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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What I Read – Villa America

I must preface this by mentioning that I have an enormous amount of respect for authors. I am well aware of how much work is involved in producing a work of fiction or non. I don’t feel good at all about writing anything negative about someone’s hard work, but here I go.

I didn’t like this novel.

Villa America follows the trend of fictional novels based on real 20th century figures like Loving Frank and The Paris Wife. It tells the story of Sara and Gerald Murphy who were at the center of the American expatriate social scene in the south of France during the 1920s. They are the perfect subjects for this genre, as they were incredible muses who were once well known, but have since been lost behind the art they inspired.

The story begins with Gerald and Sarah’s childhoods, courtship, and then their idyllic life on the Riviera surrounded by their famous and wealthy artistic friends: the Fitzgerald’s, the Picassos, the Hemingway’s, just to name a few. At the same time, a new player is introduced – the fictional Owen, an untouchable, stoic war hero who’s sexual awakening as a young man cost him everything (to be read in a dramatic movie trailer voice). After his career as a WW1 flying ace, he makes his living as a pilot, running errands around Europe for the Murphy’s and their neighbors. It is Owen that creates a wedge in what appears to be their happy marriage.

It’s the addition of Owen that really turned me off of this story. He felt random; one dimensional and just didn’t quite fit in the narrative, other than to create imaginary contention in the Murphy’s story. It seemed unnecessary when there is so much potential for conflict and crisis within their real life circle of friends. It’s been well documented that Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald both had crushes on Sara and Picasso was so enamored by her that he painted at least half a dozen paintings of her. Gerald had his share of admirers, as well, including men; I’m sure, as Gerald’s homosexuality (which from what I understand is only speculated, for the most part, in real life) is the arching plot of this story.

I also found the novel a bit disjointed and busy. There were too many historical references, spanning a long timeline, along with too many supporting characters and Inconsequential details about them that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the story.

Overall, I was looking for a novel that would, even from a fictional perspective, help me connect to the Murphy’s and understand more about what made this couple so inspiring to the people they spent time with. However, the fabricated interloper, choppy timeline, and too many supporting characters that didn’t really help drive their story left me wanting.

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