Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill


Word PressI’ve read the Little House books more times than I remember, over a period of nearly 35 years, and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to feel about Pioneer Girl; but I’m really glad that I’ve read it. As everyone probably knows by now, this is the version of events that Laura wrote first, but which failed to find a publisher. It was then transformed into a series of books, with two crucial differences. The original book was aimed at adults, whereas the books that we all know and love were aimed at children, and fairly young children at that; and the original book was based largely on real life events, whereas the children’s books were a fictionalised version of them.

This – “the annotated autobiography” – is really three books, and two of them are on the same pages, which I have to say doesn’t make for a particularly easy reading experience. The introduction and conclusion, which perhaps can be said to form a third book – the introduction is very long – are separate from the rest of the text, and are mainly a historiography of how Pioneer Girl and the Little House books came to be written. It’s quite a sad story, really, much of it about how the Wilder family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash and how Rose, already a published author, battled with depression as the publishing houses cut down drastically on the number of new books they were printing. It also discusses the process of fictionalisation – and the conclusion makes an interesting point about how, because the Little House books are seen as memoirs, Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t given the same credit as writers like Louisa M Alcott, who are seen as having created all their own characters and storylines, and how that’s really rather unfair when you stop and think how much work Laura put into the books. That had never really occurred to me before, but it’s a very good point.

It also covers the difficulties of trying to remember things that happened sixty years earlier, especially when some of them happened when Laura was so young, and without easily available back-up sources to refer to. I’m glad that Pamela Smith Hill, the editor, mentioned that Laura herself got confused about where the family home in Little House on the Prairie was: it was actually in Kansas, but adult Laura assumed that it must have been in Oklahoma because it was referred to as “Indian Territory”, because I’d always assumed that it was in Oklahoma for exactly the same reason!

Then – sharing pages with Laura’s manuscript – there are the notes. And there are an awful lot of them! Far more of the book as a whole is taken up by the notes than by Laura’s text, and it does make reading it quite … disjointed, for lack of a better word. I think Pamela Smith Hill’s gone a bit OTT with the notes, to be honest. No-one is more pedantic about dates and chronology and historical accuracy than I am, and the amount of research that Pamela Smith Hill and others have done is very impressive, but – given the “disjointed” issue – was it really necessary to include a whole paragraph on whether the first church service in De Smet took place on February 2nd 1880 or February 29th 1880, and to include details from census reports on minor characters who are only mentioned once or twice?

Having said which, a lot of the information in the notes was fascinating, both from a historical point of view and from what it told us about familiar, well-loved characters. I was very sad to read that Cap Garland died in an accident when he was only in his twenties.   It was also fascinating to see the sort of thing reported in the De Smet Leader, the newspaper of what was then a very small town: it seems to have mentioned every event that took place within the small community, even things like Laura’s uncle visiting from out of town. Annoyingly, there’s no mention in the notes of one thing I’ve always wondered about – how Almanzo’s side of the family reacted to Laura’s very negative portrayal of her sister-in-law Eliza Jane! However, there’s an awful lot about a myriad of other things!

Incidentally, whilst I know that it’s the correct way of doing things, I couldn’t help wishing that the editor hadn’t referred to the author and her daughter as “Wilder” and “Lane”. Surely everyone thinks of them as “Laura” and “Rose”!   Using their surnames seemed so impersonal … and, yes, I know it’s correct, but I still wish she’d put “Laura” and “Rose” instead!

So, finally, there’s the most important bit – the actual Pioneer Girl text! What’s been reprinted is what Laura actually wrote (and Rose typed), complete with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, etc, so it doesn’t feel like a published book … but then maybe that’s the whole point, because it wasn’t a published book. When you know the Little House books so well, it’s well nigh impossible just to think of this as a book on its own. All the way through, I kept thinking that that bit wasn’t in the books, or that there were bits in the books that weren’t in this. The maple sugar bit from Little House in the Big Woods wasn’t there! I love that bit: I got so excited when I was in Quebec last year and was able to visit a real “sugar shack”! Nor were various other things – Laura and Carrie deciding to clean the entire house whilst Ma and Pa were away, for example. Ma’s china shepherdess was only mentioned in the notes, and Ma’s delaine dress with the buttons that looked like berries, another motif of the books, wasn’t there at all. All right, I’m not going to write a whole list of these, just to say that the original manuscript went through everything very quickly, and that I’m glad that we did get those extra details in the books … even if it’s not clear whether the famous china shepherdess ever actually existed or not.

Then there are all the scenes/sections which are in Pioneer Girl but aren’t in the Little House books – and these are what have grabbed the media attention. The media coverage of this book has given the impression that this book is full of violence, illegal acts and financial hardship, whereas the books (and I think some of the people who’ve reviewed this in the media have got the books mixed up with the TV series) give some sort of saccharine-sweet, idealised picture of pioneer life.

