Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me
By Nancy McCabeDecember 10, 2014
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Pamela Smith Hill and Laura Ingalls Wilder
WHEN I WAS A GIRL, I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder as my grandmother, sort of. My mother had grown up in Missouri, down the road from Rocky Ridge Farm during the years Wilder was there writing the Little House series. Like the Ingalls, who briefly settled in eastern Kansas in the second of the books, Little House on the Prairie, my family, too, lived on land that had once belonged to the Osage Indians (albeit in a different part of the state). So this was the terrain of my childhood, and these were the first stories my mother read to me. I frequently re-enacted scenes from what I called the “Laura and Mary” books, pretending my bed was a covered wagon — and, as I got older, I read them to myself, again and again, until they were part of me on a cellular level. In my memory, our lives and the Wilders’ were all mixed up.
Then came the long-anticipated television show: Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon, which got so many things wrong in my preteen estimation that it felt as if my own family heritage had been somehow appropriated and corrupted. What a surprise, in adulthood, to run across so many essays, and books of criticism, and biographies that open with admissions of equally intense identification with Wilder’s work — to encounter so many other fans who fully believed that the Little House books belonged to them.
Pamela Smith Hill, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (2007), also grew up near Rocky Ridge Farm and experienced a strong sense of connection to Wilder. Now Hill has edited an annotated edition of Wilder’s 1930 memoir Pioneer Girl, a work that offers widespread access to the manuscript that was source and inspiration for the series, as well as for fiction by Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Long an invaluable resource for scholars and biographers, the manuscript was previously unobtainable unless you happened on an ancient copy (Wilder and Lane once submitted it to many publishers), or requested a photocopy from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.
The publication of Pioneer Girl is a boon to legions of fans eager to know more about the historical truth of Wilder’s fiction as well as the working relationship between her and Lane. Wilder initially began to record her memories in 1903, soon after the death of her father, Charles Ingalls. She took up the idea again in 1925, the year after her mother died. But it was her sister Mary’s death in 1928 that finally propelled her to sit down and write the whole story, finish the manuscript, including margin notes and sections marked “Not to be used,” suggesting that she was simultaneously writing one memoir for her daughter and another for publication. In six Fifty Fifty and Big Chief tablets, Wilder narrated her story from age two to 18, creating what was to be a template for her fiction. Thus the memoir, launching a process that ultimately shaped her history and her legacy, offers a fascinating look at the process by which she began to transform her life into literature.
Rose Wilder Lane, meanwhile, was also a published writer. But though her work had been both commercially and critically successful, she struggled, during the Depression, to make ends meet for both her parents and herself. She took on the task of typing her mother’s manuscript, which Wilder considered a rough draft, and sending it to literary agent George Bye, who responded that “Pioneer Girl didn’t warm me enough […] it didn’t seem to have enough high points or crescendo. A fine old lady was sitting in a rocking chair and telling a story chronologically but with no benefit of perspective or theatre.”
His comments strike me as on the mark: Pioneer Girl was a draft, after all, in which Wilder experimented somewhat tentatively with scene and dialogue — methods that she later brought to full fruition in her children’s fiction. It is as a history that this book, the foundation of the seven novels, is a fascinating document, as well as evidence of her daughter’s eventual contribution to crafting those books with crescendo, perspective, and theater in mind.
Much Wilder scholarship has focused on correcting misconceptions about Wilder’s life and writing process, in many cases drawing heavily from Pioneer Girl. In his biography Laura, Donald Zochert ranks Wilder above Frederick Jackson Turner for offering a myth of the American West. But it turns out that the Little House series’ presentation of a “tightly knit pioneer family, moving west, always facing adversity with courage, love, and hope,” as Hill describes it, was only a part of the story. The picture is somewhat altered by Pioneer Girl’s accounts of seduction, adultery, and violence: men who drag their wives around by the hair; a neighbor who stays with the Ingalls girls and regales them with “dirty stories”; kissing games at parties that seem more Judy Blume than Laura Ingalls Wilder; a mother who routinely shakes and slaps her baby; bullet holes in a door made by a drunk shooting at his wife; a man who lights a cigar and is killed when the fumes from whiskey in his mouth catch fire; another known for fondling girls’ hands (jabbed with a pin by the resourceful real-life Laura when he tries to fondle hers); a backdrop of drinking and fighting at a Walnut Grove saloon, Laura, staying with neighbors, waking to find a drunk man leaning over her; a married shopkeeper’s infatuation with a hired girl; the family’s retreat east to run a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa, next door to a saloon, a much more urban environment than the pastoral ones of the novels. Some of these details appear in the Little House stories, but most do not; Wilder omitted material she considered inappropriate, and while she doesn’t shy away from describing the harshness of pioneer life in her fiction, the sheer number of gritty and sometimes sordid details in the memoir are comparatively staggering. This is not my mother’s Laura Ingalls Wilder.
It’s not that mother or daughter were dishonest about Wilder’s experience in the fictionalized account; they were simply conscious and responsive to the demands of her audience and her stories. Even so, as noted, the memoir casts my childhood assumptions in a new light. For instance, the Ingalls family, those paragons of virtue, in real life not only retreated to the east more than once (a shameful thing for a pioneer), but once even skipped town in the night without paying their rent. The fictional Pa never swears, but the real Pa announces when leaving Minnesota for Iowa that he “wouldn’t stay in such a [erasure] ‘blasted country!’” And while Pa, a farmer in the stories, embodied “a restless optimism that refuses to accept defeat,” in reality, Charles Ingalls did not quite exemplify the pioneering experience to the same degree as his fictional counterpart: he gave up on his Plum Creek farm, kept a butcher shop in Walnut Grove, and eventually was elected Justice of the Peace, with his office in the family’s front room. “When he had a trial we all went into the kitchen,” Wilder writes. In the books, Wilder’s marriage to Almanzo seems almost predestined; but in her autobiography, Wilder reports that at least four other young men showed interest in courting her.
