Laura Ingalls Wilder rediscovered

Laura Ingalls Wilder rediscovered May 29, 2015

Some weeks ago, I blogged about the publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoir, entitled Pioneer Girl.  This was the manuscript she wrote about her life on the frontier that she could not get published, whereupon she switched gears to write a slightly fictionalized version in a series of  books for children.  These became the nine titles in the Little House books, which, in turn, have become classics of  American literature.  The publication of that original autobiography by the South Dakota Historical Society–complete with photographs, historical annotations, and scholarly notes that give the real-life context for the later novels–has proven to be a literary sensation.  The small press was having trouble keeping up with the demand, and Amazon was overwhelmed with lengthy backorders.  (Something that seems to have been rectified.  Last I checked, the book is available now, without the earlier delay, from Amazon.)

The day my post went up, in which I said how anxious I was to read Pioneer Girl and lamented how hard it was to get ahold of, the intrepid librarian where I teach, Sarah Pensgard, told me that she had found a copy for the library.  So I checked it out and was soon immersed in the real world of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Pioneer Girl is a delight to read as it recounts the dangers and joys and personalities of the novels.  But we can be thankful the book was not published originally and that Mrs. Wilder turned from writing an autobiography to writing novels, from being a recorder of facts to an artistic creator.  Pioneer Girl sets down in a sentence what Mrs. Wilder would later develop into entire chapters.  Part of the genius of the series of novels is the way their style reflects the age and mindset of its central character Laura (moving from the first person “I” of the autobiography to the third person “she” of the novels).  The earliest books, which have Laura, the point of view character, as a little girl, have a simple style and a naive perspective that reflect the consciousness of early childhood.  As Laura grows into a spirited child, a feisty adolescent, and a thoughtful young woman, the style and voice of the novels mature accordingly.

You don’t really have that in Pioneer Girl, of course, which gives the perspective of an elderly woman looking back on her life, but there are still flashes of stylistic genius.  For example, how she renders her memory of looking out the back of a covered wagon, the opening from her secure home-on-the-road framing a sight of limitless untamed wilderness.  Or when she describes her fear as a little girl no more than five of the wolves that prowled outside their tiny cabin in Indian Territory (on the Kansas side of the border not far from where I grew up), along with her absolute confidence that Pa with his rifle and their family dog would protect her.  (Later she wakes up at night to watch the wolves surrounding their cabin howling at the moon.)

The family moves more than just about anyone in our supposedly highly-mobile society today–from New York to Missouri, then to Kansas, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota, then to South Dakota, then to Iowa, then to South Dakota again, and then back to Missouri–and doing so in covered wagons that took weeks to get anywhere.  The reasons were not just Pa’s wanderlust, as it sometimes seems in the novels, but more importantly, as we learn in Pioneer Girl, the difficulties of making a living on the frontier.  The government first allowed the Ingalls to start a homestead in the Osage Nation, but then sent troops to make the settlers leave.   Mr. and Mrs. Ingalls (Pa and Ma) try to run an Inn in Iowa, but it ends disastrously as they have to sneak out town at night because they can’t pay their rent.  In Minnesota, the family loses everything when a plague of grasshoppers wipes out their crops.  (This is unforgettably described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Also here in Pioneer Girl.  In the midst of a harrowing description of grasshoppers covering the ground, eating all plant life, climbing on their clothes as the family is trying to keep them out, we read about the chickens who are just loving it, excitedly pecking up all the grasshoppers they can eat.)

The family endured natural disasters (the grasshoppers, prairie fires, blizzards), dangers from human beings (Indians,  outlaws, unsavory frontiersmen), disease (such as the one that blinded Laura’s sister Mary), and the threat of starvation (during long winters).  But they also played and sang and socialized and enjoyed each others’ company, handling the difficulties with resourcefulness and an inspiring refusal to let anything defeat them.

I love the apparatus of this volume, all of the footnotes, side-bars, maps, and old photographs.  The juxtaposition is instructive.  Here are the 19th century daguerreotypes, with their stiff poses and unsmiling faces.  But these are alongside lively accounts of these people laughing, going on sleigh rides, courting, and having a good time.  We realize that these photographs are not just historical relics but glimpses, through dated technology, of human beings just like we are, only those  who had to deal with hardships we are presently oblivious to.

I appreciate the Pioneer Girl for re-introducing me to Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I am looking forward now to re-reading the Little House novels.

P. S.:  Thanks to Trip Friendly for alerting me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Documentary that his company has put together, drawing on the material uncovered in the Pioneer Girl.   He also pointed me to the Little House on the Prairie website, devoted to all things Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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