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 Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/16/2014

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

The manuscript text documented in Pioneer Girl takes us deep into the real life of a pioneer family that barely clung to a hard-luck existence on the margins of nineteenth-century American settlement. It also reveals a great deal about Laura Ingalls Wilder's competence and ambitions as a writer, and the great distance a story can travel between real life and fiction. Readers and scholars alike will be delighted to have—at long last—the text of Wilder's unpublished autobiography. Kudos to the South Dakota State Historical Society for bringing us this book.

But however glad we are to finally have easy access to Wilder's autobiography, Pamela Smith Hill's editorial work raises some significant questions. Central to these is what scholars call "editorial intrusion." To put it plainly, an editor of an important literary document (and Wilder's manuscript is certainly important) has a very special obligation, beyond his or her first duty to represent the text exactly as the author produced it. In notes and textual annotations, the editor must be impartial on controversial issues and present the text fully and neutrally, so that scholars and general readers can read without distraction or undue editorial influence. All editors will agree that neutrality is a difficult thing and that they spend a great deal of time examining their work to be sure that their opinions and interpretations (especially regarding controversial issues) don't distract from the reading or lead the reader to particular conclusions. In other words, an editor should never get in the reader's way.

In Pioneer Girl, the text itself is carefully and accurately presented, but it is heavily laced with Smith-Hill's editorial intrusions. Some are seemingly factual but are inaccurate and the sources are undocumented. Others are opinions presented as fact. Many are designed to buttress the editor's contention that Wilder is the primary author of the Little House books and to dispute suggestions that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was anything more than an "editor" of the books and "literary agent" for the series. All are presented in the margins of the pages, rather than as appendices in the back, where they would at least have been less obtrusive.

I suggest that you read and enjoy Pioneer Girl for what it is: a valuable presentation of Wilder's unpublished autobiographical manuscript, the source from which she and her daughter later drew the Little House books. Use the historical notes to further your own understanding and research. Weigh each editorial comment thoughtfully. Be aware that they reflect the editor's opinions and don't always tell the full story behind this important manuscript and the ways in which it was subsequently developed.

That said, I loved Laura's tale, with all its artlessness and gritty details. I will be reading and rereading it for a long time to come.

About herself, Smith Hill says: "I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, on a steady diet of Bible stories and old TV westerns. Maybe that's why I like to write about the past. Or maybe it was Jo March in Little Women. She was a tomboy and bookworm—just like me. But somehow she managed to become a writer. And almost from the very beginning, that's what I wanted to be, too." Read the rest on her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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