Then, too, Pioneer Girl fleshes out our picture of Wilder’s daily life, including rich details about “books, songs, toys, Christmas presents, bonnets, jewelry, and dresses”: as Hill notes, “objects that had woven themselves into the texture of her childhood.” This description captures one of the enduring attractions of the series, the simple wonder of a childhood stripped of the clutter of our time. But the manuscript and Hill’s thorough annotations provide insight not just into the cultural and historical forces that molded Wilder and her books. They also offer a window into her creative process and her collaboration with Lane.
Wilder produced her Little House books when she was in her 60s. Given the nature of memory, it’s not hard to take her claim that everything in the stories “really happened” with a grain of salt. But more important, the deliberate, artistic shaping of sentence and story that makes these books so accomplished suggests that they are far more than real-life events slapped onto the page. Nor are they the work of an inexperienced writer with amazing stores of raw talent, as my own mother and her sisters were determined to believe. Wilder had done a good bit of professional writing by the time she started the series; as for Lane, once the scholarly community recognized her involvement, the only real debate was about the extent of the mother-daughter collaboration. A few years ago, in De Smet, South Dakota, a docent told me that Lane was simply her mother’s “encourager and editor”; at the other end of the spectrum, William Holtz, Lane’s biographer, argues that she entirely rewrote every book. Either way, the issue itself has forced readers and writers like me to rethink the assumption that single authorship automatically accords a work more authority and value than collaboration, which, until recent times, was considered an inherently less creative process.
Hill points out in her annotations how Wilder often used the length and format of the seven-paragraph columns that she wrote for the Missouri Ruralist to describe episodes, a natural progression in her evolution from columnist to memoirist to novelist. These column-like narratives are, Hill points out, “tightly written, evocative, dramatic, and revealing,” painting pictures with a few well-chosen words and brushstroke details. Wilder’s “descriptive genius” is unquestionable, as is her lyric sense of language, in such sentences as, “Soon we could see fire run up to the tops of some trees on a hill and then the trees stood there burning like great candles.”
It is in shaping scenes and stories for dramatic effect — as real events are simplified, altered, omitted, and amplified in the service of tension and arc — that Rose Lane seems to have been most involved. To wit, Lane never edited the last of the books, The First Four Years, about the Wilders’ early married life, which was found and published after her death. Told from a faltering omniscient point of view, it lacks the deliberate structure and sharp narrative control of the earlier books; irrefutable evidence, it seems to me, of Lane’s influence on the more accomplished work.
As Wilder drafted the memoir itself, Lane advised her on “issues of style, structure, and sometimes even content,” Hill says. “Together they formed a mother-daughter editorial team to prepare the rough draft for publication; they revised and edited the original manuscript.” Lane suggested such changes as omitting “once upon a time” from an opening line, dismissing it as “trite,” and cut sections from the memoir that “seemed too childish”; more importantly, she carved a “clearer narrative path through Wilder’s story and includes section breaks between key scenes or important episodes in the family’s personal history,” forging the editing process that she would continue with the children’s series. After the manuscript was repeatedly rejected, Lane excerpted and compressed it, unbeknownst to her mother, into a “juvenile,” a facsimile of which is included in Hill’s edition of Pioneer Girl. Thus, Lane was the first to experiment with switching genres, though, according to Hill, she considered writing for children to be an inferior artistic occupation.
While Lane’s contributions to her mother’s work were substantial, she also revealed some shortsightedness. Wilder made the wise decision to ignore her daughter’s argument that Mary’s blindness should be left out of the children’s books — and that real-life element leads to some of the loveliest sections, in which Laura serves as her sister’s “eyes,” and intensifies conflict when she struggles with her sense of obligation to take on work that will allow her to contribute to Mary’s education at the Iowa College for the Blind.
Readers’ deep investment in the notion of single authorship goes hand in hand with their attachment to Wilder’s stories as factual accounts of her life, leading to debates about the line between truth and fiction. However, Hill reminds us, the memoir itself is “impressionistic […] less concerned with pinpointing historical moments in time and more focused on recreating a general historical atmosphere.”
She therefore positions this manuscript within the tradition of creative nonfiction — a record of fact that borrows from fictional approaches to characterization, scene, and story-telling. Given our current preoccupation with genre, this is an ideal moment for publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first effort. But as a rough draft rather than a fully realized work, the book is less a literary contribution to memoir than it is a monumental addition to our understanding of her: her life, her times, her work.
The book also reminds us of what endures about the Little House series: again and again, Pa uproots his wife and daughters, who, each time, manage to make a home even in the midst of the most austere and difficult circumstances. But finally, it’s not poverty or desperation that leads them to settle down in one place rather, Ma’s insistence that her girls gain an education. Reading these books when I was small planted firmly in me the belief that there were far more important things than raking in money, climbing corporate ladders, and achieving social prestige (reading and writing among them). In the end, just like the series, Wilder’s memoir turns out to be about transcendence and survival in the face of each new set of obstacles. As Hill points out, Pioneer Girl begins “with her family’s quest to find a home” and ends with Wilder at home in the world.
Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood.
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