The Stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder | Review of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder/Edited by Pamela Smith Hill (2014) Little House Heritage Trust


A lot of us remember the television series Little House on the Prairie. And because of that series, many teachers and librarians encouraged us to read by using the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Now, as we are older and we contemplated the influences from our youth, it is interesting to reflecting on the items that influenced our upbringings. The Little House Heritage Trust has published Pioneer Girl, the first attempt at Laura Ingalls Wilder to write her life story about growing up in the American Midwest in the 1800s. With it, the trust has included a set of notes along side the narrative showing how the origins of the anecdotes became the stories  we grew to love. (And which ones never made it and why)

The Pioneer Girl Manuscripts by Pamela Smith Hill (Page Ixi)


Laura Ingalls Wilder completed the original, handwritten draft of her autobiography, now known as Pioneer Girl, in the spring of 1930 and presented it to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane on May 7.  The narrative filled four Fifty Fifty and two Big Chief lined tablets and covered sixteen years of Wilder’s life, from age two through eighteen. This version of Pioneer Girl has no page numbers, section breaks, or chapters. The only breaks in the narrative occur when Wilder completely filled one tablet and moved to the next, sometimes midsentence. Wilder wrote the words “Pioneer Girl” across the first two tablet covers and numbered all six in sequence. She used Number 2 lead pencils and sometimes wrote both on the front and back of a page and in the margins. Occasionally, she included note to indicate how she intended her narrative to flow; a few of these notes were addressed directly to her daughter and often appeared adjacent to scenes or episodes that Wilder intended for Lane – and not for publication. It is clear from these handwritten notes, however, that Wilder envisioned a broader audience for this manuscript. She assumed that Lane, a successful author herself by 1930, would edit and type the manuscript before sending it to her literary agent, Carl Brandt of the Brand & Brandt agency in New York.

This is a complex book about how a set of simple stories came into being. It is interesting to note how the saga not only came to fruit but how they were repackaged to fit what was perceived fashionable by readers at the time.

Introduction “Will it Come to Anything?”: The Story of Pioneer Girl Page xvi

Pioneer Girl opens in what Wilder called Indian Territory, which is now southeastern Kansas, with her earliest childhood memories. She was just two years old when her family moved there in the late summer or early fall of 1869, but Wilder wrote convincingly about a pack of wolves “sitting in a ring around the house,” the Indians who “camped by the creek not far away,” and a pair of Indian “babies” with “bright, black eyes” that her younger self had wanted for her very own. As Wilder’s memories grew more vivid, so too did her writing. She described the people and places from her past in greater detail. Pa’s bugle-playing brother George frightened her all those years ago because he was “a wild man,” forever changed by army life during the American Civil War. Grasshoppers along Plum Creek in Minnesota “rose and flew away into the west, clouding the sun again with their wings.” Nellie Owens “had the most wonderful doll that she kept wrapped up in soft paper most of the time” so that young Wilder and her sister Mary could yearn for it from afar. Wilder’s baby brother Freddie made the whole family proud; she and Mary “always hurried home from school to see him.” Wilder remembered neighbours, friends, and acquaintances, as well as the circumstances that had brought them into her family’s life: George George, for example, a man who briefly traveled with the Ingalls family on their trek from Wisconsin to Minnesota: Teeny Peterson, who caught the eye of a young married man in Walnut Grove, Minnesota; and the Masters clan, who influenced Wilder’s adolescence in Minnesota and Dakota Territory.

The original text of Pioneer Girl has footnotes added to it here. While on first glance it  might make the text look complicated, it actually adds depth to the narrative and the whole story of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

When summer came everyone was sick with chills and fever (14) so when the beautiful large watermelons (15) were ripe we were not allowed to eat them. No one could eat them for to do so made their chills much worse.

Corresponding Footnotes

(14) When summer came everyone was sick with chills and fever. Wilder devoted an entire chapter (“Fever ‘n’ Ague, pp 182-98) in Little House on the Prairie to this episode. During the nineteenth century, the phrase “fever and ague” was commonly used to describe malaria; contemporary definitions of the word “ague” continue to link it to the disease and its symptoms: persistent chills, fever, and waves of hot and cold sweats. While it is impossible to know with certainty if malaria is what struck the Ingalls family, the symptoms Wilder described in the novel match those typically associated with the disease, including the haze and hallucinations of fever: “Something dwindled slowly, smaller and smaller, till it was tinier than the tiniest thing. Then slowly it swelled till it was larger than anything could be . . . Laura cried because she was so cold. Then she was burning up” (pp. 186-87) During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Union forces alone reported almost a million cases of malaria, which “became so common that one soldier wrote home saying that if the Union forces could synchronize their chills, they could shake the rebels into submission” (Bollet, Civil War Medicine, p. 289). At the time, malaria was treated with quinine, often administered in a bitter powdered form dissolved in liquid. In Little House on the Prairie, when Laura receives a cup of liquid with the promise that it will make her will, she drinks “the whole bitter dose,”  (P. 190) In 1880, a French army surgeon discovered that malaria  was caused by a parasite, and seventeen years later, a British medical officer demonstrated that the parasite, in turn, was transmitted by mosquitoes. Wilder was aware of these discoveries and ended the chapter with these lines: “No one knew, in those days, that fever ‘n’ ague was malaria, and that some mosquitoes give it to people when they bite them”

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is an interesting look at not only the life but the story behind the Little House on the Prairie novels. A complex read but a fascinating one.


Link to The Pioneer Girl Project blog



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