The well-known and much-beloved Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder began their life as a single-volume autobiography. In the process of seeking a publisher for the autobiography, Wilder’s daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, realized that parts of it might be suitable as a children’s story, and so the books so many of us know and love were born. The autobiography was set aside, used only as raw material for Wilder’s celebrated novels, as well as some novels by Lane.
This year, the original autobiography, as hand-written by Wilder herself, was published for the first time. The interest in the manuscript has overwhelmed the book’s publisher, the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Readers and libraries have had to wait patiently (or not) for second and third printings. And library waiting lists are long. It took a while, but we both ended up getting copies from our libraries at about the same time, so we decided to review it together.
Teresa: The first thing worth noting about this book is that it’s huge. I knew right away I couldn’t carry it around in my purse. It’s about 400 pages, and the dimensions are that of a coffee table book. The introduction and notes by Pamela Smith Hill took up almost as much (perhaps more) space as the autobiography itself. The annotations are presented along with the text, and they are extensive. Often, one page will be accompanied by two pages of notes. It makes for awkward reading, and it took me a while to find a rhythm in which I could take in both the text and the annotations. Eventually, I settled on reading a page, maybe two, and then reading the notes (or most of the notes, anyway).
What did you think of the book’s format?
Jenny: I’m glad you brought that up right away. It’s an uncomfortable book to read, partly because of its size and shape (it’s almost square) and partly because of its weight. It’s not even an easy book to read in bed, let alone to carry around. And while I was glad that the notes were presented alongside the text, so that I didn’t have to flip to the back of the book to read such extensive commentary, I felt it was easy to lose the thread; occasionally I’d find myself reading ahead in the notes, as if they were their own separate work. What would David Foster Wallace have to say?
The annotations fall into a few categories. Smith writes about the history of the towns the Ingalls family lived in or moved to; she writes about the entire life history (if available) of friends, family, classmates, acquaintances, and townspeople of the Ingalls family; she writes about social and cultural realities of the era; she writes about flora and fauna of the regions; she writes (less) about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing process, including her relationship with her daughter. I have read the Little House books many, many times. I thought it was interesting to compare the autobiography to the novels. It was also very interesting to read some of those notes, and less interesting to read others. What about you — what did you find most compelling?
Teresa: I was most interested in the notes about the process. I’ve read articles suggesting that Rose Wilder Lane was in essence a ghost writer on the books, but it sounded much more collaborative than that. References to their correspondence make it clear that although Lane was heavily involved, Wilder was making the decisions. One area that really stood out to me involved the omission of several people who lived with and helped the Ingalls family. I’ve read that these omissions were probably Lane’s attempt to impose her Libertarian belief in the power of the individual on the text, but the notes indicate that Wilder had to convince Lane to omit them. All the notes explaining the differences between the autobiography and the novels interested me, especially when Hill could point to discussions about the change in Wilder or Lane’s journals and letters.
I also liked getting some expanded historical context and learning more about some of the people who appear in the book. At times, those notes about minor characters get tedious, especially when there’s little more than a census record that may or may not be about that person. After a while, I got pretty adept at figuring out which notes didn’t offer much that I wanted and just skimming those.
Jenny: Yes, it was the same for me. I admit that I also skimmed most of the Wikipedia-like notes that gave definitions of buffalo grass and the gray wolf.
Like you, I appreciated seeing some of the way the book was shaped, between Lane’s contributions and Wilder’s. The difference between the novels, with their clear narrative arc of a resilient, independent family always heading West no matter the obstacles, and the autobiography, with its much more meandering path, was one of the most engaging things for me. I was particularly interested, for instance, in the Ingalls family’s time in Burr Oak, Iowa — one of the moments when they’d had to go back east and depend on family for a while. But many individual moments in the autobiography are exactly as they are in the novel, including (Amateur Reader, take note!) the strange and memorable moment when Laura sees a papoose with its bright, shining black eyes and asks her father to “get it” for her. I enjoyed watching Wilder grow as a writer right in front of my eyes.
Teresa: A lot of the time, the autobiography felt like an outline for the much better work that was to come. Moments that are one or two sentences turn into full chapters. It’s almost like putting her life to paper in this brief form enabled her (and her daughter) to see what she had and build on it. I’d much rather read the novels, and I doubt that the autobiography would have stood the test of time had it been published as initially planned. It lacked that strong narrative that you mention and the small details of day-to-day life that make the Little House books such a joy to read. But as a long-time Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, I loved getting this look at the story behind the story.