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Reviewed by:
  • Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder ed. by Nancy Tystad Koupal
  • A. Waller Hastings (bio)
Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder. Edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal. Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017.

Sixty-some years after her death and nearly half a century since the posthumous publication of the last of her Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder continues to create news and generate controversy. The American Library Association, responding to racially charged language in several of the books, removed Wilder’s name from the association’s lifetime achievement award. At the same time, continued popular interest in the series, partly in response to the sesquicentennial of her birth, has resulted in a spate of books, including the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner in biography.

Among the scholarly responses to the anniversary is this collection of essays on the author and her times from the South Dakota Historical Society, which earlier published an annotated edition of Pioneer Girl, the ur-narrative of the entire series. That the two books are meant to be complementary is evident in both their titles and their cover designs, and editor Koupal states in her introduction that the new volume originated in her questions about the scholarly impact of the earlier one (3). More concerned with historical and biographical context than with literary criticism per se, Pioneer Girl Perspectives is a valuable contribution to Wilder scholarship, assembling new essays from many of the more familiar names in the field.

The eleven essays have been grouped into four areas: “Working Writers,” “Beginnings and Misdirections,” “Wilder’s Place and Time,” and “Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths.” The first of these offers a Wilder speech from 1937, one of the few times that she discussed her own writing in public. It offers a glimpse of the reasoning behind the omission of some incidents from her novels, especially the case of a family of mass murderers allegedly encountered in Kansas; otherwise, she famously claims, “All I have told is true but not the whole truth” (15). Caroline Fraser gives more detail on the murderous Benders as part of her examination of Wilder’s writing relationship with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. While Rose often acted as Wilder’s instructor in writing, Fraser notes that the daughter was really not that much more experienced than the mother—and had an ethically dubious approach to historical truth. The third essay in this section, by Amy Mattson Lauters, focuses more specifically on Rose as a working writer, including a lengthy discussion of how she gave a libertarian ideological slant even to her book on needlework. This has little to do with the Little House books, but it contributes to our understanding of how Rose may have influenced her mother’s work.

William Anderson begins the next section with an account of the difficulties in getting the Pioneer Girl [End Page 127] manuscript into print—difficulties that primarily resulted from various parties’ reluctance to acknowledge the Little House series’ fictionality. Michael Patrick Hearn follows with “Little Myths on the Prairie”; the “myths” revolve around Wilder’s supposed amateur status as a writer (Hearn disputes it, but so do most scholars) and the national myth of the West. But the article really is another recounting of how the series was written and its continued existence. There’s also a brief interview with the representative of the Little House Heritage Trust who liaisoned with the SDHS in publishing Pioneer Girl, primarily appreciating the books’ message.

The third section brings John E. Miller’s placing of Wilder into the context of the Midwestern pioneer experience and a valuable exploration by Paula M. Nelson of Wilder’s life and work as an expression of women’s place in her time. To this point, the essays presented here have largely dealt with Wilder’s biography and her historical context, much of which, if not exactly old ground, will be familiar to scholars of the author’s work. It is left, then, to the final section of this volume to provide analysis of the Little House books themselves.

Sally Ketcham finds a foundation of the fairy tale in Wilder’s books, especially in Little House...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 127-128
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-02
Open Access
No
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