certainly be right. But there are few who will dismiss this annotated autobiography. It’s full of interesting historical and biographical details. I have to admit, I did get a guilty pleasure in seeing actual photographs of the Ingalls family. Pa didn’t look at all like Michael Landon. Ma had her picture taken with a high back comb and a fancy dress, not at all like Karen Grassle’s silly bonnet and blouse. In a family portrait of the girls, Laura is clearly self-conscious about her plain, homespun dress, identical to sister Mary’s dress.
If you have ever thought about what your pioneer ancestors might have thought or written had they possessed the time or energy to write it all down, you will love Pioneer Girl. The book is full of insights and commentary, both from the original author herself, and the modern editor. Like the chinking between the logs in the Little House in the Big Woods, there isn’t a hole left unfilled with some sort of interesting tidbit.
I began my journey with Laura Ingalls years ago, reading her books aloud to my little boys. The boys aren’t so little anymore. I still couldn’t resist and found myself reading the best bits and pieces of Pioneer Girl to them aloud while we were making our own trek across the prairie to visit family. It had a very Little House sort of feel . But who could resist reading to them about the blizzards that came one after another, howling across South Dakota during the Hard Winter; about the green-sky of the tornado that destroyed a neighbor’s house, only to drop the door into the yard hours later, long after the storm had moved on. Of course, now that my sons are closer in age to Almanzo and Laura’s courting years, we had some fun discussions about courting, which isn’t done much anymore by driving your girl about the county with wild horses pulling the sleigh. And we discovered that the methods in which Laura’s teachers disciplined her students is long since gone. Kind of makes you think about our own days and what our grandchildren will think of us.
If you’re wanting a TV tie-in, this isn’t the book for you. This book is simultaneously about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s vision and voice, her “historical truth” as she called it. Pamela Smith Hill is a welcome addition tagging along in her own wagon across the prairie, helping keep us city-folk in line with the historical reality that keeps it all alive today.
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