December 2014

Pamela Smith Hill

Life on the prairie
Interview by
More than 80 years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, an autobiography about growing up on the prairie. Editor Pamela Smith Hill explains why the book is finally being published and what it means for Little House fans.
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More than 80 years ago, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, an autobiography about growing up on the prairie. Editor Pamela Smith Hill explains why the book is finally being published and what it means for Little House fans.

What were Wilder’s intentions with this autobiography? Who was she writing for?
Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl for an adult audience, hoping for initial publication in a prominent national magazine of the period—The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal or Country Gentleman. Such magazines published longer fiction and nonfiction in serial form. If Pioneer Girl had been published in one of these magazines, Wilder then hoped to sell Pioneer Girl to a book publisher.

Why is it being published now for the first time?
When I was conducting research for my biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, I overheard an archivist field a call from a Wilder fan who wanted to order a photocopy of Pioneer Girl. I learned then that the Hoover receives dozens of calls like that every year. And once A Writer’s Life was published, readers began asking me how they could get a copy of Pioneer Girl. It occurred to me then that perhaps it was time for an annotated edition of Pioneer Girl, one that would place the various versions of the manuscript into context along with the Little House series itself. I took the idea to the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, and together we drafted a proposal for the Little House Heritage Trust, which holds the copyright to Wilder’s work. Fortunately, the Trust also thought the time was right for Pioneer Girl.

Pioneer Girl played a key role in the development of Wilder’s fiction. Can you tell us a bit about how she adapted the material for her Little House novels?
Wilder used Pioneer Girl as the foundation for her Little House books. It gave her an overall framework for the series, as well as narrative material. But she expanded episodes for her fiction, adding more details, eliminating others. In Pioneer Girl, for example, Wilder wrote one brief paragraph about the cabin her father built on the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas. In Little House on the Prairie, Wilder devoted two entire chapters to its construction and the family’s move inside. Then she added three more as Pa completed the house, adding doors, a fireplace, a roof and floor.

Careful readers will also notice similarities in phrasing and key passages. Sometimes Wilder lifted a sentence or paragraph from Pioneer Girl and placed it, with virtually no changes, into her fiction.

What can Pioneer Girl teach us about Wilder as a stylist? Do you think her background as a newspaper columnist influenced the manuscript?
Pioneer Girl was Wilder’s first attempt at writing a long-form narrative, and she hadn’t yet broken free from the constraints of writing short, concise, but descriptive newspaper columns. This is especially true in the first third of Pioneer Girl, where many episodes are roughly the length of a newspaper column. As I point out in the annotated edition, words are a luxury for a newspaper columnist and Wilder had learned to use them sparingly. But as she gained confidence in writing a longer narrative, she added more details and lingered over key episodes in her family’s life—the grasshopper plague, for example, and the Hard Winter of 1880-1881.

Wilder had a complex relationship with her daughter, the author Rose Wilder Lane, who served as her editor. Did they view one another as rivals? Was there a sense of competition between them?

Rose Wilder Lane was a very successful writer of fiction and nonfiction in the 1920s and ‘30s. By the time Wilder began work on Pioneer Girl, Lane had already successfully published fiction and nonfiction in prominent national magazines, and was the author of several books. Wilder was proud of her daughter’s accomplishments and mentioned Lane specifically in a column about distinguished Missourians. Furthermore, it’s clear from existing correspondence that Wilder valued and trusted her daughter’s editorial opinions.

But friction developed between the two in 1931. They were living in houses about half a mile apart, and saw each other almost every day. By then, Wilder had finished revisions on Little House In The Big Woods—her first novel—and it was scheduled for publication in 1932. She had worked closely with Lane on this project from beginning to end, and was writing the first draft for Farmer Boy.  Meanwhile, Lane was working on a novel she called “Courage”; its main characters were named Charles and Caroline—and their story came directly from the pages of Pioneer Girl. Lane apparently didn’t tell her mother about this project until it was published by The Saturday Evening Post as Let The Hurricane Roar in the fall of 1932, just months after Little House In The Big Woods had been released. For Wilder, this must have felt like a personal and professional betrayal. She must have also worried that a frontier novel from a prestigious author like Lane would undercut the success of Little House In The Big Woods.

Still, the two women worked through this crisis so that just five years later, both were again working on novels that drew on Pioneer Girl—Wilder on By The Shores Of Silver Lake and Lane on Free Land. But this time around, Wilder’s career as a novelist was secure and Lane openly discussed plans for her book with her mother. By then Lane had moved away, and the two women corresponded regularly about their works-in-progress. Even Wilder’s husband Almanzo chimed in with advice for Lane’s book.

Can you provide some background on the Pioneer Girl project? Who’s involved?
At this point, the Pioneer Girl project extends beyond the book to include an extensive web site and marketing materials. Several staffers at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press created content for the web site, gathered and supplemented research materials, fact-checked my annotations, supervised the development of maps for the book and web site, collected visual materials and developed the book’s index. I’m indebted to the entire staff for their tireless and inspired efforts.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in producing a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography?
The sheer size and scope of the project were sometimes overwhelming. There are four distinct versions of Pioneer Girl, all of them with significant variations. Although I used Wilder’s rough draft as a base text, I had to closely review all versions and comment on significant variations between them. Then I had to relate the various versions of Pioneer Girl to Wilder’s nine novels. It sometimes felt as if I was annotating 13 books, not one.

Furthermore, Pioneer Girl is highly concentrated and condensed. One sentence in a single version of Pioneer Girl might inspire five or six annotations on a variety of historical, geographical, literary, or scientific subjects. I wrote annotations on everything from scarlet fever to tuberculosis, Mr. Edwards to Nellie Oleson (and the girls who inspired her), panthers to pocket gophers, back combs to hoop skirts, treaty violations to railroad construction, singing schools to the American minstrel tradition. And while I worked to keep these annotations brief, I also wanted to make them interesting for readers and worthy of Wilder herself.

What surprised you, as an editor, about Pioneer Girl? Wilder’s narrative voice? Her structural approach?
When I first read Pioneer Girl closely, I was struck with the variations in story and character—that Jack in the Little House series is largely fictionalized or that the real Ingalls family shared their home with a young married couple during the Hard Winter. After working on this project, however, I came away with a new respect for Wilder’s understanding of her pioneer material and her ability to shape it into a meaningful narrative—first as nonfiction for adults, then in expanded form as fiction for young readers.

As a researcher, I was also struck with the accuracy of Wilder’s memory. With rare exception, I found historical footprints for virtually everyone Wilder remembered from her childhood, no matter how obscure.

Do you think fans of Wilder’s fiction will embrace Pioneer Girl?
I certainly hope they will. Pioneer Girl provides new insights into Wilder’s life and her development as an artist. I feel deeply honored to have been able to work on this project, and introduce it to a larger audience.

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Pioneer Girl.

A version of this article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
South Dakota State Historical Society Press
ISBN 9780984504176

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