Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
Laura Ingalls Wilder
2014 (posthumous), written c. 1929-30, U.S.
Pamela Smith Hill, ed.
I realized that I had seen and lived it all–all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Detroit Book Fair Speech, p. 2
I’ve been putting it off long enough, but if I don’t simply sit down now and scribble out some thoughts about Pioneer Girl, it’s never going to happen. Well, that is, unless I read it again some time—which I suppose is possible, but not likely in the near future.
Pioneer Girl is the unedited—even the misspellings are left—first draft of a memoir by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in a sense is the first draft of what would become her well-known Little House children’s novels. Written in the early 1930s, she had hoped to publish it for an adult audience, recognizing that her experiences growing up in the American pioneer west were an important element of U.S. history. No publisher bit; however, and instead she was encouraged to transform it into what would become a beloved children’s series.
The children’s novels were fictionalized accounts of her childhood and youth, but reading Pioneer Girl and its copious annotations, one becomes aware of just how much fact there really was in the fiction. Yes, multiple characters may have been compressed into one, events omitted or simplified, but the core of the story was real. These events happened to Wilder and her family—the moving, the droughts, the locusts, the illnesses, the wildfires, the blizzards, the railroads, the town-building. Looking back on these, not with the innocence of a child reading “adventures” but the awareness of an adult—plus the added insights provided by the annotations—it is abundantly clear that the pioneers (in a long tradition of immigrants and migrants the world over) faced odds and difficulties that would be unimaginable to most of us today, in our comfortable Western lifestyles.
Interestingly—and despite this—I felt that the style of Pioneer Girl was actually more akin to a children’s book than the adult story it was initially peddled as. True, Wilder included anecdotes that did not make the pages of her fictionalized children’s series—divorces, affairs, alcoholism—but the tone was not unlike that of her novels. I wonder if perhaps this was behind her difficulty in seeing it published? Or was the style par for the course at the time? I am not well-enough versed in the literature and magazine writing of the late 1920s/early 1930s to know.
In truth though, reading Pioneer Girl seems to mostly be an exercise in reading an artifact. It is a draft, and Wilder has not yet polished the prose or the timelines. A number of the annotations deal with the edits made by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in the process of submitting for publication, edits which I’m not always convinced improve on the original. But reading about the process—the annotations often include quotes from letters between the two authors—is interesting, a window into the workings between an author and editor. It is all the more interesting given the debate as to how much of the Little House books is Wilder and how much is Lane.
The other important aspect of Pioneer Girl is that the annotations allow the reader to better contextualize the times Wilder grew up (and was writing) in. For instance, although I’ve always felt that Wilder’s treatment of Native American characters was more nuanced than some 21st century readers give her credit for, looking at her writing from a 2015 perspective can sometimes give pause—is she endorsing a stereotype? The annotations lead us to ask rather, what formed her worldview, and limited her from seeing something in the same way we see it today, and what limits our worldview so we don’t see something with the same eyes she saw it?
For fans of the Little House books, Pioneer Girl is mostly familiar, sometimes surprising, and always a reminder that history is lived by ordinary people, not just great ones. Little could Wilder have imagined when she first put pencil to paper how her legacy would still have a hold, well over 100 years after the events she described.