Pamela Smith Hill, editor
This book was everything I hoped it would be, and I enjoyed every page of it (if not every footnote).
I've written before about the books that made the strongest impressions on me as a child. Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books are the ones stamped most deeply into my literary DNA, before Louisa May Alcott or Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables. As I've said elsewhere, my dad bought me a copy of Little House on the Prairie when I was six. I still remember the trip to the store, walking back across the parking lot to the car, clutching that bright yellow cover. It's the first book I can remember anyone buying me. Of course I had other books, and I had already learned to read from them. But I have no memory of them. My reading life began with Laura and Mary and Jack the bulldog.
When I moved away from my home town to go to graduate school, I didn't take the Little House books with me. But I bought new copies before too long, and they're on the shelves behind me right now. As an adult, I find the books troubling in ways that I didn't as a child, particularly the treatment of Native Americans and the whole complicated history of westward expansion that underlies the stories. I don't read Little House on the Prairie very often these days (nor On the Banks of Plum Creek, for different reasons). But when I do sit down with Little House in the Big Woods, or The Long Winter, I am immediately back in a familiar world with characters that I have known and loved for more than 40 years now.
Even as a child, I was aware of them as characters. Though I couldn't have put it this way, I knew that these books were fictionalized accounts of the lives of the Ingalls and Wilder families. It was only recently, when I began reading biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that I began to understand where the lines between fiction and autobiography were drawn, and why. I found Pamela Smith Hill's Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer's Life, very informative and interesting. She drew extensively from Wilder's unpublished autobiography, which piqued my curiosity to read Wilder's own words.
When I finally got my copy of this massive book, I was not prepared for a 45-page introduction, which explains how Laura Ingalls Wilder came to write the manuscript of Pioneer Girl, and how it was then extensively re-written. The end result was four different versions, all aimed at an adult market. This book publishes Wilder's own work, her handwritten account, while sometimes noting (in the footnotes) where the other editions revised or changed the story. Another brief introductory section explains the different versions, and a final section outlines the editorial decisions made in preparing the manuscript for publication. As someone who works with historical manuscripts, I found this context informative and interesting. Less obsessive readers might only need to know that this edition consists of Wilder's original version, as written on a series of ruled notepads in 1929-1930.
The explanatory notes in this book are legion, sometimes taking up two pages between the actual text. They consist mainly of background information, on people, places and things. Every neighbor mentioned in the text, every animal and bird Pa hunts, every type of prairie grass known to humanity, is identified and explained as accurately as possible. The sheer level of detail can be overwhelming. I soon started skimming the animal and vegetable information, as well as the notes on every single song the family ever sang, including author and copyright if known. I did appreciate though learning that Pa's favorite song was "In the Sweet By and By," which was sung as his funeral. I always get a lump in my throat listening to that song.
The notes that point out where the later versions diverge from Laura Ingalls Wilder's original also cite letters showing how Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane wrestled with reshaping the material into children's books. For me, knowing those children's books almost by heart, reading this autobiography was like an x-ray into those familiar stories. I could see through them to the bones, the historical facts. I could recognize where Wilder turned the events of her own life into her fictional Laura's. The explanatory notes helped me see where and what she decided to cut - sometimes with Lane's advice, sometimes against. What struck me particularly was how Wilder's real-life mother was a much stronger presence in her daughter's life, how Wilder re-shaped the stories to make Pa the greater influence, Laura's ally and refuge. I remember from my earlier reading that Wilder rushed to her father's bedside in his final illness, yet twenty years later when her mother died, she was not even present for the funeral. But it was just a year after her mother's death that she wrote to an aunt, asking about "the little everyday happenings and what you and mother and Aunt Eliza and Uncle Tom and Uncle Henry did as children and young folks..."
I would have loved this book for the illustrations alone. There are maps of each place where the real-life Ingalls family lived, along with pictures both period and modern of the towns and smaller communities. There are numerous pictures of the family, including aunts, uncles and cousins. It was interesting to compare two of Laura's parents Caroline and Charles, one from around the time of their marriage in 1860, the other from De Smet days in the 1880s. I was also impressed at how many pictures of friends and neighbors appear. The photo researchers for this book really did an excellent job. And it was interesting to see the original illustrations by Helen Sewell in the 1930s editions, next to the familiar Garth Williams ones that I grew up with. The Williams illustrations are so much more realistic and life-like, and having seen pictures of the real-life Ingalls clan, I can recognize some of them in his work (like the wild Uncle George of the Big Woods). The extensive bibliography is impressive as well, and I've already requested a couple of the books cited from the library.
I had mentioned elsewhere one of the surprises in this book: that the Ingalls family had to skip out of town one night, owing back rent (which Charles Ingalls insisted he had already paid). This took place in Burr Oak, Iowa, a chapter in the family's life that was completely omitted from the Little House books. My other shocking revelation was that the real-life Laura hoped to dump Almanzo for Cap Garland, even after he brought her home from her remote school on the bitterly cold drive that could have killed them both. By the time that Cap got around to asking her out for a sleigh ride, though, she had already changed her mind in "Manley's" favor. And I did have to laugh at one anecdote, which for me brought Caroline Ingalls to greater life than in all her daughter's novels:
We played up stairs in the big loft while Aunt Martha and Ma got supper. We fought a little and made lots of noise so that Ma opened the stair door to tell us to be still. Nannie was crying because Will had pulled her hair; Joe was chasing me around the room threatening me because I had scratched his face and Mary and Letty were trying to catch Joe. I heard Aunt Martha say to Ma "You go up Caroline and spank them all. I'll go next time." Ma came up and spanked Will and Joe for being rough, Nannie for crying and me for scratching and Mary and Letty for helping make such a noise. Then she went down and we were quiet. Aunt Martha didn't have to come up.
More than sixty years later, that round of spankings remained vivid in her daughter's memory. And a wicked part of me was glad that the angelic Mary got spanked too.