It’s August 1876, and for a young girl in a family staying with relatives in Wabasha County in southeastern Minnesota, it’s almost paradise. She eats plums along the Zumbro River and herds cows in the meadows where the hay has been cut. Her uncle builds little campfires for roasting crab apple and toasting bread.
And then the unthinkable happens. Her little brother, less than a year old, has been sick; one day he dies.
That little girl grows up to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, who will write some of America’s best-loved books for children, the Little House series. But there were some things too sad for young readers, including the story of Charles Frederick Ingalls, who died at 9 months of age on Aug. 27, 1876. She never told it to children.
But she told it to adults. It’s one of the incidents in Pioneer Girl The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s a new volume issued by the South Dakota Historical Society Press in November 2014, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s driving new interest in one of America’s best-known children’s writers by letting them inside a book she wrote earlier for a different audience.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl in 1929-1930 when she was in her early 60s. Many of its chapters served as something like a first run for the later Little House books, as Laura described 16 years in her family’s pioneering history through Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Minnesota again and Dakota Territory. But the public hasn’t seen that early account of those years until now.
The Pioneer Girl manuscript in its various forms – mainly Laura’s handwritten version, which is the one reproduced in the new book, and the two different ones for two different literary agents – has been well-known to scholars and Laura Ingalls Wilder aficionados, South Dakota historian John Miller told the Capital Journal.
“I used it for all three of my books on Wilder, and other authors have known about it for a long time. Some true-blue fans had paid for Xerox copies of the autobiography in one of its forms from the Hoover Presidential Library and had gotten to read it that way,” Miller said.
But readers shouldn’t expect the same approach as in the Little House series. The autobiography sheds light on quite a few episodes that Laura didn’t write about in her later books, including the death of her baby brother.
Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the South Dakota Historical Society Press, said that particular event probably didn’t make it into the novels because it was a painful moment for the Ingalls family and “Wilder felt that certain stories needed to be left out because they were not appropriate for young readers.” But in her memoir, in contrast, “Wilder was writing down everything she could remember.”
That makes the autobiography a rich field for treasure hunting for people who are fascinated with the little girl who grew up to write the novels.
Cheryl Palmlund, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet, notes that sales of the autobiography have been brisk ever since it became available in November 2014. The society’s shop has shipped copies to destinations from Germany to Brazil to Australia, and to many points in between.
“People have a love for Laura,” Palmlund said. And she doesn’t think they will be disappointed in what they find in the new book.
“She did get some of the grittier, nastier situations put in there. I call that ‘real life,’” Palmlund said.
A ‘grittier’ view of the prairie
Others, too, use that adjective “gritty,” or words like that, to describe Wilder’s autobiography for adults.
“Everyone picks up on the more salacious elements in Pioneer Girl , but they are really few and far between; over 16 years, most of them happen only during the period they were in town,” said Koupal.
There are episodes of marital discord, as when the Ingalls family moves into Burr Oak, Iowa, to take over a hotel where a door is scarred by bullet holes. Apparently the son of the man who sold them the hotel had taken shots at his own wife and missed.
Most chilling of all is a later incident in which Laura, while staying with another family, seems to narrowly avoid a sexual assault. But as Pamela Smith Hill, the editor of Pioneer Girl , notes, it would be a mistake to think that Laura’s later prairie novels are innocent of some of those tensions. There is a scene in which a Mrs. Brewster, in one of the later Little House books, brandishes a butcher knife. It also appears in the autobiography.
“Life in Wilder’s world is hard, challenging, and sometimes complicated,” Hill told the Capital Journal in an email. “Nature is ambivalent. People, including Mrs. Brewster with her butcher knife, can be deeply flawed. The Ingalls family, however, faces such hardships and challenges with optimism and hard work. Their quest to find a home on the prairie ultimately succeeds. But the quest is fraught with danger, difficulties, and ambiguities. I suspect that the sunnier, brighter, more conventional, and less gritty image many people have of Wilder and her work stems from the television series. It is a highly re-imagined interpretation of the Little House novels; its characters are more conventional, sentimental, and less gritty.”
In fact, Hill adds, Laura Ingalls Wilder had to fight for certain passages with her publisher and her closest collaborator – her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a very successful writer who helped bring her mother’s work into print.
