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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Garden Update

We are now at the point in the season when my enthusiasm for gardening has begun to wane.

The weeds are getting out of hand and I’m losing my footing in the battle against the backyard critters and crawlers. My strawberry patch was ravaged by squirrels and when they’d had their fill, the robins came along and finished them off (I watched this all play out from the dining room window one afternoon). There’s also something munching holes in my radish greens and digging up my onions, beets and carrots.

I had to rip out my spinach, as well. It was infested by leaf miners, which are also tearing through the nasturtiums that I’d planted because I’d read they were good for deterring pests.

*Sigh*

It’s not all bad though. Some things are thriving:

The cilantro I started from seed is coming up beautifully.

I think I transplanted my squash a bit too early and some of the plants didn’t make it. This one looks promising though.

A local woman was thinning out her raspberry bushes and offered her surplus to anyone who wanted to come over and dig them out. I transplanted about six of her suckers in a giant pot on our deck since we don’t really have anywhere else that would offer them enough sun to thrive. They weren’t doing so well at first. I didn’t think any of them would survive, but most of them are bouncing back.

I bought a blueberry plant in the spring and it’s actually still alive. Winning!

Lettuce is so easy to grow. We have a bumper crop.

I can only hope that in a few weeks, the insects and animals will leave me something for another update!

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Inch by Inch, Row by Row

I’m really excited about summer this year, for all the usual reasons that we Canadians look forward to the season, but because I’m also finally getting serious about growing food in our backyard.

This had been my original plan when we moved into our house many years ago. The previous owners had a vegetable garden in the corner of the yard. When I first looked out there from the deck during the open house, when we were sure that we’d found our home, I’d pictured myself out there wearing clogs and overalls, with a basket full of tools from Lee Valley, tilling my fertile soil.

We moved in October that year and the following spring I did plant a few things in that garden – some tomatoes that did well, and some pepper plants that did not. Then, one evening I went out to do some weeding, and as I made my way through the tall tomato plants I walked into a giant spider web that was, at that time, occupied by a very large spider, which may, or may not have touched me. I let out a Hitchcockian shriek, ran into the house and showered for about three hours to ensure that my hair and person was creepy crawly and web free.

That was the last time I set foot in the garden. I planted grass there first thing that next spring.

I’ve never completely abandoned that vision of myself as a suburban vegetable gardener though, it’s just been low on my list of priorities. Then, last year I was talking to my Uncle at a family dinner and we were reminiscing about my grandparent’s house. This is where my mind always goes when think of growing food. They had a huge garden and I remember picking green beans, breaking open pea pods and eating fresh warm raspberries, straight of the bushes. My Uncle then pointed out something I had never considered: gardening wasn’t so much a hobby for my Grandpa, it was a way to help feed his growing family, a skill I sure he’d honed growing up in rural Alberta during the depression. His father had come to Canada from Sweden to be a homesteader and it seems my Grandfather brought a bit of that spirit with him to the town where he’d settled with my Grandmother when he returned from the war. Thinking about this inspired me to try again.

Now, we are not in a position financially or geographically where we need to grow our own food but fresh produce is getting increasingly expensive, even when it is in season locally. Plus, we have a big backyard that we haven’t been doing anything particularly useful with. It just makes sense to try to grow a few things back there. The timing is right too, I have a flexible schedule this summer and now that Britta is getting bigger, we’re spending more time out in the backyard where she will sometimes play independently for a while as I putter around.

I also love the idea of Little B experiencing fresh from the backyard food and being exposed to the growing process. After all, I’ve listened to enough lectures from Jamie Oliver about the importance of teaching kids about food.

So, we begin. Back in April, Jeremy built four 4×4 foot raised boxes that I’ve planted full of salad greens, along with root and cruciferous vegetables. I also have tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in pots, as I’ve always had some degree of success with container gardening. I bought a blueberry bush for our deck and in addition to my already well-established strawberry patch, I’ve planted more berry plants anywhere that needed some extra ground cover.

There is still work that needs to be done. I’d like some gravel or mulch between the beds (we currently have mud), another rain barrel (we have one at the other end of the garage but it needs some repairs), and eventually, I’d like some nicer benches for the containers. Right now they are sitting on scrap wood and cinderblocks. All in due time though. In the meantime, I feel like this is a great start.

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