Sunday, May 7, 2017

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Pamela Smith Hill, editor

I am listening to Mazurka by Tchaikovsky, an interesting rendition on the Vibraphone, and Alexander Glasunov's (Mazurka Oberek).  

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated AutobiographyPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For those of us who have fond memories of reading the Little House on the Prairie books to ourselves and later to our children, Pioneer Girl is a heavily annotated book that provides the original manuscript Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote with every page filled with background comments by the editor.

Some reviews stated they found the annotations to be cumbersome reading but I thought the notes were what made the book worth reading at all.

In the 1920's, after the death of Wilder's mother and a few years later of her sister, Mary, Laura may have developed a sense of her own mortality since by that time she was in her sixties. With the encouragement of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder began writing down all her memories and putting them in book form. The work was non-fiction and she was scrupulous about making sure her facts about names and places were accurate. She later remarked that she wished she had not used real names so she wouldn't be beholden to keeping facts straight.

Even with the combined research of Rose and Laura, there were certain discrepancies which the notes point out. Hill's notes show that she researched all available records in available newspapers, census bureaus, and town obituaries, marriages and land ownership. She points out when she could not find any record of people Laura mentions in her book or if she got her dates wrong. A lot of the early passages, Laura was simply too young to remember and had to rely on family stories and tradition.

The book begins with a long introduction which traces the inspiration for the book and how it came to be written. It also offers insight into the character of Laura Ingalls and her daughter Rose.

There has been speculation that Rose had a heavy hand in writing the Little House books but after reading Pioneer Girl I conclude that, while Rose served as a valuable editor, she ultimately did not write the stories. She was not above, however, plagiarizing her mother's work.

Rose Wilder Lane was already a successful writer and it was through her contacts that Laura was able to find a publisher. However, gaining access to her mother's writings, Lane rewrote the stories and had them published under her own name in various magazines.

When Laura discovered this, she was not pleased, but Rose made it clear that she saw nothing wrong in what she did and furthermore would do as she pleased. This led Laura to concede defeat but also to getting Rose to agree to allow Laura to collaborate with her on developing the stories.

Laura finally finished her own version of her stories and Rose enthusiastically promoted it, taking her mother to different publishers. They submitted a variety of versions but could not generate interest in the book.

One publisher told Laura that she should rewrite the book as a collection of children stories, told in the third person, rather than first person non fiction as Pioneer Girl was written. As we all know, this is what Laura did and the rest is history.

Pioneer Girl is the original manuscript, and after reading it, it is easy to see why it never succeeded. It's like a very long Christmas letter and wholly lacks the charm and enchanting innocence of the Little House books.

Some of Laura's true character is exposed and not always favorably. In reality she seems to have been rather bossy and judgmental, often describing people or events as "stupid". Nevertheless, she valued hard work and was severe on people she saw as lazy and leaches on society. Her strong work ethic caused her to judge hard drinking because she saw the cause and effect between alcoholism and shiftlessness.

It seems alcoholism was a real problem on the frontier. The first building set up in the towns was invariably a saloon which brought in all sorts of problems: domestic violence, unemployment and crime. Laura describes how alcohol abuse turned frontier towns into unsafe environments. When looking at it in that context, one sees why Temperance societies sprang up.

Laura was rather harsh on a variety of people. While the Little House books describe her family as practicing the Christian religion and going to church, when a church was available, the real Laura does not strike me as having been particularly religious. I could be wrong because she makes no explicit statement but she does demonstrate her contempt for preachers and Sunday School teachers by providing several examples that put them in a negative light.

Perhaps these are real and vivid memories for her, but was every Christian she met greedy, selfish and dishonest? Especially when we arrive at the conclusion that Laura was not overly honest herself.

In her "non fiction" record she includes a story where her father encounters the Bender family and joins a group of vigilantes who capture and administer "justice" to this serial-killing family. Hill notes in the side bar that by looking at the dates the Bender family lived in Kansas, the Ingalls family lived nowhere near the area.

It is speculated that Rose and Laura were hoping to include a notorious crime legend like the Bender family, so it would add spice to the story and increase sales. It is unfortunate that Laura read her stories at a book fair and declared that every word she wrote was "absolutely true."

Those negatives aside, and they are minor negatives in my opinion, what makes the book worth reading is the background and biographical information that Hill provides as well as the many photographs of the Ingalls family and also many of the characters in the book. 

For those of us who love the Little House books, this book will give a richer dimension, even if we learn "our Laura" was as human as the rest of us.

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  1. I never read Laura Ingalls Wilder, but like just about every American my age the television series Little House on the Prairie was very popular when I was growing up.

    I have noticed how beloved her books are to so many. It sounds as if she was a very flawed person. Sometimes I find it so difficult to reconcile a person's writing with their personal behavior. Some people are able to show a completely different face to the world when they write.