Well, for a kick off, the books do not give a saccharine-sweet depiction of anything: they make it quite clear that life on the frontier is very hard. However, there are certainly things here that don’t appear in the books. Young Laura, rather than staying safely at home with Ma and Pa, is sent off several times to act as a paid companion/babysitter and, in one instance, the man of the house where she’s working comes into her bedroom at night and tells her to “lie down and be still” … before, thankfully, going away when she had threatens to scream and wake his wife. There are also various Wild West tales of murder in saloons, and the domestic violence scenes involving the Brewsters are gone into in more detail than they are in the books. There are also a lot more references to people being killed by harsh weather conditions. Then there’s the period missed out of the books – although covered in a recent novel, Old Town in the Green Groves – in which the Ingalls family, struggling financially, run a hotel for a time, and end up doing a moonlight flit away from their creditors. It’s a period that also includes the birth and then the death in infancy of Laura’s brother Freddie, who isn’t mentioned in the books.

It really isn’t as hard-hitting and shocking as the reviews have made out, though, and the contrast between it and the books isn’t anything like as severe as people have said.

There are other things, too. In the books, Almanzo is the only bloke on the scene – whereas, in this, we learn that Laura had quite a number of admirers. There were bound to be far more young single men than young single women in a frontier town, so I suppose that’s no surprise, but we hear that Laura was quite keen on more than one of them over the years (and remember that she was only 18 when she married), and that she particularly fancied Cap Garland!  Other people in general feature far more in this than they do in the books: the Ingalls family have other people living with them at various points and, rather than life being centred on the home, De Smet has quite an active social life, with dances, singing schools and roller skating rinks!   And Pa acts as a justice of the peace for a time, earlier on.

So … is it possible to think of this as a book on its own merits, rather than comparing and contrasting it with the Little House books? Well, it wouldn’t have been published like this: it would have needed a lot of tidying up, polishing and revising, so that makes it difficult to judge. But the themes are there, and these are the same themes as those in the books. There’s the question of Pa’s itchy feet. Pa isn’t quite the Big Hero in this book in the same way as he is in the Little House books; but, even in this, Laura doesn’t really criticise him. Pioneering life was hard, and many people struggled, and you can’t blame Pa or anyone else for severe weather conditions or plagues of grasshoppers. But there’s always this tension between Ma wanting to settle town and Pa wanting to keep moving on. Reading the books as a young child, I suppose I felt that Pa was the exciting one and Ma was boring: now, my sympathies are all with Ma, and I feel strongly that Pa was really pretty selfish and might perhaps have been better suited to life as a single man. I never think of them as Mr and Mrs Ingalls, or as Charles and Caroline, only ever as “Ma” and “Pa”! Interestingly, Pioneer Girl ends with Laura, on her wedding day, thinking how happy she is to have a home of her own … does that suggest that she wasn’t quite as keen on keeping moving on as the books suggest?

Then there’s the other big issue – the question of white settlers moving into “”Indian Territory”.

Just one very anachronistic point first. In the areas where the US government allows settlement, you file a claim and you get your land. The American Dream. Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants series covers this from a different viewpoint, that of people coming from Sweden to settle in Minnesota in the 1850s. I could write a long list of examples from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries of governments and private companies inviting people to settle on lands that they were keen to develop/colonise. Sometimes they advertised, either by way of agents or in the press. Sometimes people were pretty much shipped off there, like it or not. Now, we’ve got a lot of people who want somewhere to go, and nowhere for them to go. All right, times are different now, and you couldn’t really tell people that they could have a piece of land in a sparsely-populated area part of the American Mid West, with no running water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, hospitals, schools, etc, and they probably wouldn’t accept even if you did, but … OK, this is irrelevant, but it’s something to think about.

Getting back to the point, in Little House on the Prairie, we’re given the impression that Pa doesn’t really realise that he’s accidentally built his family’s home just into “Indian Territory”. In Pioneer Girl, it’s quite clear that they’re well inside “Indian Territory”, and that he knows that jolly well. We also learn that Laura’s uncle, Tom Quiner, was one of a group of white men who moved into the Black Hills, when that entire area was supposed to be permanently exempt from white settlement under the Laramie Treaty of 1868. Tom and his companions were booted out, but, as we all know, before long there was a gold rush, and white settlers moved in.

Can you criticise individuals for being part of a wider movement that broke treaties and tragically destroyed the culture of the Great Plains? Well, yes, you can, because without individuals there would be no wider movement. Discussing the Little House books without discussing the treatment of Native Americans would be like discussing Gone With the Wind without discussing slavery. These issues don’t mean that we shouldn’t read the books, but we do have to be aware of them.

So, did I enjoy this? Well, yes, I did. If you’re worried that reading this will somehow destroy your feeling for the Little House books, then don’t. It won’t. It’ll just make you appreciate Laura all the more. The only problem you’re likely to have is the confusion of going backwards and forwards between the text and the notes!


3 thoughts on “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill

  1. mrsredboots

    If and when the budget allows, read Rose Wilder Lane’s “Free Land” (Amazon link: which is an adult “take” on the whole pioneer movement – it features all the hardships that Laura wrote about, but includes murder, horse theft, temptations to adultery (it is left unclear whether the people involved gave into them) etc. Very depressing, and a good antidote to those who find the “Little House” series saccharine. Which I don’t – but she does underplay the hardships rather.

    And they do have the singing school in the books – if you remember, Almanzo takes Laura to it each week, although at first they have to leave early because he is also (multi-tasking, much?) using the opportunity to train a new pair of horses. And it is after the last session of the year that he proposes to her.


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