“While Wilder’s books may seem tame by today’s standards in children’s publishing, she was blazing a new trail in children’s literature when she wrote that scene about Mrs. Brewster back in the early 1940s. In fact, Wilder’s editor wanted to cut the scene entirely, but Wilder persisted and the scene remained,” Hill said. “Rose Wilder Lane even encouraged her mother to drop Mary’s blindness from the Little House books, thinking children in the 1930s and 1940s would find this unexpected plot point too disturbing. But again, Wilder felt that young readers would appreciate the realism and historical insight Mary’s blindness would bring to the fictional family’s plight.”
So why didn’t Wilder also push to include some of the grittier passages from Pioneer Girl in the Little House books?
“Literary conventions in children’s publishing during the 1930s and 1940s, when Wilder wrote the book, were much tighter than they are today,” Hill said. “Such themes as divorce, sexuality, rape, incest, drug addiction, and alcoholism didn’t become accepted literary topics for children and young adults until the 1960s and 1970s. Although Wilder’s fiction introduced young readers to darker subjects, there were some places it simply couldn’t go, given the era in which it was written.
“Finally, it’s important to remember that the original version of Pioneer Girl was written for adults, not children. And apparently Wilder felt that the scene in the original version of Pioneer Girl when the real Laura Ingalls was threatened with sexual assault was too strong even for adult readers in 1930. It was cut from subsequent edited versions of Pioneer Girl .”
There is another reason that the Burr Oak interval and some of the Walnut Grove material didn’t make the final cut when Laura wrote the Little House books, Hill added: It was “thematically wrong” for the direction – figuratively and literally – that Wilder had charted for her writing. The series pointed west. Hill said Wilder addressed this very issue in a letter to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
“Wilder explained that her family’s experience in Burr Oak, Iowa, was ‘a story in itself,’ and added that it didn’t correspond to the portrait she was making of the fictional Ingalls family. In other words, this chunk of Wilder’s real life story was thematically inconsistent with the fictional story she wanted to tell,” Hill said. “The fictional Ingalls family always moves west in the Little House books, never east; and Charles Ingalls’s fictional quest is always to find the Promised Land for his family and carve out a home in the West. Moving east to manage a hotel certainly wouldn’t be consistent with this central premise of Wilder’s novels.”
Collaborative effort or heavy editing?
Those who love the way Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the prairie will find that gift already deployed here, the scholars promise. And the autobiography also provides clues about how that mother-daughter relationship that helped bring the books into print actually functioned.
Miller said that in his opinion, the manuscript that supplies the text of Pioneer Girl indicates that in 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder was a competent writer, but not a very polished or sophisticated one. Rose Wilder Lane, her daughter, was far more successful.
“Without Rose’s sometimes heavy editing and sometimes re-writing, the manuscript would never have received much consideration for publication. With Rose’s help, at least it had a chance. In the end, Rose put her editing and re-writing skills to the eight novels from 1932-1943,” Miller said. “One thing this volume should underline with definiteness: the novels were novels – that is, fiction. They were embellishments of Laura’s actual remembered life on the prairie.”
The novels were based on fact and memory, Miller said, but both Wilder and Lane consciously modified the stories to make them more interesting, readable and salable – sometimes they disguise real people by changing names or combining characters, for example.
“There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind any more that the Little House books resulted from a close collaboration between mother and daughter over the course of 14 years,” Miller said.
That began when the autobiography was written and “peddled” to magazines, and continued from 1932 through 1943, as the eight Little House books came out, Miller said. The First Four Years was discovered posthumously.
“I and several other biographers/critics lean toward the idea of a ‘collaborative’ effort by Wilder and Lane on the books, while Pam Smith Hill prefers to call it ‘heavy editing,’” Miller said.
Miller adds that Bill Holtz made headlines in 1993 with the idea that Rose was the “ghostwriter” of the books, but said not many other investigators would go that far.
The Benders of Kansas
Sometimes Rose Wilder Lane’s gifts misfired.
Included in the autobiography is a chapter about a family called the Benders who kept an inn and grocery store in Kansas but were later discovered to have murdered travellers. That chapter was included in one version of the autobiography.
