Several decades ago, an aspiring author sat down and wrote an entire story on lined notepads. It was a true story about her life, much more iconic than most of our stories will ever be. She poured her heart into it, and sent it off to a beta reader who made copious edits. Then she asked her beta reader to shop it around to various publishing houses.
What distant days, when your friend could use their agent for your book. :)
She had a previous track record in publishing magazine articles, and her beta reader was a well-connected individual. But publisher after publisher rejected it. "We already have books similar to this." "Not at this time." "We will not be publishing this book."
Her beta reader added fictional episodes to make it more exciting. It was turned into a juvenile version. Then, after years of trying, the author turned one sliver of it into a children's novel and sent it off to Harper Collins. It was published as Little House in the Big Woods.
The book I review today is the spurned autobiography Little House in the Big Woods was based off of. Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder's adult biography, never found an audience in her lifetime. But after its publication this year, the publishers have had to arrange for multiple printings, and it graced the New York Times Bestseller list for Hardcover Nonfiction.
The Ingalls story still resonates. And here's why you should read it.
[From Amazon Description] Hidden away since the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder's never-before-published autobiography reveals the true stories of her pioneering life. Some of her experiences will be familiar; some will be a surprise. Pioneer Girl re-introduces readers to the woman who defined the pioneer experience for millions of people around the world.
Through her recollections, Wilder details the Ingalls family's journey from Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, and on to Dakota Territory sixteen years of travels, unforgettable stories, and the everyday people who became immortal through her fiction. Using additional manuscripts, diaries, and letters, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography builds on Wilder's work by adding valuable context and explores her growth as a writer.
Author of an award-winning Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, editor Pamela Smith Hill offers new insights into Wilder's life and times. In an introduction, Hill illuminates Wilder's writing career and the dynamic relationship between the budding novelist and her daughter and editor, Rose Wilder Lane. Sharing the story of Wilder's original manuscript, Hill discusses the catalysts for Pioneer Girl and the process through which Wilder's story turned from an unpublished memoir into the national phenomenon of the Little House series.
First things first, the introduction, though long, was fascinating background for Laura's publication journey. Non-writers may find it illuminating just how much work goes into writing and publishing a book, and it's a wonderful foundation for the rest of the Pioneer Girl experience. Whether you read it before the book or after, make sure you do read it.
Second, Pamela Smith Hill's annotations made the book a much richer, deeper reading experience. Laura's writing is terse and occasionally out of chronological order, reproduced with original spelling and grammar errors. Hill's notes explain continuity errors, give brief biographies of each person Laura mentions, and explain fascinating tidbits about life at that time. You won't want to miss them.
I loved hearing about the churches Pa and Ma were part of. The United Congregational Church in Walnut Grove, and the church they helped the travelling preacher start in De Smet. I don't remember if the children's novels covered that, but I didn't know how religiously involved they were, and I enjoyed that aspect.
I also never realized how responsible Laura was. The books give the impression of a wild and free-spirited girl. She was free-spirited, but she was far from wild. From a young age she was helping neighbors babysit their children, helping young mothers with housework as they tried to live on the prairie, and bringing the cows in every night. When Mary went blind, most of the heavy work fell on Laura, and during the long winter she worked just as hard as Ma and Pa to keep them all alive and warm. In spite of that, she also had a mischievous streak; one time she turned the clock back an hour so she could get extra time with Almanzo.
I also loved Hill's comparisons to the Little House series, tracing how much Wilder had grown as a writer. She added fictional elements for stronger plots and character arcs. She learned how to describe things in greater detail, and play on the emotions of her readers. I still remember how unfair it felt for Ma to make Laura give her doll to a neighbor girl, and Laura's fight with Mary over whether blonde curls were prettier than brown. Wilder knew how to faithfully portray the heart of a child, and that drew countless children's hearts to her stories.
This book destroys some of the well-known plots. Jack, the beloved dog, only technically existed in Little House on the Prairie. In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family lived with a young couple and their new baby, who wouldn't contribute anything to the household.
There are some adult stories about illegitimate babies, violence, domestic abuse, and even one disturbing account of possible death through sexual factors. While it's appropriately handled for adults, you may wish to read it aloud to young children to avoid those parts.
As an extra treat to the over-all experience, lots of pictures are included of the various towns, schoolhouses, and people. Likenesses of Cap Garland, the Wilder family, and other iconic figures of the Little House books grace the pages. From the story itself, to the maps and pictures, to the fascinating annotations, Pioneer Girl is a can't-miss look into the hard work and pioneer spirit of the age. It's a spirit of industry we would do well to emulate.
You can find more about Pioneer Girl and various media releases at www.pioneergirlproject.org.