Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I've always been fascinated with tales of life on the frontier. I imagined covered wagons rolling slowly across the country, crossing windswept plains and forests tangled and brimming with life, fording creeks and circling up around a camp fire. Especially as a child, I would devour anything on the subject. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a hero in my eyes, and I read each of the Little House on the Prairie books with an eagerness that bordered on impatience. I needed to know what it was like to live in that era, so different from my own. As an adult my literary tastes are more diverse, but I still retain an appreciation for that era, particularly when considering the fact that Wilder grew up traveling in a covered wagon, but eventually endured both world wars and lived to see Elvis, broadcast television and commercial airline flights.
Pioneer Girl is the autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the material upon which Little House on the Prairie was based. When I discovered this new book, I was immediately overcome by the same enthusiasm that held me as a girl. The book itself is a beauty, with whimsical cover art, high quality paper, and endearing illustrations. It comes only in hardback, a charming and somewhat frustrating novelty in the digital era. So far as I can tell, there are no plans to digitize it or release a paperback version. This makes the book a bit difficult to come by, an issue exacerbated by the fact that it's so far only been printed in relatively small batches, so sellers tend to remain out of stock for long periods of time. You can imagine, then, just how grateful I was to finally get my hands on a copy. Lovingly crafted, Pioneer Girl represents decades of careful preservation and research. It's the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood, as told by herself, but it's also the story of the manuscript, and by extension her adult life as a writer. I can imagine that some might find the level of detail it contains dry, but I am smitten with it.
The book is divided roughly into three parts, each of which serves an entirely different function. The first section, written by the editor of the project, Pamela Smith Hill, offers the history and context of the manuscript itself, and in doing so, attempts to draw conclusions about Wilder's adult life. This image remains frustratingly incomplete, though by no fault of Hill herself. Piecing together the letters of Wilder's daughter Rose, and what little written material remains, Hill describes how Pioneer Girl was made, how it faded from view, and how it has now returned. This is followed by the largest portion of the book, the autobiography itself. I was pleased that very few edits were made to Wilder's original, excepting a handful of places which required clarification. Any alterations are made clear through the use of differing fonts and brackets. Rather than editing Wilder's work, Hill opted to extensively annotate it, and the margins are filled with notes and pictures. This style allows the reader easy access to them, or it allows them to be ignored entirely. Lastly, the end is filled with an extensive source list as well as copies of original documents, such as Rose's early attempt at a juvenile version.
When I bought Pioneer Girl, I was expecting the autobiography. All the other parts, including the extensive annotations, were a lovely surprise. Wilder wrote it when she was still relatively new to writing. Much of the work, particularly early on, feels fragmented and abrupt. Hill's extensive introduction prepares you for the style of the work, and her annotations brilliantly supplement any places where the reader may find Wilder's narrative thin. If you intend on finding a copy for yourself, (and you have a good deal of time to read it with), I recommend that you read it like this: read Hill's introduction, read Pioneer Girl ignoring the annotations, and then return and read Pioneer Girl again with all of the annotations. This may seem like an arbitrary inconvenience, but when you take away the annotations, the manuscript is really not that long and can be read fairly quickly. I recommend this because the sheer amount of annotations can cause you to lose sight of the narrative if you stop for each and every one, particularly when a single paragraph might have an entire page of annotations. I tried it this way at first and found myself rereading most pages anyways, so I decided to skip the annotations the first time around. This helped me enormously. For those disinclined to reread, consider finishing each page and then returning to read all relevant annotations.
As for the content itself, it is both lovely and a good deal grittier than her children's books. In frank terms, Wilder describes a life filled with work, hardship, illness and a lack of material comforts, though also courage, love and fellowship. It's easy to see how much material in the Little House on the Prairie series came from her life, but it's also easy to see what was left out. For example, times of illness and poverty were often left out entirely or abbreviated. The new material, alongside Hill's annotations, made me appreciate the book as a natural sequel for those who grew up on the Little House books. Even for those who did not grow up reading Wilder, it serves as a great historical reference for the American frontier. The narrative includes a whole range of emotions, peppering in humor, sincerity and misfortune in equal measure and despite the roughness of the writing, I was often taken aback by Wilder's ability to vividly capture the frontier landscape in lovely prose. I am usually willing to encourage people to read the things I enjoy, but I have particularly strong feeling about this book in particular. If you have any interest in it all, I hope that you'll look for a copy. They remain illusive in stores, but they come and go on Amazon and you might consider checking your local library if you'd prefer to avoid the hassle. Either way, it's well worth the wait.