Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. South Dakota Historical Society Press (2014), 448 pages.

Laura wrote this autobiography in 1930, and tried unsuccessfully for many years to get it published; this is the first time it has seen print. As it’s never been through the editorial process with a publisher, one should not expect this story to be polished: it should be enjoyed as merely an initial draft. Much of the book reads like a long letter that a grandmother might write to her grandchildren (in fact, there are many personal notes to her daughter embedded into the autobiography, such as, “You probably remember the dress I’m referring to here”).  Instead, one should read this primarily for the extensive and scholarly annotations by the world’s premier Laura expert, and for the historical illustrations, photos, maps, diagrams, etc.

But as an unpublished rough draft, this is surely one of the richest sources of raw material ever: it was the genesis of not only seven Little House books, but also numerous short stories and novels written by Rose Wilder Lane. Yes, while Rose was helping her mother find a publisher, she was also “borrowing” scenes, characters, and events for her own writing ventures. It’s quite shocking behavior from a daughter/editor, because publishers are less inclined to publish material that has already appeared in print. But such is the incredible richness of this material that it not only survived Rose’s poaching, but gave birth to seven separate books, four of which won the Newbery Award.  (One book that Rose successfully saw published centered on characters named Charles and Caroline, who grew wheat and dealt with blizzards and grasshoppers while living in a dugout. Laura did not know of this book’s existence until it appeared in print. She was not happy.)

A scene that fills only a few short lines or a paragraph in Pioneer Girl might be fleshed out to a chapter or more in the finished Little House books. Conversely, there is material in the autobiography that was completely left out of the children’s books.  And so we arrive at the unpleasant and contentious issue of the “truth” of the Little House books. Yes, Laura lied about a few things. I am deeply pained—even scarred—by a few revelations:

  • They didn’t keep Jack until he died of old age. Pa gave him away on the Kansas prairie; he wasn’t even with them on Plum Creek!
  • The Big Woods were not as lonely and massive and wild as depicted.
  • The Ingalls family was not alone in their house throughout the Long Winter: they were sharing their home with a young married couple with a newborn baby!

But despite the upsetting revelations, I maintain that the Little House books are mostly true. Most of what’s in there exists in some form in the Pioneer Girl autobiography, and a great many scenes are identical, even down to the dialogue.  Clearly, the books are slightly fictionalized versions of true stories, not outright fiction. I grew very, very weary of Hill, in her annotations, continually referring to the “fictional Laura” or the “fictional family,” or the “fictional Ingalls,” or “in fictionalizing this scene…”  Often I thought if I read the word “fictional” one more time I would lose all patience. Why the relentless insistence that the books are fictional? They’re obviously not! I’m actually far more disturbed by Pamela Hill’s use of this word than I am by Laura’s indiscretions.

I already knew, from Donald Zochert’s Laura and William Holtz’s The Ghost in the Little House, that Laura exaggerated her family’s self-reliance. For example, Silver Lake readers are told that Mary’s college was paid for entirely by the family’s hard work—primarily Laura’s teaching work. The truth is that Mary went to college on a government subsidy: Dakota Territory had no school for blind children, so the territory paid the Iowa College for the Blind. All blind children in Dakota were eligible to receive this. However, Laura and her Libertarian daughter/editor felt that emphasizing the Ingalls’s independence and Laura’s self-sacrifice was critical to the books, so this fact was omitted. I came to Pioneer Girl armed with such knowledge, so I was prepared to learn of a few other similar inconsistencies here and there. This does not make the entire series fiction. Pamela Hill should be ashamed of herself for attempting to brainwash readers into reclassifying the Little House books.

Moving on: Whether or not the 1930 autobiography appeals to you, this is must-read simply for the ancillary material.  Three of the photographs are worth the entire cost of the book: there’s a picture of Nellie with her family, and two photos of Clarence and Eva Huleatt, circa 1872. These were the children in the Big Woods whom Laura climbed trees with (she admired Clarence’s copper-toed shoes). The photographs are mesmerizing and the biographical details about what became of people later in life are fascinating. (Nellie’s entire family ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, where they lived until their deaths. Who knew?)

Two side notes:

  1. The cover art is ugly and misrepresents the book. This is a scholarly book and the cover should incorporate some of the original photos.
  2. A few of the annotations it must be said are a bit silly. I didn’t need a description of what a badger is. Another reviewer complained that reading the annotations is like being accosted in a bar by a drunk history professor who won’t stop talking. The situation isn’t quite that bad, but I love the analogy.