*Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder (edited by Pamela Smith Hill). University of South Dakota Press, sale 2014. 400 pages.
Bottom Line: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own account of her growing-up years shows how life became art and is a must for fans of the Little House series.
It’s extremely rare for a 400-page scholarly work published by a university press to achieve best-seller status—but still, the University of South Dakota should have been better prepared. The original 15,000-copy print run of Pioneer Girl sold out while still warm from the press, and two subsequent printings have failed to meet the demand. Laura Ingalls Wilder fans are legion, and this is the first time her personal account, handwritten on Big Chief tablets in 1930, has seen print in its original unaltered form, with spelling errors and excised material intact. The handsome volume is beautifully produced and crammed with photos, illustrations from Garth Williams and Helen Sewell, and footnotes. Lots and lots of footnotes, added by editor Pamela Smith Hill. That’s the annotated part, shedding all the light a LIW fan could ever wish while exploring the life and times of a woman who in her own life “represented a whole period of American History.”
Laura is more than a representative; she’s a friend to generations of girls (and boys) who grew up with the fictionalized version of Pioneer Girl. Editor Hill shows how the memoir, which Laura’s daughter unsuccessfully marketed to publishers, eventually formed the primary source material both for the Little House books and for two adult novels by Rose Wilder Lane. Art diverges from life in many instances: dates shifted, characters combined, subtle shades of difference between the actual family members and the fictionalized ones. At times, life imposed itself on art. In one instance, Laura and her daughter disagreed on whether to include Mary’s going blind in By the Shores of Silver Lake. As everyone knows, Laura prevailed: “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life,” she wrote in a letter to Rose, “and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.” Much of the media reporting focuses on the raw elements of Laura’s childhood, including murder, an illicit love affair, and an odd event when the teenage Laura was awakened by a male boarder standing over her bed. But none of this is told in a lurid way; in the context, it’s simply life among flawed humans.
The book is pricey (cover price $39.95–or you can order it for $25 from Amazon and wait for a delivery next month). But if you’re a Wilder fan, you will at least want to join the waiting list at your local library. Pioneer Girl is invaluable not only for digging into the roots of one of our favorite stories, but also understanding how experience shapes art—and vice versa. I tell school groups and writing classes that every person on earth has all the material they need to write about, and that is simply human experience, both the dramatic and the humdrum. That’s all Laura had, and Pioneer Girl shows what a treasure it was.
Cautions: none for the recommended age level
Overall Value: 5 (out of 5)
- Worldview value: 5
- Artistic value: 5
Categories: Nonfiction, Life Issues, Young Adult, Adults, Starred Review, Classics, American History
Cover image from Amazon