Book: Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Every two years I take a trip—a jam-packed pilgrimage to a site of literary importance to me. I’ve been to William Shakespeare’s birthplace, the Chawton house where Jane Austen wrote 4 of her masterpieces, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (which she used as a setting for Little Women), and Green Gables, the reconstruction of the house from the Lucy Maud Montgomery books. This was a trip year and it was a doozey. Instead of visiting one site particular to an author, a friend of mine from work and I visited five, logging over 2,000 miles of driving between sites. Who was the author who inspired this adventure? That would be Mrs. Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In preparing for this trip, I tried to remember what came first in my life, the books or the television series. The television show actually started with a made-for-TV movie that premiered in March of 1974, when I would have been in first grade, and I remember watching it. I know I did not read the books in strict order. I know I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek first. I remember reading a chapter from Plum Creek (“The Day of Games”) aloud during literature time to my third grade class. I remember reading These Happy Golden Years also while in third grade and having some moments of confusion (due to the fact that I skipped some books and that I was eight years old reading a book written for an older audience). I want to say I watched the movie because I was familiar with the books, but I am not positive. What I have recently realized, however, is that when reading the books, in my mind Laura and Mary never looked like their television counterparts. They looked like the Garth Williams illustrations I grew up with. This makes me more confident that I came to the books first.
And while I LOVED the television show, so much so that my best friend Carrie had her mom audiotape the proposal episode (these were pre-VCR days, baby) because we had a meeting to go to that Monday night, it was not as important to me as the books. How important were they, you ask? Let me count the ways.
First of all, they were an incredible source of imaginative play. Carrie and I would spend hours playing Little House—she was Laura and I reluctantly was Mary (I gave in because I thought TV Mary had the cuter husband). This would be at Carrie’s house, my house, and our favorite place, Grandma and Popeye’s (Carrie’s grandparents) basement. Didn’t matter when or where. This continued for several years, likely long after imaginative play had been abandoned by our peers.
Secondly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the complete set. These were the books I rescued from the donation boxes—my biggest act of adolescent rebellion. How dare my mother give them away? I wasn’t done with them yet! Fast forward 30+ years, and I’m still not done with them. I’ve had to replace them because my originals wore out, but I still own a complete set of the series.
Thirdly, I’m pretty sure these were the first historical books I ever read. Considering that my passion for the past continues into my present, these books must have appealed to my imagination in a far more significant way than any books that came before.
Fourthly (but likely not really finally), I think these were the books that inspired my desire to be a writer. I remember marching into my parents’ bedroom and announcing to them that I was going to write a book about what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant to me. OK, so that book never materialized, but I have written multiple works of fiction (some completed, some not, and none published). Not to mention that for the past two-and-a-half years I have written in this blog. Published or not, I am a writer of sorts, and LIW was my original inspiration for that.
So, after a 668 word intro, I can at last get to the subject of this “review” as well as an account of my trip. Again, to prepare for the trip, I read an annotated version of Mrs. Wilder’s memoir, Pioneer Girl. This memoir was what she used to pen the fictionalized version of her life she immortalized in the Little House series. I had read excerpts from the memoir before in some biographies, but it was great to read it in total. What made it most fascinating was the actual annotations. Admittedly, I didn’t read all of them. The ones that commented on the kinds of flora and fauna didn’t hold my interest. The amazing ones were the remarks that illustrated Mrs. Wilder’s process as an author. In reading those notes I got to see the deliberate choices Mrs. Wilder made between what actually happened in her life and what she wrote about in her fiction. Choices to maintain reader clarity, theme, characterization, pacing, and historical context illuminated just how much work goes into good writing. I often hear people say, “I could write a children’s book better than that.” Chances are those people are wrong. Chances are those people have no idea the work that is actually involved in writing. Chances are those people are yet unpublished.
Another wonderful thing about the annotations was that, for me, it put to bed the question of the actual authorship of the Little House series. Growing up, I unquestioningly believed that Mrs. Wilder was the author. Over the years, I have read theories that the books were in fact written by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s famous author-journalist daughter. The school of thought is that Laura, having never graduated from high school, lacked the ability to craft fiction, so she and Rose worked together to create the series with Rose being the actual author. The annotations debunk that theory. They contain excerpts from letters between the two ladies where Rose offers suggestions and Laura accepts or rejects them and gives her reasons. I have no doubt that Rose was a hand-on editor of her mother’s work and that the true authorship belongs to Laura.
So, having read this memoir, my friend and colleague J and I set out on a LIW journey. We flew to St. Louis and then rented a car (covered wagons not available). Over the next 8 days we trekked over 2,000 miles in 6 states. We saw the hotel that the Ingalls family ran in Burr Oak, Iowa (an experience Mrs. Wilder did not recount in her fiction). We wandered through what is left of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and visited a replica of the little house there (built to the description in the memoir, not the fiction). We stood in the remains of the dugout site and followed the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota. We rode in the car for 10 minutes to get from Walnut Grove to Tracy, a journey that took a train carrying the Ingalls women an entire morning to complete in 1879. We stood in the actual surveyor’s house and the first schoolhouse the girls attended in South Dakota. We admired Pa’s handiwork in the final house he built in town. We were mesmerized by the size of the trees he planted on the homestead over 100 years ago and marveled at the size (bigger than I expected) of the sitting room in the homestead house (a replica) where I played the pump organ. We were awed by the house Mr. Wilder built in Missouri, where he customized the kitchen to fit his wife’s diminutive size, and by the stone house Rose had built for her parents’ retirement. We geeked out at the artifacts in the Mansfield, MO museum (OK, perhaps I geeked out a bit more, obsessive fan that I am). We paid our respects at the gravesites of the Ingalls-Wilder family members in both South Dakota and Missouri. We had a thoroughly wonderful time on an incredible trip, one that was all the more meaningful and enjoyable to me since I had a companion as interested in every aspect of the family as I was.
So that was my adventure this summer. J and I ended the trip with a few days in St. Louis, going up the Arch and having high tea in the swanky Central West End district, but the LIW site visits were the realization of a dream. In visiting these historic locations I was also, in a sense, revisiting my childhood and the multitude of happy hours I spent in Laura-world. It was wonderful, it was awesome, it totally rocked!