    1. Hi Brian. I remember enjoying the Little House show years ago, although it seemed there was a lot of crying, which, when reading the books, the people of the 19th century were rather a stoic lot and crying wasn't tolerated among children much.

      Sometimes I wonder if it's a good trade off to read the real life of a beloved author. I'm addicted to biographies so I guess it doesn't matter but you hate to find out things about the write that might disappoint you.

      Have a good week.

  2. i'm with Brian in my non reading of Wilder; but it's an interesting post and a good example of the unperceived currents splashing along behind/underneath any human endeavour...

    we've been out of town for a few, not much chance to listen to any music, except a bit on the radio, part of the Emperor Concerto, my favorite of B's piano pieces, and some other odd interjections; one of the wieniovski concerti (sp)...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle, hope where ever you went it was fun.

      The Emperor Concerto is one of my favorites. I never learned it but a fellow student when I was in high school did and won the state competition with it. I was always a little competitive with her.

      I need to listen to the Wieniawski. I assume you mean the violin # 2. I'm not real familiar with it. I"m going to listen to that next.

      The concerto that I played in high school that I loved was the Schumann. I might have placed in a competition except I had a major memory lapse and blew it. Ah's still beautiful and I love listening to it.

    2. I do recognize the last movement. Nice!

    3. i deeply sympathize with you "blowing it", as you say; that happened to me once and it was a deeply traumatic experience and one of the factors that drove me away from music... unfortunately, i didn't have anyone to talk to about it; that might have made a difference; or it might not... don't know, now...

    4. I'm sorry about your negative experience. Luckily I had really supportive parents and my piano teacher was a super person. In fact I consider him a major influence in my life.

      My sister had a different experience with him. She had a memory block at a recital. I still remember the piece: Solfeggio. She finally just had to get up from the piano and walk off. She felt our teacher was not sympathetic and she never forgave him.

      Fast forward to last year. Her son played the same song in a piano competition and had the same memory block. My sister thought the evil ghost of the song had come back to haunt her. But what was funny is that her son was a great improvisor and she was the only one who knew he had a memory lapse.

      I wish your experience hadn't driven you away, but at least you can enjoy music on a level most people can't because they don't play an instrument. Take care!

    5. what a strange series of events! if it was in a book, no one would believe it! and tx for comment on my comment...

    6. Mudpuddle: I think that my sister's son conquering the piece even though he forgot in the exact same place allowed her to have closure and the "ghost" of the song was finally laid to rest.

  3. My wife, my girls, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading these books. We are currently reading "On The Banks of Plum Creek." Reading to my girls is the first time I had ever read the series. I do remember a few TV episodes.

    The biography sounds interesting. However, I like imagining Laura the way she is written in the story and I am not sure I would want to change my perception of her..

    Thank you for the review!

    1. Hi Chris! I sometimes wonder if it's such a good idea reading biographies. I think if the bio is good and I don't really care whether they were a nice person or not it'd be fine. But if it's someone I like, I don't want to find out they were a jerk.

  4. I really like annotated editions & I didn't know that Pioneer Girl was the original version of her books. I read the first 7 books aloud & my children re-read them over & over as well as the rest of her Little House books. I never got the idea she was religious, or had any personal faith, although her sister Mary did, acoording to Laura. It is a bit disappointing to find that the character of a writer you enjoyed is so flawed!

    1. Hi Carol. I grew up reading the Little House books and they're an all time favorite. I guess I assumed she was a Christian because her books record going to church and praying, but it may have been the cultural background.

      Also, I'm not sure we can ever truly know someone through another's eyes. I think the editor tried hard to be thorough but some reviews complain that she had it in for Rose.

      Perhaps, biographies will always fail at truly capturing who the person was.

  5. I read this last year, and I was really grateful for the opportunity, especially to read the annotations. The "supporting evidence" give extra insight into what was really going on, and it was not pretty.

    Regarding Laura's religious life, I get the sense (according to the Little House books) that it was more cultural. She never seemed deeply religious to me. She also did not like the Reverend Brown very much and called his sermons stupid. Sometimes there was a sarcastic quality about her attitude toward church.

    I agree with Chris. I like this think of Laura as the woman I made up in my head by reading her children's series. It may never change.

    1. Hi Ruth. I agree with your first two paragraphs. That bothered me even in the books when she referred to Brown's sermons as stupid. I think when I was young and grew up in a Christian household I assumed everyone else did as well. The child-like innocence of the books contributed to that as well.

      And I agree with your last paragraph. Let's just enjoy the books for what they are because we can never truly know who the real Laura was.

  6. This is a interesting topic.

    1. Hi Sruthi! I agree. Thanks for visiting my blog.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.