- Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Before there was Little House in the Big Woods, before a celebrated series of children’s books made Laura Ingalls Wilder the beloved—and sometimes controversial—name that she is today, there was a Missouri farm woman with a dream project: an autobiography of her growing up on the prairies of South Dakota, one of the last vestiges of the frontier in the continental United States.
Most children’s literature scholars and many Wilder fans have known about this dream project, the manuscript Pioneer Girl. But the text has been difficult to obtain for those without the time and inclination to seek out archives, and Pamela Smith Hill and the South Dakota Historical Society would have done a service to scholars and fans alike had they only produced a clean copy of Wilder’s text for wider distribution. What they have done in this brick of a book is a great deal more, and while it may have some flaws (of which more later), it is a valuable addition to the ever-growing volume of scholarly and semi-scholarly Wilderiana.
Wilder’s original manuscript filled six school-type tablets and, when typed up by her daughter and literary amanuensis Rose Wilder Lane, 160 typed pages. The annotated edition encompasses four hundred pages including index and appendices, plus another sixty-nine pages of front matter detailing the manuscript’s history and the editorial procedures used in producing the finished volume. Annotations are extensive, sometimes requiring three pages of small print to supplement a page of the text itself.
The story told by Pioneer Girl will be familiar to readers of the Little House books, although some details have changed, incidents left out of the children’s series are included here, and, most crucially, the form of narration—and the work’s subsequent genre—is different. Where the Little House books offer a somewhat fictionalized story of the little girl Laura’s growth to early adulthood, Pioneer Girl is told in the first person. Like all memoirs, it purports to tell a factual story, although Hill’s annotations point to several places where Wilder’s memory does not coincide with the historical record, mostly in the chronological sequence of events. But then, scholars have come to recognize that memoirs and autobiographies are approximations of the truth from a single, biased point of view, rather than truth itself. [End Page 95]
Hill’s excellent introduction follows the path of Pioneer Girl from Wilder’s no. 2 pencil through Lane’s editing and her various unsuccessful attempts to find an adult outlet for the memoir. This is frustrated in part by the paucity of records of Wilder’s thoughts during the crucial period, although considerable detail has been obtained by studying Lane’s diaries; these, too, are somewhat vague for 1930, when the work was being created. One result of this approach is that the introduction at times seems as much or more about the daughter as it is about the mother, although Hill argues throughout that Lane’s contribution to the Little House books may not have been as extensive as some scholars have come to believe.
Evidently, Wilder was motivated to begin in earnest on the autobiography by her sister Mary’s death in 1928, although earlier efforts had occurred as far back as 1903. Once begun, though, the work went fairly quickly, so that Lane was able to submit the typescript to her agent by May 1930. Frustration with the difficulty of finding a market for the adult story led Wilder to produce a juvenile version later that year, a facsimile of which is included as an appendix to this volume. While the juvenile story met with more interest, it too failed to find publication in its original form, despite a crucial change from the nonfictional first person to the fictional third person: “I” had become “Laura” for the first time in the text’s history.
The juvenile version of Pioneer Girl ultimately became...