Book review: “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
Perhaps, as a child, you pored over the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her beloved books — like “Little House on the Prairie” and “Farmer Boy” — have been standard American reading for decades. And perhaps, as I once was, you were fascinated by the stories of children who could be so like you, yet whose lives were so far removed from your own. These were children who laughed and cried, who played and loved, yet they laughed to the tune of Pa’s fiddle, cried over Mary’s blindness and played catch with a pig’s bladder.
Who would have thought that more than 50 years after her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder would have a new book on the bestsellers list. Like other authorial autobiographies — such as Mark Twain’s, whose lengthy volumes were released at the centennial of his death — Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography remained unpublished, despite growing interest in her life, its relationship to her novels and how her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, influenced the biographical details in her work.
Enter “Pioneer Girl,” the definitive annotated edition of Wilder’s autobiography, a work that was heavily edited in her lifetime and remained unpublished for decades as her novels continue to enjoy lasting popularity. This beautiful edition — full of photographs, annotations and, of course, the story in Wilder’s own words — answers many of the questions left behind for Wilder fans and readers curious about pioneer life in the young West.
“Once upon a time,” the heavy volume begins, and the editor remarks that the opening may seem trite. Yet Wilder’s autobiography whisks the reader into her “once upon a time,” back to wooded Minnesota where the family passed a hard winter and to De Smet, South Dakota, where they faced difficulties in obtaining practical goods and in sustaining a farm. Though removed, the book still creates a portrait of the quintessential American West during a time of manifest destiny and of family, like so many of our Steamboat Springs forebears at the beginning of the last century.
This book keeps giving. Upon first reading, it has all the makings of Wilder’s original books as tales of the West. But it has another layer: The annotations that accompany the text. Wilder’s voice in writing is as clear and succinct as her children’s novels, but the editor subtly reveals the passages and scenes that never made it into the Little House on the Prairie series, mainly for their maturity of content. The editor, Pamela Smith Hill, uses images, maps and pertinent footnotes to create a complete picture of Wilder’s life and work, showing how the two have always been intertwined and inseparable.
There are many sites of pilgrimage for Laura Ingalls Wilder readers, since several associations bearing her name have established museums in the places she once lived: Minnesota, South Dakota and Oklahoma. Perhaps the most important of these is in Wilder’s central-Missouri final home, where she lived and wrote her books. I had the pleasure of taking the 18-hour drive last summer to this middle-of-nowhere, and walking in the space where Wilder once lived and wrote felt powerful, like being in another time. Entering “Pioneer Girl” is like reaching one of these far away sites, a “once upon a time” place where readers can find a whole world of the early American West between its pages.
Jamie Burgess is a barista at Off the Beaten Path
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