Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

Pioneer GirlThe 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.

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13 Responses to Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography

  1. Lisa says:

    I am anxiously counting the days til I get my hands on this. I am glad to hear that you both found it interesting & infomative – if a little too much in places. One of the biographies I read (not Hill’s) was packed with census data at the start.

    The most curious omission to me was the little family living with them during the Long Winter!

    • Teresa says:

      I was struck by that family, too. Lane wanted them included, but Wilder thought it would take away from the feeling of isolation.

      I do hope your copy comes along soon!

  2. Christy says:

    Thanks for the review. I had only heard recently about this book’s existence. I haven’t read the Little House books in a long time, but I remember feeling quite accomplished when I made my way through the first book in first grade. It was my first chapter book I think. Anyway, I’m not sure my love for the Little House books extends to reading through the annotated autobiography, but if I do pick it up, I’ll remember that it is perfectly okay to skip some of the notes!

    • Teresa says:

      I was a huge fan of the books when I was younger, reading most of them several times, on into adulthood. So I was a natural reader for these books. The opening essay is pretty interesting for anyone who knows the book, but the rest is probably only going to appeal to those who really know her books well.

  3. Jeane says:

    I do want to read this, but I didn’t realize it could be so cumbersome I’ll probably find I’m interested in a whole different aspect of the notes myself (fauna and flora yes). Maybe I’ll go back and reread the entire little house series first. It’s been a long time.

    • Teresa says:

      I did wish I remembered a couple of the books a little better, especially By the Shores of Silver Lake, which I probably have read the least (unless you include Farmer Boy, which doesn’t get much attention).

  4. Deb says:

    I was so disappointed with this–which breaks my heart to admit because I was it was the book I was most looking forward to reading in 2015. First, as you note, the unwieldy size: it’s not just a book you can’t carry around, it’s not a book that’s comfortable to hold at all. Secondly, the layout is also awkward: in some places, only a paragraph of PIONEER GIRL appears against a raft of footnotes. Which brings us to problem number three: the endless, mind-numbing volume of detailed footnotes. After a while, I felt as if I were stuck in a David Foster Wallace novel. Certainly a case where the editor could have used an editor! However, the introduction was fantastic–I discovered a lot about the Wilders, and I found it very interesting to discover that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was actually the more famous writer in the 1920s and she actually used the PIONEER GIRL manuscript herself for a couple of her novels.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with everything you say about the problems with this book, but those problems weren’t big enough to overshadow my interest in the material. I did wonder at first if a different format might have worked better, but aside from cutting back on notes, I couldn’t think of a better way. And although I wasn’t interested in all the notes, I could appreciate that it’s meant to be a comprehensive study. Once I decided to skip the notes that didn’t interest me, I was fine.

  5. I actually read some of this back when I was reading and writing about Wilder. A museum exhibit on Wilder had a copy of the typewritten manuscript, which is not very long and is plainly written.

    The most interesting thing I found was the same thing Teresa saw – that in places Wilder had literally expanded paragraphs or even sentences into chapters, one after the other.

    If this book does nothing else, I hope it helps convince people that Wilder wrote fiction, and that her novels can profitably be read while thinking of them as fiction. I do not think that will actually happen, but it is what I hope will happen.

    • Teresa says:

      My hope is that people get a more clear vision of her craft. The novels seem effortless, but the notes make it clear that Wilder was deliberately crafting a story using her life as raw material. The introduction and notes really get into the shift from memoir to fiction and how that affected her choices.

    • Yes, craft, that is more or less what I mean. Maybe people can write about the books as created objects, as works of art. They can be profitably treated as art, not just beloved sources of nostalgia.

  6. Ahaha, I am such a publishing nerd, my first response to this post was to find out what the book’s trim size it. That is big! And nearly square! That’s the same trim size they’re going to use for the new illustrated Harry Potter books? And I’m wondering if that’s going to be a problem for reading the later books. Hmmmmm.

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