Book Review: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Who is not familiar with little Laura Ingalls, who lived in a series of little houses? Whose childhood memories don’t include either the series of “Little House” books or the spin-off television series “Little House on the Prairie”?

Our books were blue-clad paperbacks illustrated by Garth Williams. My sister and I adored them, moving the books back and forth through the narrow strip of light shining into our room from the hall light as we read illicitly after bedtime. We loved them so much the spines started breaking and the pages got torn. Occasionally, we’d end up having to wait for the other to finish a volume so we could read it. Eventually, we’d check them out of the library to ensure that there’d always be a copy for both of us. Years later, I’d remember the insufficiency of just one set and would stockpile volumes as I found them at used stores, garage sales, and the library book sale. I left a set at my parents and still have two in my own home.

Laura’s story is a part of my story.

As a child, I was never too much interested in how much of the story was true and how much was invented. I didn’t worry about whether Laura was its true author or whether her daughter Rose wrote her mother’s stories for her. The important thing was that the story was authentic, not that it was true.

Honestly, although I’ve read a fair number of biographies of Wilder and have heard some of the theories, I’ve still never been much concerned with where the Little House books deviate from factual occurences. The books are sold as fiction – I don’t expect them to be completely accurate.

But I was curious when Laura’s heretofore unpublished autobiography Pioneer Girl was published last year. I was eager to hear Laura’s story from an adult perspective, a nonfiction take instead of a fictionalized version, in Laura’s own words instead of mediated by Rose. Having heard that the book was a large one, I figured I’d wait until the holds died down at the library (I don’t relish being forced to finish a book in 14 days, as I would if I requested it while it was new.) But then I read Janet’s review and knew I wanted to read it ASAP. I searched on Amazon, figuring I’d just buy it for myself – but the price put me into shock and I placed a request at my library anyway.

I shouldn’t have been worried about the time. When my request came through, I devoured the 370 pages in 3 days.

If I had been worried that Rose had written the novels for her mother, I wouldn’t be anymore. Laura’s voice is the same. If I had been worried that the novels took liberties with the facts, I wouldn’t be anymore. The story is recognizable from one version to the next. Yes, Laura abbreviated episodes, combined people, and rearranged the timeline somewhat in her novels (as well as leaving out a particularly dark year of the family’s life) – but the episodes are unchanged in essence.

Just the autobiography is worthwhile for fans of the “Little House” series. Reading this adult proto-version of Laura’s story adds depth and flavor to the novels we read as children. But the autobiography isn’t all this volume contains. This was published as an “annotated” autobiography, with at least as many words worth of footnotes as words of autobiography. The editor has commented on the different versions of the stories, on corroborating genealogical and census data, on sources of referenced songs or poems or books.

This is a treasure-trove for Little House fans – a glimpse into how the adult Laura viewed and interpreted her childhood, into how Laura’s authorial voice grew throughout the writing of different editions of Pioneer Girl and into the Little House books, into the reality of pioneer life. Fans should definitely read it.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: Autobiography with extensive historical annotations
Synopsis: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, written for adults, that she later adapted into the famous “Little House” series for children. This autobiography comes with meticulously researched historical annotations from Pamela Smith Hill of the South Dakota Historical Society.
Recommendation: Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder should definitely read this. If “Little House” didn’t play a role in your childhood, skip this (but get familiar with the Little House books by all means!)

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