At least three different kinds of readers will find “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” a fascinating book: fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” stories, literary gossips, and writers and would-be writers who want to transform real-life experiences into fiction.
Wilder (1867-1957) was more than 60 years old when she started writing “Pioneer Girl,” an autobiographical account of her early years. Wilder had been a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist newspaper; her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful writer herself, encouraged Laura to write something more ambitious. Rose tried for several years to place her mother’s book with a publisher but couldn’t land a deal.
However, “Pioneer Girl” became the seedbed from which Wilder grew her “Little House” books, beginning with “Little House in the Big Woods” (1932), set in the area near Pepin, Wisconsin, where she was born. Her eight “Little House” novels are considered classic children’s literature today, and inspired the popular TV series (1974-83) starring Melissa Gilbert as Laura.
The South Dakota Historical Society’s annotated “Pioneer Girl,” edited by Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill, puts everything in context. Hill and her collaborators take pains to show what Wilder changed, and what she kept the same, in moving from autobiography to the “Little House” novels: “Precisely because the original draft of ‘Pioneer Girl’ lacks the depth, drama and detail of Wilder‘s novels, it illustrates how quickly she moved beyond nonfiction and how capably and imaginatively she embraced the unique challenges of writing fiction,” Hill writes.
Using census records and other period documents, Hill and company also try to track down every person mentioned in “Pioneer Girl,” with frequent success. (“Little House” fans will learn that Laura’s fictional rival Nellie Oleson was a composite, based on several stuck-up mean girls Wilder knew.)
“Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. (South Dakota State Historical Society)
This annotated edition is packed with images: photos of Wilder, her family, their friends, people they met, even the possible model for an Osage chief the Ingalls family met; maps of the various places where the Ingalls family lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri and the Dakota territory; manuscript pages of Wilder’s writing; even spot illustrations by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from early editions of the “Little House” novels.
“Pioneer Girl” is so thoroughly annotated that the casual reader may find it hard to read Wilder’s text straight through: It’s too tempting to stop and read the notes.
In describing the history of “Pioneer Girl” in her introductory essay, Hill also addresses the complex and much-speculated-about relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose as writers. William Holtz, author of a biography of Rose, is among those who argue that Rose did so much work on the “Little House” books she can be considered their ghostwriter. Rose was the more experienced writer and editor when her mother began writing her autobiography. Hill writes:
“Lane has been ‘rewriting’ or editing manuscripts for other writers, including Wilder, for about fifteen years when she took on ‘Pioneer Girl.’ Furthermore, based on Wilder’s notes to Lane in the original ‘Pioneer Girl’ manuscript, it is clear that Wilder expected her daughter to review and edit it for publication.”
However, Hill doesn’t reach the same conclusion Holtz did.
Hill describes mother and daughter’s editorial back-and-forth in as much detail as the historical record allows. She notes how Rose did a rewrite of a portion of “Pioneer Girl” with a juvenile audience in mind, a text that might be seen as a precursor of the first of Wilder’s famed novels, “Little House in the Big Woods.” But Wilder took her daughter’s unauthorized rewrite, along with suggestions from an editor who wanted more details about the pioneering experience, and wrote the larger “Big Woods” book.
Rose also appropriated scenes and characters from her mother’s “Pioneer Girl” for “Let the Hurricane Roar,” a novel she wrote for adults. Astonishingly, she apparently did not reveal this to her mother until the novel appeared in print:
“When Wilder realized that her own material had been fictionalized without her knowledge, she expressed her deep unhappiness at Lane’s actions. It was a major betrayal of her trust in her daughter as editor and confident. Wilder may also have worried that Lane’s novel would undercut ‘Little House on the Big Woods,’ which had been published in the spring, or diminish the appeal of ‘Pioneer Girl,’ which was still circulating.” But mother and daughter continued to work together.
Hill’s introduction, and her textual notes, too, often focus on Wilder’s growth as a writer, charting how the former newspaper columnist learned to fictionalize her experiences and to write with great depth. She also highlights Wilder’s strong fidelity to depicting how pioneers and homesteaders actually lived, compared with Rose‘s anything-for-a-story approach.
Writers of all ages may find inspiration in this account of a woman who published her first novel in her 60s and is still widely read today.
By Jim Higgins
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
(Tribune Content Agency)