It’s rare to find kids and grown-ups these days who aren’t at least a little familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, even if it’s just via the classic-but-mostly-inaccurate TV show, Little House On the Prairie. The original chronicles of Wilder’s life are staples on library and home bookshelves all over the world. It may seem like the stories sprang unaided from the mind of this unassuming Midwestern woman, written on thick grocery store notebook paper. In actuality, what was written on the grocery store paper wasn’t the Little House Books, but an entirely different manuscript, Pioneer Girl, and Wilder had help from various corners when she brought what we know as her story to life. Unpublished until 2014 and edited by Pamela Smith Hill, Pioneer Girl reveals the history and development of Wilder’s classic novels, as well as facets of Wilder’s real story never before revealed.
Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 in Wisconsin, and spent her childhood through her early teen years moving from place to place on the prairies with her parents and sisters. According to the novels, the Ingalls went from Pepin, Wisconsin to southeastern Kansas to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and finally to South Dakota, where Pa was a founding father of the town of DeSmet. According to Pioneer Girl, however, their journey was a lot more zig-zaggy. After their brief time in Kansas, the Ingalls family went back to their old house in Wisconsin while Pa and Ma figured out what to do next. Also left out of the books was their time in Burr Oak, Iowa, where Pa had a store.
There were plenty of other differences as well–way too many to cover here. For instance, during the Hard Winter of 1881, the Ingallses had a young couple with a baby boarding with them, George and Maggie Masters, while they rode the winter out in Pa’s store. Food was scarce enough, and the Ingallses had a dairy cow, but what little milk she produced was given to mom and baby. The situation was so dire that the last bag of flour in town sold for a dollar a pound, an exorbitant price in that day. It didn’t help that George was sort of greedy, too–as soon as the food was put on the table, he was on it, even steaming hot potatoes, which burned his mouth and served him right for being grabby. On the bright side, he did become an inside joke for the family: “Potatoes do hold the heat!” Good thing the Ingallses could laugh, otherwise the Hard Winter would have been even harder. The Masterses were left out of The Long Winter because there was no way to put a good face on the situation, plus Laura felt it took away from Almanzo’s saving the townspeople from starvation.
In Pioneer Girl, Laura’s family was bigger than she mentions in her novels–she had a little brother, Charles, who died as a baby. Why she chose to leave him out is a mystery–maybe she thought there would be too many characters, or maybe including Charles was too painful.
Pioneer Girl is decidedly more adult in nature than the “Little House” books, but not in a steamy sort of way. Some of the book does sound like it’s right out of a soap opera, though. In one part, a married storekeeper in Minnesota is in love with his teenaged clerk. In another, Laura is almost raped by the son of a family she was boarding with, except that she threatened to yell her head off if he didn’t leave her alone.
Laura definitely didn’t glamourize things. She wrote about a family named the Hunts, who camped on the Ingalls’ claim shanty for a short period of time, only to go back to their own land to find a claim jumper. The Hunts’ son, Jack, who had a wife and two children, was shot in the stomach by the intruder and died while being taken to the doctor. The Ingallses decided to live on their claim shanty after that, just in case, even though the house had only one room.
It’s surprising (or maybe not) how much Laura changed or was simply unaware of when she wrote Pioneer Girl. For instance, the Reverend Alden, who was always welcome in the Ingalls home, did go out west as Laura mentioned in Little Town On the Prairie. What she didn’t say is that he was appointed agent for the Fort Berthold Indian Agency in North Dakota, and he wasn’t exactly a success–among other things, he hoarded money that had been earmarked for carpentry while putting his wife on the payroll. The Native Americans mistrusted him to the point that they threatened to kill him, but Alden had to stick it out until he was replaced.
Another thing is that Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Oleson was actually a composite of Stella Gilbert, Genevieve Masters, and Nellie Owens. These three girls ran in a group at the Walnut Grove school, with Nellie as the leader, and they were rather snobby and spoiled. The girls tried to high-hat Laura, but she wouldn’t have any of it, and they ended up eating out of her hand. Later, when the Ingallses had moved to DeSmet, they found Genevieve there as well, not Nellie, as told in Little Town On the Prairie. Just as in the book, even though she was the odd one out this time, Genevieve was as uppity as ever. It was unusual for Laura to change the names of the people she wrote about, though–most of the time, the character names seen in the Little House books were the real-life ones.
As for Laura’s relationship with Almanzo, what’s in Pioneer Girl is familiar. It was condensed a bit for pacing in These Happy Golden Years. Even in its rough form, it’s a sweet story. Almanzo would drive out to bring Laura home from school, in spite of his friends saying he was crazy for going so far every Friday night. Laura and Almanzo went driving together frequently, and from the first, there was something between them. Mrs. McKee told Laura that she would marry Almanzo someday just to keep from hurting his feelings, but I don’t think Laura took much persuading–she wrote that being with Almanzo gave her “a homelike feeling.”
Laura started writing Pioneer Girl after her mother and sister, Mary died in the nineteen-twenties, and Laura suddenly became gripped by the realization that her history was disappearing. Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who was an established writer, encouraged her mother to write down her family’s history, and she was one of her mother’s editors. Rose also had kinda sticky fingers–once the manuscript was done, she used Pioneer Girl as source material for her own books, in particular Let the Hurricane Roar. Laura wasn’t too pleased that Rose had mined Pioneer Girl without a by-your-leave, and for a time the two of them were estranged.
Pioneer Girl is heavily annotated, and what’s there is a gold mine, with tons and tons of clarification and facts about Laura’s world. It’s like a museum. There are plenty of daguerreotypes throughout the book, and I enjoyed getting to see what the real people she mentioned looked like. There are also tons of photos of the Ingallses and Wilders’ various home sites and how they look today. As for the text, I really appreciated that it was formatted nicely around the annotations, with few breaks in the sentences between the sidebar material–it ups the readability factor when things are paced well. My only slight complaint is that what is presented as an introduction would have been better as an afterword. It’s interesting, but it is long, and there’s always the temptation to skip these sorts of things and get right to the main body of the book.
Pioneer Girl is quite an eye-opener, but in a good way. A very good way. It’s a fascinating and extensive behind-the-scenes look at Laura’s writing process and what it took to make the Little House books what they became.
Next month is gonna make July look downright tame, folks, because there will be not one, not two, not three, but four blogathons coming up (Heh, heh. I must be nuts. 🙂 ):
If anyone’s interested in contributing, here are the pertinent links:
- En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon
- The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon
- The Third Annual Barrymore Trio Blogathon
- The Third Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon
August is gonna be crazy-busy, but fun. See you then!