Director Nancy Tystad Koupal of the South Dakota Historical Society Press said she found the Bender episode interesting as it shows how Wilder, with the help of Lane, would create scenes to increase interest in Pioneer Girl as she and Lane were sending it to publishers. That chapter has Pa Ingalls, on one of his trips to and from Independence, being invited in to the Benders’ inn, but turning down the invitation. Later, Pa Ingalls seems to have participated, according to that chapter, in a vigilante effort to try bring the Benders to justice.
“I’m not sure if it was added exclusively by Rose, it may have been a family story, but they just didn’t have the facts straight. Truth is, Rose did like to embroider things,” Koupal said. “It may have been a family story that Laura knew but didn’t necessarily associate with her father directly. The Ingallses may have stopped there on the way out of Kansas and there may have been some small memory that is tied to it, but it is probably embellished. It is clear that Pa never went on a vigilante raid – the facts don’t add up.”
Mother knows best
Pamela Smith Hill said it’s very clear that some things – bracing descriptions of the prairie world, for example – come from Laura Ingalls Wilder. And so does the vision for how the Little Books ought to proceed.
“Rose Wilder Lane served as her mother’s editor on Pioneer Girl as well as the Little House novels. But readers will still find lyrical and sometimes poetic descriptions of the prairie landscape in Wilder’s original, unedited version of Pioneer Girl . Lane herself once told her mother that she was “perfect in describing landscapes and things.” In fact, one especially lyrical description in the original version of Pioneer Girl appears in a somewhat less satisfying edited version in the revised Pioneer Girl manuscripts and By the Shores of Silver Lake. Lane herself lifted that same paragraph from Pioneer Girl and placed it, in strikingly less inspired prose, in her frontier novel, Free Land. From that one example and its many variations, readers can see that Lane didn’t always improve on her mother’s natural descriptive talent. And generally speaking, Lane’s fiction is far less lyrical and moving than her mother’s.
“That said, it’s clear that Lane helped her mother grow and evolve as a writer. She especially helped her mother with issues of craft – structure, descriptive detail, and point-of-view. But Wilder herself understood the interconnectedness of character, dialogue, and setting far better than her daughter. Wilder also had a much better grasp of theme – and how to weave it into a novel with grace and subtlety. A discriminating reader told me recently that when she read Lane’s frontier novels (which draw heavily on Pioneer Girl ), it felt like Lane was simply reporting on her characters and their stories; the experience was more like reading a newspaper account than a novel. On the other hand, that same reader observed that Wilder seemed to inhabit her characters and their stories, which made them feel more real, immediate, and three-dimensional.”
Hill said readers could trace Wilder’s evolution from newspaper columnist to memoirist to novelist through Pioneer Girl and the Little House books themselves.
“Lane’s influence on the final books in the Little House series diminished as Wilder’s skill and confidence grew. These books are perhaps the strongest in the series. They were finalists for the Newbery Award, which in children’s publishing is the equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder never won a Newbery, Hill notes – but for that matter, neither did E.B. White for Charlotte’s Web.
“The Newbery Awards all too often reflect cultural trends and pass over books that go on to become classics,” Hill said. “But in 1954, the American Library Association, which also bestows the Newbery Awards, established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to a children’s book author or illustrator who has made a lasting and significant contribution to children’s literature. Wilder received the first Wilder Award, three years before her death in 1957.”
The story behind the story
Miller notes there is yet another take-away message from the success of Pioneer Girl – the dramatic story it tells about the South Dakota State Historical Society Press’s arrival as an increasingly respected and influential publishing house, though it was “an entity that was just a whisper not so long ago.”
With support from the South Dakota State Historical Society and the South Dakota State Historical Society Foundation, and under the leadership of Nancy Tystad Koupal, Miller said, the press has broken out into the highly respected institution that it is – something that South Dakota has needed for a long time, he added.
“Pioneer Girl ” is generating publicity in the national press and getting a favorable reception from both readers and reviewers.
“It’s sort of like a publisher’s dream, I would think,” Miller said. “This is a major event nationally and that makes it an even more major event statewide.”
Marketing Director Jennifer McIntyre of the South Dakota Historical Society Press said that in March, the press will have 75,000 copies in print of Pioneer Girl . The first print run was 15,000 copies, the second also was 15,000, and the third is 45,000. As of this week, the book was No. 2 on the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover nonfiction nation-wide.