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Book Review

‘Pioneer Girl’ edited by Pamela Smith Hill

(KIMBERLY FRENCH/ABC/FILE PHOTO)

Eight years ago, Pamela Smith Hill sat at a research table in the reading room of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. She overheard an archivist taking an order for a photocopy of “Pioneer Girl,” the unpublished memoir of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“I was surprised,” Hill said, “and filled with admiration for readers who were so devoted that they would conduct their own research on Wilder. Not only did they know about Wilder’s unpublished autobiography, but they knew where to go to get their own Xeroxed copies.”

In the more than eight decades since the “Little House” books based on Wilder’s life first were published, millions of fans have found courage in the stories about covered wagons and huddling around the cookstove while blizzards or wolves raged outside. And many have yearned to know more about Wilder’s life. Now they are getting their wish. The South Dakota Historical Society Press has published the earliest known version of Wilder’s memoir, “Pioneer Girl,” in a volume heavily annotated by Hill, who wrote a short biography of Wilder seven years ago.

The “Little House” books codified a particularly sunny brand of optimism amid difficulty. “Pioneer Girl” brings to light a somewhat darker story: The Ingalls family was poor, had to keep leaving their farms, and encountered many threatening people in their quest to find the right home. The memoir includes stories that would be considered too grim for young readers — dead children, predatory teachers, and innkeepers who killed their guests and buried them in the backyard. Wilder penciled her story on cheap lined tablets and delivered them to her daughter and collaborator, Rose Wilder Lane, on a May day in 1930. Both were living on the Wilder farm in Missouri.

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Lane, an accomplished and published writer, edited and typed “Pioneer Girl” and offered three versions of it to magazine and book editors through two agents. But those Depression-era editors weren’t gripped enough by the story.

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The rejections pushed Lane into a new direction. She secretly extracted a section from “Pioneer Girl” and sent a draft of a children’s book to an editor. Soon, the editor asked Wilder to expand on that; it became “Little House in the Big Woods,” the first of the eight original books. In subsequent volumes, Wilder and Lane always started with sections from “Pioneer Girl.” This is the major reason fans were so drawn to the photocopied “Pioneer Girl” — it offers a sort of road map to the series. Hill’s annotations are detailed and a helpful addition to the developing scholarship on Wilder.

In this newly published “Pioneer Girl,” Hill and a team of scholars transcribed Wilder’s handwritten tablets, so presumably this shows the world the closest thing to Wilder’s prose without the major editing her daughter did for her later books. Hill’s annotations often talk about changes in later versions peddled to the magazines.

It seems wrong, then, that Hill’s annotations attribute every edit and change in later versions of the “Little House” books to Wilder. The papers clearly reveal that Lane made many of those revisions or decisions. In her introduction, Hill tells only some of the story of Lane’s work with Wilder, a partnership that left them both drained and caused a dramatic falling-out.

When she does talk of the collaboration, Hill seems to pit Wilder against her daughter, especially when she says Lane betrayed her mother when she wrote her own books using “Pioneer Girl” episodes (“Let the Hurricane Roar” and “Free Land”). In fact, Lane had used family stories in her own writing for many years, going back to the early 1920s.

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Hill also perpetuates an idea that I think caters to a mistaken notion of fans, that Wilder was more in control of the “Little House” project than all of the evidence suggests. “Some critics have charged that Wilder could not write and that Lane was the creative genius behind the Little House books,” Hill writes in her introduction. “The transcription of the handwritten ‘Pioneer Girl’ illustrates instead that Wilder possessed raw talent and descriptive genius.” She then quotes one of Wilder’s beautiful sentences, a description of a sunset. To be sure, several sentences in “Pioneer Girl” will jump out at diehard “Little House” fans because those sentences went into the final books nearly unchanged.

But individual sentences do not a book make. Reading “Pioneer Girl” proves how far Wilder’s memoir lies from the narrative structure and technique of the “Little House” books. This publication of “Pioneer Girl” strongly suggests that without Lane, Wilder was a much different writer.

Finally, a word of thanks to Hill for bringing this manuscript to the public. Until now, Wilder’s earliest version was only available in an eye-straining microfilm (white lettering on black background). With the creation of this volume, the Hoover library will be fielding requests for photocopies of “Pioneer Girl” only from the loyal few who want to read all the typed and edited versions that show Lane’s hand. Now those people are real die-hards.

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Christine Woodside is the editor of Appalachia journal and is writing a book about the Wilder-Lane collaboration on the “Little House” books.