Swallow the Red Pill find the real Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, Pierre, South Dakota, U.S.A, 2014; A publication of the Pioneer Girl Project; Pamela Hill, editor; Nancy Tystad Koupal, Director; Rodger Hartley, Associate Editor; Jeanne Killen Ode, Associate Editor
Published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, Pierre, South Dakota, U.S.A, 2014; A publication of the Pioneer Girl Project; Pamela Smith Hill, editor; Nancy Tystad Koupal, Director; Rodger Hartley, Associate Editor; Jeanne Killen Ode, Associate Editor

Laura Ingalls Wilder – Pioneer Girl, the Annotated Biography by Pamela Smith Hill, et al

I grew up with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books. I read them in Grade 5 for the first time, and my teacher made us do projects on the first book, Little House in the Big Woods. My family now calls our house our “little hoosie in the big woosie”. Silly, right, but we strongly identified with the Ingalls family. My Dad and I built a little log cabin out of sticks, with cotton wool for the smoke out the chimney and trees of styrofoam. Ever since then, I’ve read and re-read all of the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and those by Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter, in both Afrikaans and English. And like with Hergé’s Tintin books, I also collected books about the books. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are now part of the history of American literature; a treasured part of world children’s literature, and in their own right, an enduring favourite for generations of readers.

So when I heard this book was in production I was skeptical – who dares tackle such a literary institution?  Would it just be another posthumous money-spinner, like the Stieg Larsson and Ian Fleming novels?  Or will the Pioneer Girl manuscript be mired in sensationalism, like Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman? So I waited a year while the industry responded. My opinion: it is a serious, thoroughly researched, beautifully produced and objective work. It does not pander to sentiment, and thus reveals so many interesting new aspects of the writer and her life that it is Laura Ingalls Wilder reborn. It is surprising, insightful, strange, sad, and lovely all at the same time.

All the Little House Books

The Little House series includes:

  1. Little House in the Big Woods(1932)
  2. Farmer Boy (1933)
  3. Little House on the Prairie (1935)
  4. On the Banks of Plum Creek(1937)
  5. By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939)
  6. The Long Winter (1940)
  7. Little Town on the Prairie (1941)
  8. These Happy Golden Years (1943)
  9. On the Way Home (1962, published posthumously)
  10. The First Four Years (1971, published posthumously)
From Pioneer Girl
From Pioneer Girl

On the Way Home and The First Four Years were still written mainly by Wilder, and for me this brought the story of Laura and her childhood to a conclusion. As a child I thought that the tone of the books got darker and less simple and happy after Little Town on the Prairie. “The original Little House books, written for elementary school-age children, became an enduring, eight-volume record of pioneering life late in the 19th century based on the Ingalls family’s experiences on the American frontier. The First Four Years, about the early days of the Wilder marriage, was discovered after Lane’s 1968 death by her literary executor Roger MacBride and published in 1971, unedited by Lane or MacBride. It is now marketed as the ninth volume.” I did not enjoy reading about Laura becoming a teacher, getting married and moving away from her parents to start life with Almanzo Wilder. It was too much of the theme of abandonment, something that terrifies all children. So, for me, the core has always been books 1 to 8.

A public greedy for more

From Pioneer Girl
From Pioneer Girl

The business of taking Wilder’s stories and publishing them as children’s books was a money-spinning idea even in the 1920s. “The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped the Wilders out; their daughter’s investments were gutted as well. They still owned the 200 acre (81 hectare) farm, but they had invested most of their savings with their daughter’s broker. In 1930, Wilder asked for her daughter’s opinion about an autobiographical manuscript she had written about her pioneering childhood. The Great Depression, coupled with the deaths of her mother in 1924 and her older sister in 1928, seem to have prompted her to preserve her memories in a life story called Pioneer Girl. She also hoped that her writing would generate some additional income. The original title of the first of the books was When Grandma Was a Little Girl. On the advice of Lane’s publisher, Wilder greatly expanded the story. As a result of her daughter’s publishing connections as a successful writer and after editing by her, Wilder’s book was published by Harper & Brothers in 1932 as Little House in the Big Woods. After its success, Wilder continued writing.”

