What I Read – Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography

I’m a serious Laura Ingalls Wilder fan girl. As a child, I read my boxed set – the circa 1980s editions with the Garth Williams illustrations, until they were in shreds. Those books are long gone now but I’ve since bought a new set for Little B. Actually, that’s a lie. I bought those replacement books for myself at least five years before she was even born. Regardless, I really do hope she’ll share my love for them when I read them to her someday.

Back then, I was so obsessed that I’d dress up in pioneer garb and role play Little House stories with a friend in an undeveloped wooded area near our house. Just thinking about that makes me so grateful I was a kid in an era where we only brought out the camera on special occasions so these cringe-worthy moments of my childhood are not preserved digitally or otherwise. I’m almost positive that there is no photographic evidence of me wearing my hand-sewn sunbonnet.

With this in mind, it’s needless to say, I was really excited when I heard Pioneer Girl,, the manuscript of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography was being published. Its unexpected success made it hard to come by for a few years but it came available recently, so I put it on my Christmas list and a copy was bestowed upon me back in December.

Pioneer Girl was written around 1930 but was never published. It was rejected. Instead, it would serve as the framework for the children’s series she wrote shortly after. While the series was fictionalized, albeit only slightly to produce a simpler, sanitized and fluid narrative for a young audience, Pioneer Girl, is a bit grittier and unpolished.

Much of her story is familiar but the manuscript includes some of the darker times in her young life that she omitted from her series, including their family’s brief stay in rough town in Iowa where they lived among drunks and wife beaters in a hotel. It was in this same place that her little brother was born and died shortly after, another part of her life she deemed too sad for children.

I was pleasantly surprised that Pioneer Girl wasn’t a Liberation manifesto. In fact, her story actually chips away at the illusion of their independence and self-sufficiency that’s threaded throughout the series. They relied on the government (and some mysterious benefactors back east) much more than she let on in her other writing – including a public subsidy to send her sister Mary to the school for the blind. Then there was Pa, who was usually portrayed as the epitome of hard work and integrity, once packed up his family and skipped town in the dead of night to avoid paying rent.

I’m positive that if this had been published back then, it would have been easily forgotten. Laura’s tone and style in both her manuscript and published series seems to lend itself much better to kids. What makes this publication really special though, are the annotations. When they call it an annotated autobiography, they’re not kidding around. The editor annotated the ever-loving crap out of it and it you are like me and enjoy trivial details, it’s wonderful. The margins are full of notes. In fact, sometimes the notations fill up entire pages.

There are passages of correspondence between Laura and her editor/daughter Rose, old maps, and newspaper articles confirming or correcting dates of events. Along with census information and historical documentation about friends, family, and neighbours to corroborate some of her stories as they’d passed through the filter of time and her childhood naivety. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Ingalls family is right here.

Pioneer Girl is a hardcover the size of a textbook and weighs about four pounds so it’s not the kind of book you can just slip into your bag to read while waiting for an appointment. It’s for true fanatics who will find the detailed history and the evolution of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s development as a storyteller fascinating.

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