Book Review: ‘Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography’

Pioneer life brought fully to life
August 11, 2015 Updated: August 23, 2015    

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of the most recognized names of children’s literature—and for good reason. It was she who brought tales of America’s pioneer days to thousands of young readers and introduced them to the genre of historical fiction. In fact, fiction is truly where those beloved “Little House” books belong. Although Wilder passed away in 1957, her dedicated fans can enjoy a new, “truer” account of her life in “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography,” complete with carefully researched editorial embellishments.

In 1930, a retired and restless Wilder sat down to write about her life as one of the many hopeful souls in search of a prosperous future. She wrote this first draft—titled “Pioneer Girl”—as an autobiography, but the project was abandoned in favor of the fictionalized book series for children.

Wilder never saw “Pioneer Girl” published, but as of late 2014, her followers can read her story as it was originally intended. “Pioneer Girl” is essentially the seed of the “Little House” series as we know it. As such, fans of her books will recognize many of the stories, places, and characters.

It is in no way a romanticized version of the late 1800s.

What they will be less familiar with are the harsher realities of pioneer living. While the autobiography is still adorned with the charming tales and beautiful imagery of Wilder’s vivid memory, it is in no way a romanticized version of the late 1800s. Readers will be introduced to drunken debauchery, adultery, and fevers so terrible that eating watermelon was forbidden. Watermelon would worsen fever symptoms.

The main portion of “Pioneer Girl” takes readers on an extensive family tour through the largely untamed American wilderness—from Kansas and on to Missouri, up to Wisconsin and Minnesota, stopping briefly in Iowa, back to Minnesota, and finally settling in Dakota Territory.

“Pioneer Girl” strips the “Little House” series of its fantasy. Not even her real-life courtship with her soon-to-be husband Almanzo Wilder could be considered romantic. Their first “dates” were spent on long, cold sleigh rides from the school at which she taught to her family home. It seems that they seldom spoke, and they were shy and modest up to the wedding. Yet perhaps this quiet bond of understanding between young Laura and Almanzo proves something more to the modern reader: There is enchantment to be found in realism, if one is willing to look.

The story’s conflict is not of an internal nature. Rather, the Ingalls family relies on one another for love and protection in a land fraught with thieves, murderers, and the destructive power of nature.

Their journey is further brought to life by the hundreds of insightful, carefully researched annotations. Editor Pamela Smith Hill is the brilliant beacon of information that guides modern readers through Wilder’s autobiographical story. Included in this book are relevant maps, vintage photographs, and excerpts from local newspapers.

Consider “Pioneer Girl” to be a firsthand history lesson—enriched by genealogy, geography, and an explanation of local culture. In this way, readers not only get an intimate look at Wilder’s life, but they also receive a fairly solid sense of what it was like to be a pioneer.

The reader will note that Wilder’s writing style is much simpler and direct than in her fictional series. This is a testament to her inexperience as a writer.

As “Pioneer Girl” was the first account of her life, Wilder had yet to hone her skills as a master of storytelling. The story’s lack of sensory details and the questions she left unanswered might have had her audience wanting more—if it were not for Hill’s useful annotations and background information.

For example, consider the following passage: “When the work was done, Ma would cut out paper dolls for us and let us cook on the stove for our play house dinners.” Hill then points readers to a passage in “Little House in the Big Woods,” where Wilder describes how the dolls were made and what they were made of. Hill adds, “By providing a few key details, Wilder pulled her readers into the unfolding action and brought the scene to life, a process she had quickly learned to master.”

In the end, the annotations work as a way for Hill to give readers more context as well as personal asides about Wilder’s writing style. The wealth of extra information feels, at times, overwhelming, but it gives readers the freedom to explore as much or as little as they want of Wilder’s world. Considering the sometimes choppy nature of “Pioneer Girl,” this partnership of story and annotations works nicely.

‘Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography’
By Laura Ingalls WilderPamela Smith Hill (editor)
South Dakota Historical Society Press
400 pgs; $39.95

Chelsea Scarnegie, from the Chicago area, has a degree in writing.