Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's not possible for me to review this book without the caveat that I have a deep, emotional, historical, personal connection to the writer and her body of work. The very first "chapter book" I ever read is upstairs in my daughter's room: Little House on the Prairie, which I read cover-to-cover as a five-year old. "You read that at age five? No!" you might respond, to which I would clarify that at age five, I had a profound hearing impairment that made it tiresome to communicate with people verbally. Instead, I spent the quiet years between two and seven reading, early and a lot, and I credit that disability to a lifelong love of reading.
So now that that's out of the way, I was jumping-up excited when I learned that this primary source of material for the Little House series was finally being published. This is Laura's own true story, written (and misspelled) in her own words, without the literary and fictitious flourishes that were woven through the series of books based on her family's life. In the series, she added events that happened to other families for some drama, and left out parts that were too painful or too adult for young readers. It's all in Pioneer Girl, however, along with a lot of clarification on what really happened.
Scholars now agree that her daughter, then-famed Rose Wilder Lane, had more than a minor role in the writing and editing of the Little House series. As a seasoned writer of fiction, Rose advised her mother to add more, take scenes away, embellish, and change facts when they were inconvenient, so that the series is more a work of dramatic fiction than a true autobiography. Wilder historians who have been able to track the family's moves, Pa's jobs, tax records, and the like, have confirmed that there is more fiction than historical fact in the series.
That is what makes Pioneer Girl worthwhile: if you have more than a passing interest in the Wilder family, you will learn so much about their lives, their neighbors, the history of the Dakota expansion, and far more episodes in their story than ever made it into the books. The running sidenotes from editor Pamela Smith Hill have pictures of many of her friends, so you'll see what Mary Power, Ida Wright, and the real Nellie Oleson looked like, as well as what happened to them.
At almost 400 pages, this is a wealth of information and a treasure for fans of the Little House series, even if you haven't read it in decades. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes for an adult audience, which includes recollections of some of the grittier, scarier aspects of frontier living that would certainly be out of place in the children's series. Learning more about the family's true story will not spoil the books for you-- they will make you appreciate Wilder's work far more.
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