Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder (review)
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Reviewed by
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill. Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014. 400pp. $39.95.

Ironies abound in the publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, eighty-five years after it was first written. Had the manuscript been taken and published in 1930 as a serial by a major magazine, as she and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, originally intended, the work might have attracted some minor notice, but the world would probably never have come to know the celebrated children’s novelist, Laura Ingalls Wilder. The unpublished manuscript nevertheless proved to be anything but worthless, for it helped provide the raw materials for seven of the eight children’s novels that ultimately became the hugely popular (over forty-three million copies printed) Little House series. Lane’s role in the production of those novels was huge (first as instigator, then as editor and collaborator in the writing, then as marketer and publicizer), but she always denied having played any role in their making. While some scholars and critics have come to believe that the daughter’s participation in the production of the novels was her most important literary accomplishment, Lane herself wanted no association with them, because she thought children’s literature was essentially trivial. Beyond that, she was less than forthcoming about the fact that her [End Page 145] two most important literary products were novels produced in the thirties while she was working on her mother’s books—Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land—which where based on stories that her parents had told her and were expansions upon material that Wilder had included in Pioneer Girl.

For years Wilder scholars and true-blue fans have known about the unpublished autobiography and have used it in putting together the story of her life. Now, however, the manuscript has been made available to the general public, and an amazing story it has been to observe the reaction to its publication. The South Dakota Historical Society Press, which never had printed more than a few thousand copies of books on its list, went out on a limb to print fifteen thousand copies in the first press run, a figure that was sold out before it even hit the book stores. At this writing, the book is into its tenth printing with about 160,000 copies altogether released. One can legitimately ask, what is all the hoopla about?

To be sure, anything associated with Laura Ingalls Wilder has long proved its appeal to readers young and old. The television series in the seventies and eighties only added to the books’ popularity. Fans come from all over the world to pay obeisance to their pioneer girl heroine, often visiting all of the sites where the Ingalls and Wilder families lived and trying to capture some of her magic. Nothing like the current wave of enthusiasm, however, has ever been observed.

Many readers have been surprised at the heft of the book—3.2 pounds and nine inches by ten inches by one inch—while at the same time they and others have commented on the cost at $39.95. However, without tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and subsidies to the SDHS Press, the books would have had to have been given a much higher price tag. Fact is, there are really three books in one: first and most obviously, the actual words of Wilder as they were written on five-cent tablets, chronicling the story of her life up to age eighteen as she could best recall it as a sixty-three-year-old woman; second, the careful annotations of editor Pamela Smith Hill, who has taken care to track down helpful information on seemingly every person, place, event, animal, plant, weather event, historical development, and much more in the copious notes that accompany every page of the written document; and third, a continual critical commentary by Hill, both in the notes and in a perceptive fifty-page introduction, regarding the writing process and the development of Wilder as an author through it all.

In Hill’s estimation, Wilder was a pretty good author...