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But I was curious when Laura’s heretofore unpublished autobiography Pioneer Girl was published last year.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!)

Cooking through Farmer Boy

When I first became obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, Farmer Boy and The Long Winter were tied for first place in my affections.

The Long Winter appealed to my love for stories telling of survival in the midst of adversity. Farmer Boy appealed to my love for food.

Whose mouth does not water as they read the description of those stacked pancakes, piled high with butter and maple sugar? Who does not long to be beside Almanzo, silently eating the sizzling ham, the stewed pumpkin, the mashed potatoes and gravy? And the pie, oh that pie!

I dreamed of the pies, of the ice cream, of the pound cake and taffy. I delighted in the descriptions of the familiar and wished to try the unfamiliar – Rye’n’Injun bread, apples’n’onions, wintergreen berries. Oh, how I wanted to try those.

Knowing that Farmer Boy was the next book in my re-reading of the series for Barbara’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge, I determined to cook up some of those toothsome meals.

Now, neither Daniel nor I are 19th century farmers and our calorie needs are significantly less than those of the Wilder family. Furthermore, Laura’s descriptions of the meals are often regarded to be hyperbolic, reflecting more food than even a well-off family like the Wilders would have at a typical meal. So I didn’t at all feel bad about paring the meals down to a more manageable size for our purposes.

We had fried ham, stewed squash (in lieu of stewed pumpkin), and mashed parsnips for our first meals – and then I read through chapter 2 again and discovered that it was mashed turnips they had rather than parsnips. Oh well, the parsnips were good – and I was reminded how much I like them.

We made twisted doughnuts (using the recipe in The Little House Cookbook) with lots of powdered sugar on top – and I decided that I liked the twisted technique even if it didn’t flip itself like Mother Wilder’s did. I think I’d like to try the technique again, only with a yeast dough (I prefer raised doughnuts in general.)

With our friend Ruth, we made stacked pancakes (with maple syrup instead of maple sugar), sausage patties in gravy, and apple turnovers.

I used the leftover pastry from the apple turnovers to make a pumpkin-pecan pie, which we ate with more ham and fried potatoes and apples’n’onions. I decided that apples’n’onions are amazing and I should cook them all the time (except that my husband only moderately likes them, so I should just cook them occasionally.)

I made baked beans using Mother Wilder’s technique – take boiled beans (I used Great Northern Beans), add salt pork (I used fatty bits left on the bone I’d boiled the beans with) and onions and green peppers, pour scrolls of molasses over top and bake at a low temperature for a long time. Daniel’s not usually a big fan of baked beans, but he actually liked these fairly well, especially after adding a bit of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I’ll be using this as a jumping-off point to try to come up with a recipe he’ll really like for everyday use. With the baked beans, I served rye’n’injun bread (made using the recipe in The Little House Cookbook). I really enjoyed the flavor of rye and cornmeal together, but the bread ended up dry and dense (probably because of long cooking time at low temperature and not quite enough steam in my oven.) The next time I make cornbread, I’m going to try using my regular recipe but substituting rye flour for the wheat flour to make a modern-day Rye’n’Injun bread.

Finally, after the month was over, I got around to making roast beef and mashed potatoes with pan gravy, boiled turnips, and boiled carrots. I know I’ve had turnips before, but I was pleasantly surprised at the horseradishy flavor they have, and resolved to find more to do with turnips.

All in all, I ended up making some of the more mundane recipes from the book, holding off on all the pies and cakes and ice cream and taffy. And I discovered just how delicious meat and potatoes can be (and how many vegetables I forget exist.) Mother Wilder didn’t have fresh greens all through the winter, didn’t even have canned green beans or fruits. She had apples, onions, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and squash – but she used them again and again throughout the winter to provide her family with surprisingly fruit and vegetable heavy meals. I’m encouraged that I can do the same, using these root vegetables to round out my usual go-to frozen vegetables or fresh salads.

In addition to cooking from Farmer Boy, I did actually read it – and made some comments on the chapter on Springtime.

Head over to the wrap-up post for Barbara’s challenge to see what others have been reading, and what they’ve said about it.

The Prairie, Revisited

Someday, I’m going to be a pioneer. I’ll travel in a covered wagon, settle on an empty prairie, build a log cabin with timber cut from the creek bed. I’ll cut notches in the logs and carefully set notch upon notch, climbing the corners of the cabin to build it higher and higher.

It’s been a dream of mine since my earliest days, those days when I first read Little House on the Prairie.

But while I’ve been able to accomplish some of the childhood dreams elicited by books, I have not accomplished this particular one-and likely never will.

The closest I’ll get will be building Lincoln log houses with children.

And that’s okay.

I was struck, rereading Little House on the Prairie for the first time in several years, with how much of the book is focused on the mechanics of building a home from scratch–but also much I missed of the rest of the book.

