Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. By Laura Ingalls Wilder. Edited by Pamela Smith Hill. South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014. 472p. HB, $39.95.
My four-year-old nieces love the picture-book versions of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, which extract small stories from the canon, representing them simply for young readers. One of their favorites is Going West, which tells the story of the Ingalls family packing its wagon and bidding farewell to its relatives on its way out of the Big Woods. When I read it to them recently, my eyes met my sister’s over their heads. “This is so sad,” I said. “I know,” she said. “I never realized it when we read them as kids. They left everyone! Their whole family! Just because Pa wanted to. And with no airplanes or telephones to make it better.”
Looking at the Little House books as adults, former superfans, now historically aware, can expect to have all kinds of epiphanies like these. The newly published annotated autobiography Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited and introduced by Pamela Smith Hill, will add to the effect. While the book doesn’t brandish any smoking guns that would destroy the wholesome vision of the original Little House series, Pioneer Girl does contain, as Ruth Graham wrote in her review of the book on Slate, “stories of domestic abuse, vicious revenge, and of the town drunk looming over young Laura’s bed and telling her to ‘lie down and be still,’” a potential rape that Laura thwarts by threatening to scream. But these dark spots, largely removed when the books were revised for juvenile publication, don’t diminish the essentially sweet core of the family relationship that forms the basis for Ingalls’ famous series. Neither will contests over the dated racism of the books—the dubious representation of the Osage Indians; Pa’s singing of minstrel songs—find substantial new fuel in Pioneer Girl.
The real revelation of Pioneer Girl lies in editor Hill’s commitment to the contextualization of the Ingallses’ story. With annotation, the Ingalls nuclear family, headed directly off into the sunset with only one another to depend upon, becomes the Ingalls nuclear family zigzagging around the West, meeting other people who were there for all kinds of reasons and who had all kinds of attitudes toward their own frontier experiences. Yes, Hill’s extensive annotations tell you, it was lonely. But not as lonely as Ingalls and her daughter/editor Rose Wilder Lane, committed to a vision of frontier individualism, later made it seem. In reshaping the material in Pioneer Girl for the Little House series, Wilder and Lane bent the series toward a frontier personified by Pa—the restless, self-reliant, male spirit—while downplaying the elements of community and connection that the real-life Ingalls family discovered in its travels.
Wilder, who was in her sixties when the Little House books were published, had written for regional farming newspapers for fifteen years before beginning to research this memoir in 1925. During the 1920s and 1930s, as frontier fictions grew in popularity, Wilder may have recognized the commercial potential of her childhood story. (Lane, who had had some success as a magazine writer working for national markets, might have advised her of the trend.) As Hill’s introduction tells, Wilder and Lane shopped Pioneer Girl around in several different forms before splitting it up into parts and selling it as children’s books. Hill’s annotated edition of the original manuscript notes the changes that were made as mother and daughter edited the original material into drafts shopped to various editors and agents, then finally transformed it into the seven beloved books that were published between 1932 and 1943 (with an eighth, The First Four Years, published posthumously in 1971).
Just as the two were transforming the raw material of Pioneer Girl into the Little House novels, the Depression and the New Deal solidified Wilder’s individualism and distaste for government, convincing her that frontier stories like Little House were essential tonics for a national character that she viewed as disastrously weak. Her daughter’s feelings on the subject were even stronger. Writing in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section last year, Christine Woodside told the story of Rose Wilder Lane’s emergent libertarianism, a political philosophy that she shared with her mother and that, Woodside argued, shaped Lane’s editing strategies for Little House. “In Wilder’s original drafts, the family withstood the frontier with their jaws set,” Woodside wrote. “After Lane revised them, the Ingallses managed the land and made it theirs, without leaning on anybody.” Government grants of aid—the tuition for Mary’s time at the Iowa College for the Blind; the largesse of the Homestead Act, which made their move west possible—are neatly glossed over.
Embroidery on other childhood episodes added government malfeasance into the plot. Scholar Anita Clair Fellman, author of the best book on the Little House series and the politics of a mythical frontier (Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture, 2008), writes that the Ingalls family left Kansas at the end of Little House on the Prairie because the buyer of its Wisconsin farm broke contract, requiring it to return in order to reclaim its property. (This is the boring, if true, version presented in Pioneer Girl.) In the novelization, Wilder and Lane blame the government for the move, attributing the family’s departure to (as Fellman puts it) “the government’s failure to keep its promise to white settlers to remove Native Americans to make way for whites.” (Wilder and Lane also amended the backtrack that the family made in real life, so that in the novels it moves on to Minnesota, rather than returning to a place it had already been—a change that emphasizes a westward trajectory.)
Pioneer Girl presents these differences without comment, but its notes show how subsequent edits to the text stripped out many of the characters the Ingallses met on the way, especially the ones who lived closest to the family. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the Ingalls family shares the surveyor’s house with a male boarder, taken on in order to mitigate possible danger from living in an isolated place. Changes also burnish the character of Laura, represented in the novels as fearless and independent. When Pa and Ma take Mary to the College for the Blind in Little Town on the Prairie, Laura is left alone to take care of Carrie and Grace, but in Pioneer Girl, the Ingalls parents left the girls with a pair of annoying, slovenly siblings as babysitters.
The most entertaining episode of Pioneer Girl that has to do with non-Ingalls “others” is Wilder’s description of the galling boarders who stayed with the Ingalls family during The Long Winter. George and Maggie Masters, a young couple with a new baby that the family had taken in before the winter began, would hog the warm spots next to the fire, eat all the food, and shirk their chores. The Laura of Pioneer Girl scorns them, and holds them up as poor examples of townspeople who wouldn’t “do their bit” in the face of hardship. Wilder and Lane chose not to include the Masterses in The Long Winter because of Maggie’s YA-inappropriate premarital pregnancy, but also because their presence would detract from the perfect portrait of Ingalls self-sufficiency. Pioneer Girl makes it clear that the whole town adapted to extreme winter conditions by doing the same things that the Ingalls family did—twisting hay for fuel, grinding seed wheat for flour. These actions of survival were communal and cultural, spreading as recommendations from family to family, even covered in the town’s newspaper. Yet, in The Long Winter, they are Ingalls innovations. The imagined family relied on one another for both companionship and survival.
The Hill-annotated autobiography doesn’t set out to make a point about libertarianism, individualism, or politics. Yet, in its careful inclusion of context, it accomplishes this nonetheless. The portraits liberally dotting Hill’s footnotes—she dug up images of dashing Cap Garland, Genevieve Masters (one of three inspirations for the famous mean-girl character of Nellie Oleson), doctors and reverends, their friend Mr. Boast—are a constant reminder that the Ingallses did, indeed, live in a community. And, as Hill’s notes also show, they participated in popular culture, with novels, poetry, and singing schools forming part of their entertainment.
The contemporary images of the towns where the Ingallses lived—bird’s-eye maps of Brookings; photos of De Smet residents gathered for town events; views of the streets of Walnut Grove—remind us that the family might have been moving toward the frontier, but the places where it lived weren’t completely unknown to the larger American culture. Even places that were at a remove from the East were represented, discussed, and “boosted” in Eastern newspapers, as Hill’s attention to the visual culture of the time makes clear.
Not every pioneer was intent upon isolation, Hill’s notes tell us; we never were a nation of Pas and Lauras. Plenty of Mas and Marys made their mark on the West, and this well-edited volume brings their stories back into view.