Our old friend Laura Ingalls Wilder is back with a memoir. It’s a story many of us will find familiar from our childhoods, though the mature perspective portrays a world much different from the one we remember. This month, Wilder’s first manuscript is being released at last as Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, more than 80 years after it was first written.
Like the Little House books that Wilder published between 1932 and 1943, Pioneer Girl is the story of growing up on the frontier in the late 19th century. But, Wilder wrote this first manuscript for adults around 1930, encouraged in part by her daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane. Wilder and Lane’s original plan was to sell Pioneer Girl as a magazine serial, but after a few rounds of rejections, parts of it were recycled into a manuscript for a children’s book that eventually became Little House in the Big Woods. Seven more books would follow over the years — the now-classic series that we know and cherish.
But, after years of reading and re-reading these beloved books, many adults no longer take them at face value. Critical biographies like Ghost in the Little House have suggested that Lane was the true author of the series, portraying Wilder as a naïve amateur whose work needed to be extensively rewritten. And, skim any online discussion about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and you’ll see adult readers trading sordid speculations: Did Pa Ingalls move the family so much because he was a deadbeat? What really caused Mary’s blindness?
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that when early PR releases about Pioneer Girl’s forthcoming publication hinted at darker, more mature material, the media coverage was sensational (a U.K. paper, hilariously, ran a headline anticipating the memoir as “X-rated”), implying the book was a cache of secrets waiting to be revealed.
As it turns out, Pioneer Girl really is a revelation of truths both dark and bright. Perhaps the brightest one is that the narrative, transcribed from Wilder’s handwritten notebooks, is compelling and well-paced — still a rough draft, but one strong enough to dispel the notion that Lane did all the essential work. Wilder’s voice is similar to the one in the Little House books: warm and plainspoken, but with a first-person viewpoint that lends an additional sense of intimacy.
Yet, reading this memoir doesn’t feel quite the same as re-reading the Little House series. Revisiting those books is like returning to a reassuring, self-contained world of cozy log cabins and dome-like prairie skies — a world that seems almost enchanted. The experience of reading Pioneer Girl, however, feels more like sitting down with an old childhood friend and having the chance to get reacquainted as adults. There is a world of stories you didn’t know about while you two were growing up together, but now you’re old enough to fully understand.
There are, at first, the familiar reminiscences we shared with the Laura of the books — stories of blizzards, schoolyard dramas, and first train rides. But, then this Laura Ingalls Wilder shares some shocking adult stories. Like how, when she was 12, she lived with a local family as a hired girl and once woke up to the man of the house leaning over her bed with whiskey on his breath. Or, the time a well-to-do neighbor woman, sensing that the Ingalls family had too many mouths to feed, offered to adopt Laura. These things don’t change the essential story of a girl growing up on the prairie, but they add to it in ways we couldn’t have imagined at a younger age.
The most sensationalistic passages in Pioneer Girl, vignettes about drunkenness and infidelity, are vivid but mostly secondhand — events that happened to neighbors or else were gleaned from local gossip. They portray a world that isn’t so much dark as it is simply adult, and Wilder, in writing about them, looks back on all that she struggled to understand as a child. Given this yearning for knowledge, it seems fitting that this edition of Pioneer Girl is so extensively annotated, with a thorough introduction by editor Pamela Smith Hill, hundreds of footnotes, and numerous photos and maps. These take the story even further from the dreamy Little House realm of windswept meadows and fairy-tale woods and surround it with facts and history — census records, newspaper quotes, the stuff of a fascinating, complicated, and decidedly grown-up reality.
Just as Pioneer Girl isn’t a children’s book, neither is it quite a story of adulthood. Rather, it’s about being on the frontier of adulthood, where saloons, scandals, and unhappy marriages hover on the periphery of Laura’s world just as much as wolves and prairie fires — perils of a yet-to-be-explored territory. Some of the most striking moments show Laura’s awareness of her own life changing alongside the soon-to-be settled landscape, such as this passage about working at a railroad camp in Dakota territory:
Ma and I had been so hurried with the work, cooking for extra men….[W]e had no time for sewing and alas my dresses wore out until I had no change. Mary had been wearing long dresses and was taller than I, but as she had an extra dress, I put it on. Then I pinned up my hair, because my long braids hanging got in my way and hindered the work. So there I was a young lady with long dresses and hair done up.
She is 13, with her sister blind and her family transient laborers in a raw, new place, and adolescence seems to come as swiftly as a prairie storm. Growing up is bittersweet, but Pioneer Girl is rich enough to make us feel fortunate that we’re old enough at last to know the whole story.
Wendy McClure is the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.