- Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life
The life of Laura Ingalls Wilder has been widely documented, both in her own writings and by scholars and historians. The autobiographical nature of the Little House books make them irresistible for scholars looking to research and analyze the places where Wilder's life deviated from that of the character which she created. There are many Wilder biographers—John E. Miller, Donald Zochert, and William Anderson—who draw portraits of the author's life and examine where fact and fiction diverge. What makes Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life stand apart from other biographies of Wilder is that it is essentially a Künstlerroman ("artist's novel). As her title implies, Hill focuses on constructing a portrait of Wilder's growth and development as a writer and artist. The resulting study is a thoughtful and sometimes compelling portrait that will provide readers with new insight into both the Little House books and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Early chapters will have a familiar feel to readers as they trace ground covered by both the Little House books and other Wilder biographies. From the start, however, Hill presents the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder through multiple perspectives and focuses on looking at the choices that Wilder made when crafting her story for publication. Hill brings together historical research, the Little House books, correspondence by and about Wilder, and "Pioneer Girl," the unpublished memoir that was Wilder's first attempt at telling her life story. "Pioneer Girl" is referenced by many Wilder scholars, but Hill's discussion of it in this context is illuminating reading, for Hill uses it to chart Wilder's growth as a writer and storyteller.
The beginning of the biography tells the story of a young Wilder, but it also examines the places in which Wilder consciously revised parts of her story. Hill notes two key themes—westward movement and isolation—that Wilder works into the Little House books that were not present in the less successful "Pioneer Girl." Hill remarks, "In the memoir ["Pioneer Girl"], Wilder wrote closer to the facts of her experience; in her novels, she transformed these experiences into an almost mythic kind of truth. She deliberately heightened her family's social and physical isolation, a transformation that ultimately strengthened not just her first novel, but the remaining books in the series" (17). Likewise, Hill calls the incorporation of a theme of westward movement, "the spine, the rigid, inflexible backbone [End Page 104] of the entire series" (8), and the early chapters of the biography work to make clear how Wilder rearranged and reworked parts of her story in order to nurture these themes. Hill does a nice job of shifting from text to historical record to correspondence without losing or confusing the reader as she contrasts different tellings of an event.
In addition to showing how the Little House books were crafted, this first part of the book also draws an in-depth portrait of Wilder's childhood and adolescence. The childhood that Hill's research reveals provides good insight into the Ingalls family, particularly to those who are not familiar with "Pioneer Girl." As Hill herself notes, perhaps the most disconcerting piece of information is the fact that Jack the bulldog did not die peacefully shortly before the family set out for Silver Lake. Instead, he was actually given away by Pa during a horse trade (10). Tidbits like this make for interesting reading while also offering some perspective into what elements Wilder felt appropriate for a child audience and necessary to a good story. Hill brings in correspondence between Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane that discusses different editorial choices and shows that Wilder had a clear vision of how her story should be told and what it should ultimately convey.
The fact that Wilder made choices at all when telling her life story is one of the major issues that scholars have with her work. Are the books fiction or autobiography? Hill refers to the texts as...