A few months after the stock market crash, in the winter of 1930, Laura Ingalls Wilder sat at a small desk in Mansfield, Mo., and began writing down her life story in pencil. She had rattled in wagons from cabin to sod house to shanty, slept to the howling of wolves, endured droughts, tornadoes, and blizzards, cooked for teamsters, and ultimately married a man, Almanzo Wilder, with whom she’d done more of the same. Wilder was 63 when she started writing her memoirs, and she wasn’t an experienced writer: She had published little more than farm newspaper columns. But her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, 43, was a famous journalist, and she thought her mother’s story would sell.
“Once upon a time, years and years ago, Pa stopped the horses and the wagon they were hauling away out on the prairie in Indian Territory,” Wilder wrote in the earliest surviving draft, written in a notebook she labeled “Pioneer Girl No. 3.”