Books, Art, & Visual Culture


Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Pioneer Girl — the annotated autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the South Dakota Historical Society

Pioneer Girl.jpg

I remember when I was a little girl, it was our Saturday morning tradition that my father would take my sister and I to the local library to choose our week’s worth of books. It was one of my favourite things to do. Somehow, it was so much more exciting than the school library: the walls of books, the multitude of choices. I remember sitting on the floor in the tucked away corridor of non-fiction tomes, with a selection of books fanned about me, trying to make a choice. Space? Dinosaurs? Astral projection? Ballet?

More importantly, what fiction to read?

I can’t remember how I came to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. What I do remember is that I enjoyed them so much that I couldn’t bring myself to read them singly…ever. Every now and then, when I hadn’t read them for a while, it would be time. I’d go to the library, hoping that they were there…all of them. The entire series. Otherwise it wasn’t right. And I’d take all seven books (I don’t believe the library had Farmer Boy, or I wasn’t interested in reading a non-Laura book at that age) from the shelf and check them out. The rest of the weekend was, of course, spent reading these treasures.

As a child, I took these books to be the absolute truth of this other girl’s life. I was fascinated by the way these people in the past lived, their self-reliance, their skills, what they valued and how these little girls amused without the sorts of luxuries that I enjoyed. As I grew older, my love for these books didn’t wane. I still revisit them every few years or so. Now, I wonder how much of it is real, and how much has been edited for effect.

That’s where Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography comes in.

Pioneer Girl was the first draft of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, initially written for an adult audience. It was rejected by publishers and she ended up rewriting the material for a younger audience, where it became the Little House books. Much of the material in Pioneer Girl is familiar, but written in a slightly different voice and there are also other characters and incidents described which Wilder decided were inappropriate, or not of interest, to children. In writing the Little House books, Wilder definitely had a plan for the image she was trying to create. Real-life incidents are rearranged or slightly changed to improve a point, or create a story arc for each book. (Because whose actual life plays out neatly like that, right?) Real people become characters, in that they sometimes display traits or say words that their real-life counterparts did not, in order to reinforce the picture she was painting. She turns her family into a heroic archetype of the pioneer family — forging ahead in wild country, with perseverance and self-reliance. Not that the real Ingalls weren’t like that, but they do appear rather perfect in the Little Housebooks. In Pioneer Girl, we get to see a little more of their humanity.

The South Dakota Historical Society has done an excellent job with this annotated edition. They’ve collected as much information as they could about the places and people in Wilder’s stories, and the footnotes are full of interesting facts, photos and comparisons to the parallel material in the Little House books. For instance, where people mentioned in Pioneer Girl become a differently named character in a Little House book, or are even combined with other people to produce a single character. This book is all about the footnotes: in a way, it’s almost like reading two books at once.

If you are a fan of the Little House books, if you’re the type of person who always runs off to google the facts behind the fiction, you should find Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography as fascinating as I did.