Sunday, December 20, 2015

Pioneer Girl

I remember growing up and wondering why the Little House books were listed as fiction.  After all, weren't they the author's multi-volume autobiography?  Well, no, they're "inspired by a true story" with the messier parts of Wilder's youth downplayed (or outright omitted) for the juvenile audience.  More than 80 years after the fictional Laura first appeared, Pioneer Girl gives us Wilder's original, adult-aimed memoir, with copious notes and a detailed introduction.

There's been some controversy over whether Wilder actually wrote the books under her name.  Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, acted as her editor and was known as a ghostwriter as well as being a fiction author in her own right; Laura never graduated from high school.  Pioneer Girl should quiet some of the naysayers.  Laura had written regular newspaper columns for twenty years before beginning her memoir (many of these were collected in Little House in the Ozarks), and although it's less polished, many sections of Pioneer Girl  track closely to their fictional counterparts.  Hill also describes the editorial back-and-forth between mother and daughter, with Lane making suggestions based on her knowledge of the fiction market and Wilder often rejecting them - because they're not right for this particular story.

Since I've read the Little House books enough to have memorized long passages and have also read a few biographies of Wilder, not much of the story was new to me.  What was different, though, was the tone.  Wilder's juvenile version isn't particularly sentimental, but her real life was more chaotic and occasionally violent.  Husbands drag their wives around by their hair, a drunken man accidentally sets his breath on fire and dies, and while working as a companion to a semi-invalid  woman, teenage Laura finds herself in a situation that was most likely (she doesn't go into detail) an attempted rape.  It's a far cry form the Little House books (and even further from the saccharine TV series).

Hill's notes provide historical context and help organize Wilder's occasionally out-of-order (or simply inaccurate) memories of her childhood.  They also describe DeSmet as a booming railroad town.  Wilder's last two volumes hint at the town's rapid growth, but for the sake of simplicity, she doesn't introduce many new characters.   Hill provides brief biographies of Wilder's teachers and classmates, as well as describing the town's active social life.  The Whirl of Gaiety described in Little Town on the Prairie wasn't a single winter but a brief illustration of an organized and long-running social scene.  The town had a roller rink and frequent dances by the time Laura was a clothes-conscious teenager.  Religious life (fairly central to the books) was more complex as well.  Wilder portrayed the town as single-sect, but in addition to the Congregational church the Ingallses attended, there was a Baptist church and a Catholic church (where Mary Power taught Sunday school), and Rev. Brown, well, claim-jumped the DeSmet church (another minister had been authorized to start it).  For me, Hill's notes were the highlight.  They're about as long as the main text, so I read Wilder's work first (glancing at the notes if they seemed necessary to understand the narrative), and then read the notes.

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