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

South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-984-50417-6.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 12/04/2014

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: American Women in their Cultural/Historical Context

More than eighty years after it was written, finally fans of the Little House books have an opportunity to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography, on which the popular series was based. In a heavily annotated edition, with maps and appendices that enrich the text, here are her memories of her family and their pioneer life from 1869 to 1888 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territory.

Essentially Laura's factual personal history, Pioneer Girl was intended for adult readers. She had written for the St. Louis Star Farmer and the Missouri Ruralist, but that writing had generally been about farming and the rural lifestyle. After her parents and her older sister passed away, Laura began, at age 63, to devote herself to writing the family's experiences in the raw American West. This she did in pencil in six tablets that are transcribed and lightly edited for this edition.

Pioneer Girl tells the story of Laura's growing up years, from age two to eighteen. Taken by itself, without the annotations, it reads as a rough first draft, with all the immediacy that goes with getting memories down on paper quickly. It is fascinating to hear the Little House anecdotes told from an adult perspective, and to confirm the realities of pioneer life. Laura's voice feels genuine, and the asides to her daughter make it clear that one of her goals was to preserve familiar stories that were part of the family's legacy. The other object was to get the book published, in part because Laura had writing ambitions, but probably more because the Wilders desperately needed money, both parents and daughter having lost their savings in the economic collapse at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Where this book becomes complex is in the annotations. There are a great many notes, presented in a sidebar fashion, with much South Dakota history and details about the lives of most of the characters mentioned. That information makes this a longer and somewhat cumbersome read, though history buffs won't mind.

The more challenging aspect is that a large proportion of the notes are devoted to comparing this manuscript to the juvenile version presented in the Little House series. There seem to be two intentions here. Firstly, this is a definitive look at the original manuscript and how it was transformed from factual autobiography to juvenile fiction, which will be of interest to scholars and writers, but is perhaps less meaningful to general readers. Secondly, there is evident effort to insist on Laura's authorship and diminish the role that her daughter, Rose Lane, played in producing the Little House books.

Lane had always been her mother's editor and typist, fitting that work around her own much-admired writing. She was an important author of her time, with major connections in the publishing world. It is safe to say that the Little House series would never have been produced without her help—in the editing, in finding an agent, and in facilitating publication. Further, there are strong arguments suggesting that Lane had a larger hand in the writing than this edition of Pioneer Girl acknowledges. To take a deeper look at this, Susan Wittig Albert has published A Wilder Rose, an historical novel based on Lane's diaries and letters and other documentary evidence, which convincingly demonstrates her participation as her mother's silent partner in authoring the Little House books.

Whether or not a reader is concerned with this controversy, what Pioneer Girl provides is Laura's unedited and original voice. The writing is not polished or professional, but she is telling her life experience as she recalls it. As always, a true story makes for compelling and engaging reading, and for those of us who grew up with Laura Ingalls as our heroine, Pioneer Girl adds the spice of adult reality to the childhood saga.

Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of Pioneer Girl, is also the author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, and several young adult novels, including the Civil War story A Voice from the Border. She teaches professional and creative writing and speaks about writing to audiences of all ages. Learn more about her on her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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