After Laura Ingalls Wilder died, like many truly famous and valued writers, her unpublished writing was edited, and republished. The republished works include Little House books no. 9 and no. 10, and:

  • West from Home (1974, posth.), ed. Roger Lea MacBride
  • Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1991, ISBN 0883659689), ed. Stephen W. Hines,
  • The Road Back Home, part three (the only part previously unpublished) of A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America (Harper, 2006, LCCN 2005-14975)
  • A Little House Sampler (U. of Nebraska, 1988 or 1989), with Rose Wilder Lane, ed. William Anderson, OCLC 16578355
  • A Little House Reader: A Collection of Writings (Harper, 1998), ed. William Anderson
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder & Rose Wilder Lane, 1937–1939 (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, 1992), ed. Timothy Walch
  • Laura’s Album: A Remembrance Scrapbook of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Harper, 1998), ed. William Anderson, OCLC 865396917

There are also guides for the various museums at the homesteads of the Ingalls and Wilder families.

Pioneer Girl – The Annotated Autobiography

From Pioneer Girl
From Pioneer Girl – Laura and Almanzo

The text of Wilder’s original Pioneer Girl memoir is reproduced in the book, and contrasted and highlighted with copious, and I do mean copious, annotations, references and explanations. Reading it was like going back to a childhood home, and seeing how much smaller it is than you remember. But also getting a new appreciation for what is actually a new childhood house altogether. Yes, you do have reference to all the people, places and incidents you know, but they are different, and far more detailed. It’s a whole new world; the world of pioneer life in America at the end of the 19th century.

The photos show the people in the books are real, but not as pretty as in Garth Williams’ illustrations. The places are real, ugly little frontier towns. I always wondered why the Ingalls family was forever on a wagon going somewhere. Now I know how often “Pa” had to pack up his family to go where the work was, how poor they really were, how many land claims, purchases and sales he made, how rough life was, and how they even went bankrupt at one point. The “unpleasant” incidents, which were not for the eyes of young readers, are now included – with Wilder and Lane’s correspondence about why parts would go in or be left out. You now see how the books were produced – and now you can clearly see Laura Wilder’s hand in the words, even with all her daughter’s changes to the text.

Production process

Most interesting is the explanations of how Pioneer Girl came to exist in the first place, and how it was rediscovered and edited.

“Written in pencil on inexpensive school tables, Wilder’s original Pioneer Girl manuscript is a product of the decades before modern technology, and as such, it presents unique editorial challenges. In preparing the text for publication, our goal has been to provide readers with a text as close as possible to Wilder’s original. As a result, spelling and punctuation errors appear as they occur in the original…” (1xv)

When the first book was published in April 1932, Laura Ingalls Wilder was sixty-five, and the fame that followed was unlikely and unprecedented. It was Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter, with her experience as a published author and journalist, who took her mother’s Pioneer Girl manuscript and chopped it up, expanded and rewrote it in parts to be come the Little House books. Lane had a nose for a story that would sell. But she also had her doubts:

“On August 18, 1930, Lane wrote: “Had to recopy part of juvenile, which was then mailed. The diary does not reveal to whom Lane submitted the manuscript, but the next day, August 19, she was back at work on the adult revisions of Pioneer Girl. ‘Working on my mother’s story – stupidly,’ she wrote, ‘for will it come to anything?’” (p.xxvi).

It sure did.

“In other instances, Wilder’s directions led to what could be considered editorial notes to her daughter…Another peculiarity of the original text is that it contains no pauses except the arbitrary breaks caused by the end of a tablet of paper; such breaks may come in the middle of an episode or scene. In the interests of readability we have broken the text into sections or chapters based on dates or geography.” (p. 1xvi)

It is clear from the text, comments and annotations that Laura Wilder and her writer daughter did not always agree about how to the book should look.

Rose Wilder Lane – editor or co-author?

Rose was after all, very different from her mother, both in personal style and writing style.

