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Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
By Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
South Dakota Historical Society Press
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Few people have been aware of this up to recently, but the first attempt Laura Ingalls Wilder made to record her memoirs was actually a book meant for adults, first penned in 1929 and heavily edited and influenced by her daughter Rose, who history has largely forgotten but who at the time was a fantastically successful contemporary author who used to pal around with people like Sinclair Lewis (and who, incidentally, is considered one of the founders of the American wing of Libertarianism). Unfortunately no one was interested in publishing it, which is what led Wilder a few years later to write the children's version that became an international sensation; but that original manuscript has been around this entire time, finally published just recently by the South Dakota State Historical Society in a gorgeously oversized annotated edition.
And I have to say, it was an extremely interesting experience reading both this and the extensive notes that come with it, for although it follows the same general storyline that all of us are familiar with from the "Little House" series, Pioneer Girl makes it clear just how much of the children's version was fudged around for the sake of telling an entertaining tale; entire years of her life are left out of the more famous series, events and locations are moved around willy-nilly, and in general the family's life turns out to have been much more of a series of random moves from city to country to city to country, excised and re-ordered in the "Little House" series to present a more consistent narrative about a pioneer family who starts in the middle of nowhere, then only gradually joins up with the rest of society as the "Civilized West" starts congealing around them.
Then of course there are the other new revelations in Pioneer Girl, the ones that earned the book so much attention when it first came out last year; that since it was originally meant for adult audiences, it divulges the details of frontier life in a much more unvarnished way than the children's books do, sometimes coming across as a more genteel version of Deadwood than you would ever expect from this well-loved grandmotherly author, including the revelation that she was once almost raped as a teen by an alcoholic employer whose house she was living in, not to mention plenty of stories about coarse farmers who used to beat up their wives, near-riots by unruly railroad construction crews being supervised by her father, and a lot more.
Combined with the exhaustive academic notes from the publisher, this presents a much fuller and more balanced look at what in the "Little House" series is often an overly bucolic existence, and a welcome reminder that life on the frontier wasn't always peppermint candies and running barefoot along Plum Creek. Although the children's books are easily more poetic and entertaining, I'm glad that this more stripped-down adult version is finally out for the general public to see, especially in the beautiful and informative edition that the SDSHS has made, which this manuscript deserves and earns. Although I hesitate to strongly recommend it to one and all, certainly anyone who is a fan of the classic "Little House" series should seek out a copy of this coffeetable-sized volume right away.
Out of 10: 8.5, or 9.5 for existing "Little House on the Prairie" fans