I never caught, on my early readings, just how tenuous the Ingalls’ resettlement was. Pa heard a rumor that Indian territory would be opening for settlement, so he uprooted his family and moved in. Despite there being plenty of non-Indian land around, Pa settled within an Indian reservation–knowing that it was an Indian reservation. He considered it to be just a matter of time before the Indians would be resettled. That’s what happens when white men move forward, he assumed; the Indians move on to make place for them. And of course the US government would back up the white settlers who were squatting on Indian land. Of course.

It’s astonishing to think. How can someone (who isn’t desperate) know that the land they’re living on belongs to someone else but yet still choose to build upon it in hopes that they’ll come out on top in the end?

In some ways, Pa seems so advanced in his views of Indians. He didn’t hate them or fear them, he tended towards the “noble savage” viewpoint (which I definitely had as a child, at least in part obtained from the Little House books). Yet his attitude in settlement was almost like many would treat wild animals. Yes, suburban sprawl will impact the native animal population, but people are more important than animals and the animals will move to other places and adapt.

It’s challenging, revisiting the prairie through these new eyes.

My view of Little House on the Prairie has also changed now that I am married and have moved from being near my family to be with my husband. In the months leading up to our marriage, Daniel and I talked of various directions our life could take-of different educational and professional routes Daniel could take, of different places we might end up living. I blithely told Daniel that I would follow him anywhere.

And it’s true. I will follow him anywhere.

But, having moved once to follow him, my determination to follow him anywhere has much more fear attached.

The move to Wichita has not been easy for me. I battled a depression over this past year that was more severe than any I have battled before. I am now finally, one year out, starting to find my balance. The thought of uprooting again terrifies me.

I can’t help but think of Caroline Ingalls as I read Little House on the Prairie. I imagine how hard it must have been for her, leaving her family and “civilization”, spending months without anyone to talk to but her husband and their children, just starting to establish a home when news comes that you must move again.

I wonder if she felt more sorrow or more relief when it became clear that they must not stay, that they would need to backtrack, that they would return to Wisconsin. Was she sorrowful because of the year lost, the work done and left for others to enjoy? Or was she elated to be returning back to her family, to the little house they once loved? And what was she thinking when Pa’s wanderlust struck again later (when they left for the banks of Plum Creek)?

It’s interesting, revisiting old places and seeing them through older, more mature eyes.

I wondered at the beginning of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge if I wouldn’t try to make something from Little House on the Prairie, like I did with Little House in the Big Woods a couple years ago. I didn’t. The closest I got was creating some log cabin quilt blocks for a quilt for a soon expected nephew and building log cabins with Lincoln logs with the kids of some friends from church.

I don’t regret that I didn’t do more–this year’s challenge was thought provoking enough that I didn’t need the extra activities.

I read this title as a part of Barbara H’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge and the Reading to Know Classics Book Club. You can check out what other people have been reading at Barbara’s challenge wrap up post and the RTK wrap-up post.

Book Review: Laura Ingalls Wilder by William Anderson

I’ve read my fair share of Laura Ingalls Wilder biographies for children–most (if not all) of them fitting into the glossy paged photograph-laden category. Each biography has a tendency to veer one of two directions: either it focuses almost entirely on the information Laura shared in her Little House books (thereby adding nothing for the avid reader) or it focuses almost entirely on the ways reality deviated from the Little House books (thereby destroying a young reader’s trust in the essential historicity of Wilder’s novels.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder: A biography by William Anderson is as different from those biographies as a book can be. It is not a glossy picture book with minimal text. It is not simply a retelling of Laura’s Little House books. Neither is it a critical look at how Laura changed her story.

Instead, it’s an honest to goodness biography written at a reading level (and in a style) similar to Laura’s “Little House” books. Anderson explicitly mentions some things that are different from the books (for instance, that Laura was actually much younger than described in Little House on the Prairie when her family settled in Indian territory); but he mostly writes Laura’s story as it occurred, letting the Wilder fan take notes of where stories were slightly altered or moved to a different context in the Little House books.

I loved it.

I think this book would have been very accessible to me in the throughs of my first Little House obsession (age 6-8), and would have added to my understanding of pioneer life (and Laura’s life in particular) without dissuading me from love for the Little House series.

It is a book of substance not of fluff, written simply but not condescendingly. I recommend it highly.

Having said all that, I think it is important that I clarify. This book is written for an elementary to middle school audience, so it doesn’t go into great detail about certain things. Those who are interested in a more in-depth discussion of Pa’s squatting on an Indian reservation or of other harsh components of pioneer life will be disappointed. Don’t expect an adult biography. But, for what it is, a children’s biography of a beloved author, this is a very good book.

I read this title as a part of Barbara H’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge. You can check out what other people have been reading at her wrap up post.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: Children’s biography
Synopsis: A biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder from birth to death; written for an elementary to middle grade audience.
Recommendation: Definitely recommended for the target audience (although older folks can enjoy it too).