“By the time that Laura published her first book, Rose was a frumpish, middle-aged divorcée, who was tormented by rotten teeth and suffered from bouts of suicidal depression, which she diagnosed in her journal, with more insight than many doctors of the era, as a mental illness. For more than a decade, she had earned a good living with what she considered literary hack work for the San Francisco Bulletin, its rival, the Call, various magazines, and the Red Cross Publicity Bureau. She had published commercial fiction, travelogues, ghostwritten memoirs, and several celebrity biographies…” (From the New Yorker)

It turns out, that Laura was a far harder, and more real, girl and woman than the character in the Little House books, even though she insisted the stories were autobiographical. Laura was no shrinking lily. She had gumption, and she was quite capable of being sneaky and making sure she got Almanzo Wilder (Manly) for herself. It was interesting that she played hard to get for quite a while before she married him. And Mary, her sister who was forever turned into a blue-eyed, blonde, but blind angel in the TV series, was not really pretty and her life went entirely differently than in the book. Mary went blind from a long-term eye diseases, not identified, but exacerbated by a stroke, and not from scarlet fever as in the Little House books. It was just one of the instances in which the harsh truth of pioneer life was a bit romanticized in the Little House books. (I don’t even want to mention the TV series, which, while popular, was a hopelessly saccharine version.)

“Rose’s published writing was sensationalist, if not trashy, but her letters and her conversation were prized for their acerbic sophistication by a diverse circle of friends [President to be Herbert] Hoover was not unique among Rose’s subjects in deploring her fabrications. Charlie Chaplin was so incensed by them that he threatened legal action, as did Jack London’s widow. Henry Ford repudiated a portrait of himself that he couldn’t recognize. Laura [Ingalls Wilder], who publicly (and disingenuously) insisted that her stories were pure autobiography, also sometimes balked at the liberties that her daughter took with factual detail. Fidelity to a subject, or to history, was of less importance to Rose, as she implied in a placating letter to Chaplin, than a “corking” tale.” (From the New Yorker)

In fact the Ingalls family were not just Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace. It also included Charles Jr. (who died shortly after birth), and adopted children Albert, James and Cassandra. Mary, a quite dour-looking woman, never married, as she did in the TV series, and ended up living with family until her death. Laura, however, from the pictures, still looks to me like a short, round and dark “little French horse” as she described herself in the Little House books.

A whole different story

Marwencol etc.3Pioneer Girl is much more complicated and personal than the books. This is the definitive guide to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her life from to 1869 in Kansas to 1888 in Dakota Territory. Almost every word in the memoir has been annotated and the references are detailed, with documents, photos, registers and archival materials. Yes, the Little House books have lost some of their charm because I now understand they are more fiction that autobiographical – but there is still magic in the books. Remember these opening lines?


Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. Wolves lived in the Big Woods, and bears, and huge wild cats. Muskrats and mink and otter lived by the streams. Foxes had dens in the hills and deer roamed everywhere. To the east of the little log house, and to the west, there were miles upon miles of trees, and only a few little log houses scattered far apart in the edge of the Big Woods. So far as the little girl could see, there was only the one little house where she lived with her Father and Mother, her sister Mary and baby sister Carrie. A wagon track ran before the house, turning and twisting out of sight in the woods where the wild animals lived, but the little girl did not know where it went, nor what might be at the end of it. The little girl was named Laura and she called her father, Pa, and her mother, Ma. In those days and in that place, children did not say Father and Mother, nor Mamma and Papa, as they do now.” (p.1)

They are still some of the most charming opening lines ever written. This is how Pioneer Girl begins – a whole different story:

“Once up a time years and years ago, Pa stopped the horses and the wagon they were hauling away out on the prairie in Indian Territory. ‘Well, Caroline,’ he said ‘here’s the place we’ve been looking for. Might as well camp.’ So Pa and Ma got down from the wagon. Pa unhitched the horses and picketed them, tied them to long ropes fastened to wooden pegs driven in the ground, so they could eat the grass. Then he made the campfire out of bits of willow twigs from the creek nearby. Ma cooked supper over the fire and after we had eaten, sister Mary and I were put to bed in the wagon and Pa and Ma sat awhile by the fire. Pa would bring the horses and tie them to the wagon before he and Ma came to sleep in the wagon too. I lay and looked through the opening in the wagon cover at the campfire and Pa and Ma sitting there. It was lonesome and so still with the stars shining down on the great, flat land where no-one lived.” (p.1)

Now, you can clearly see the picture, and know, at the same time, it was really like that, in as far as someone’s memory can be accurate. In summary, this is a superb publication (all 472 pages of it) by the South Dakota Historical Society Press and all the contributors, project members and editor Pamela Smith Hill. Beautifully done – on par with, if not better (due to their affection for the subject), than publications by leading academic, reference publishers or academic institutions. Not a punctuation mark or letter out of place. Has this ruined Little House for me? No – I’ve just swallowed the Red Pill like in The Matrix and found out that the reality is better than the fiction.