Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Non-Review: "Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pamela Smith Hill (editor)
Published: November 20, 2014
ISBN: 9780984504176
Genre: Memoir
Source: Personal Copy
Highly Recommended

Pioneer Girl follows the Ingalls family's journey through Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, and on to Dakota Territory sixteen years of travels, unforgettable experiences, and the everyday people who became immortal through Wilder's fiction. Using additional manuscripts, letters, photographs, newspapers, and other sources, award-winning Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill adds valuable context and leads readers through Wilder's growth as a writer. Do you think you know Laura? Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography will re-introduce you to the woman who defined the pioneer experience for millions. 

My Thoughts:
This is not a review.  You see, this is one of those books that just cannot be truly reviewed.  There are a few reasons for this.  For one, the main text--that which is written by Wilder--is actually a very rough first draft of what would eventually, after much editing and input by her daughter, become the Little House book.  There are grammatical and spelling errors, as well as notes to omit things and notes to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Wilder's story, in this form, was not meant for the public (but more on that later).

Secondly, this book is about 25% text and 75% notation.  Okay, I didn't do the math, but that is what it feels like.  Hill does a very, very thorough job of notating pretty much everything in this book.  She gives autobiographical information about characters--from the major to the very, very minor, notes about difference in different editions, and historical context.  She also includes dozens, possibly hundred, of photographs of people and places from Laura Ingalls Wilder's life.

I have to be honest, though, I didn't read all the notes.  I started to, but it is really just overwhelming to do so, especially on the first read of this book.  I have read that some feel that Hill puts forth her opinions and presents them as facts in these notes.  From what I read, I never noticed that.  But, I would do a quick scan of a note before deciding whether or not to take the time to actually read it. So, she may have done that and I just missed it.

But, to Pioneer Girl itself.  This, I loved--even with its roughness.  It is very clear that it is written by an older woman, who did not keep a journal, looking back on her life.  The early parts of the book are sparse on detail, whereas the latter parts read very much like the Little House books I grew up with.  I especially got a kick out of the times that Wilder started to include notes to her daughter.  At one point, she talks about the roses on the prairie and then there is this parenthetical statement, "(You are their namesake, my dear.)". (p.234).  Seriously, folks!  How sweet is that!

One of the big appeals about this book is that it has things in it that aren't found in the Little House books.  Much has been made about the guy who was so drunk he blew himself up with lit a cigar and Laura watching a man dragging his wife around by her hair, but there were other things I found more interesting:

  • The Ingalls' entire stay in Burr Oak, Iowa (where the two incidents above occurred, as well as a rich woman wanting to adopt Laura).  There is a bit of the second Walnut Grove stay that makes in into On the Banks of Plum Creek, but most of that period was new to me.
  • Nellie Owens, 1/3 of the infamous Nellie Oleson, is buried in Forest Grove, Oregon (for you non-local folks, that is the next town over from where I live)!
  • This one makes me a bit mad: When I read On the Shores of Silver Lake to my kids, I sobbed when the good old bulldog, Jack, died.  Guess what.  That never happened.  I mean, Jack obviously died at some point, but it was certainly not surrounded by the Ingalls family.  You see, they left Jack behind when they fled Kansas!  Yeesh, I went through that emotional hell for nothing?
  • While the long winter was as bad as it was described in The Long Winter, the Ingalls weren't quite as isolated as you might think.  In fact, they had another family living with them--and Laura was none too happy about it!
  • There is a scene--well, it's really just a sentence--that's pretty dark.  At best, it describes an attempted molestation.  At worst, it describes a rape.  With modern eyes, it sounds like the former, but when you take into account they way people talked of such things in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I think there is a change it might be describing the latter.
  • In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura pens a insulting poem about her teacher (and future sister-in-law), "Lazy, lousey Lizzie Jane," but she only fixes some of the wording, gets caught, and feels horrible.  In reality, she wrote the whole poem, gets away with it, and knows that she was spiteful (and is a bit smug about it!)  So, Laura was a bit more feisty than she let on!
The list can go on and on, but I want others to read it, so I'm not going to give everything away!

All this kind of leads into the debate of how much of the Little House books was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder and how much by Rose Wilder Lane?  I alluded to this in my review of A Wilder Rose in 2013 and in a post I wrote on my thoughts about the Little House series last year, but I never put my thoughts forward on it.  Personally, I think that Laura Ingalls Wilder did write the bulk of the later books, although Rose Wilder Lane did clean things up (and, when she could, insert her political views).  In the earlier books, I think that Lane had more of an influence--either by writing sections from her Wilder's notes or working more closely with her mother as she wrote.  (As far Farmer Boy, who knows?  I still maintain that is an incredibly weird book.)  I'm not just pulling my views out of mid air here or expressing any wishful thinking.  The writing in the later part of Pioneer Girl, while not as developed as you would find in the Little House books, is of the same voice found in those books.  Seeing as how the text here is a rough first draft, I wouldn't expect the same level of detail as we find in the published books.  However, it just sounds like the same person to me and the Little House books don't really seem to "match" the writings of Rose Wilder Lane that I've read.

I said above that this particular text was not meant for the public, which begs the question: should we be reading this?  Honestly, I think that Laura Ingalls Wilder would be thrilled to know that this work was published and that someone, Hill, has taken the time to go into so much detail with the supporting research.  Pioneer Girl does not replace the Little House books, but sheds new light on them for a modern audience.

So, yes...I'm glad I finished this, but I'm also a little sad that it's over.  But, this is one of those books that I'll keep in a spot of honor on my bookshelf and will re-read over and over again.

I was not solicited for this "review" and I received no compensation for this post.

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