Presbyterians of the Past

Laura Ingalls Wilder-Pioneer Girl,
Pamela Smith Hill

The following review has no connection to Presbyterian and Reformed history. Presbyterians of the Past is publishing the review for its author and because of the influence Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels have had upon successive generations beginning with their first editions. The books have been popular reading in Christian schools and homes and Pioneer Girl presents the interesting autobiographical work by Wilder from which her fiction was drawn.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pamela Smith Hill, Editor, Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014, cloth, 400 pages.

Immediately upon hearing the words, “pioneer girl,” many growing up in the last eighty years would think about either Laura Ingalls Wilder and her stories, or The Little House on the Prairie television series. Multitudes have read the young adult novels and even more have viewed Melissa Gilbert with her TV family living life on the prairie in Walnut Grove, Minnesota from 1870-1880. Wilder’s initial manuscript was an autobiography she wrote at sixty-three years of age, first, for her family, and secondly for publication. In 1930, after encouragement from her daughter, Rose, the manuscript was submitted to several publishers but rejected because their editors believed that as an autobiography it was not marketable. The manuscript, even after being revised several times, was archived. But now, Pioneer Girl, has been removed from the shelf through the patient and detailed editorial work of Pamela Smith Hill and is available for readers to understand the life behind the stories.

The beautiful full color dustjacket is faithful to the attractive covers of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of “Little House” books and wraps a quality cloth bound edition. Enhancing Wilder’s autobiography are extensive parallel notes provided by the editor that describe historical events, identify individuals, and correlate the autobiography with Wilder’s fictional stories. The notes are especially helpful for the reader to understand the era and the hardships of prairie life. A lengthy introduction explains how the project came together. Following the introduction is a section describing changes to the former editions of the manuscript that had been put aside until the current project was transcribed. In the last section before the narrative begins, editorial procedures are given so that the reader will understand abbreviations, annotations, maps, and sources. The manuscript is broken into nine sections corresponding with the states or territories in which the Wilders lived and the dates of residency. A map is provided at the beginning of each section showing the locations pertinent to events recounted in the pages that follow. The reader can trace the Wilders’ travels in each state, view the positions of neighbors’ homes, see the routes of trails, and the locations of neighboring communities. There are numerous pictures of people, places, and even fashion mentioned in the autobiography. Included at the end of the book are an extensive bibliography for further reading and an index to facilitate access to topics of interest.

Pioneer Girl, the original narrative of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s personal story covers sixteen years of her memories from the time she was two years old until she was eighteen. This personal story tells about the Ingalls family as it struggled to survive through the difficulties of prairie life and its frequent relocations for better opportunities. Even though the television series, Little House on the Prairie, portrayed a long and stable residence in Walnut Grove, the Ingalls instead lived briefly in Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakota Territory. Laura described her family in loving terms as they all worked hard together. The Bible was read and prayers were said in their home, and they faithfully attended the Congregational Church in town, or they listened to the minister in other facilities if a church building was not in the area. There are many interesting stories in Pioneer Girl, but three in particular impressed this reviewer.

When the Ingalls were living in Minnesota, they had wonderful neighbors, the Nelsons. Laura and Mrs. Nelson were very close and it was this friend who taught Laura how to milk cows. The wheat in the fields had grown tall and Pa, Charles Ingalls, believed that the crop would be wonderful that year, but he was mistaken. One day Mrs. Nelson rushed into the Ingalls’ house and announced, “The grasshoppers are coming! The grasshoppers are coming!” Laura describes in great detail the swarm of grasshoppers racing toward their farm. The grasshoppers ate everything green, including Pa’s wheat crop. Pa tried setting some of the field on fire to deter the insects, but to no avail. After three days, the grasshoppers left, but they laid their eggs before leaving. The “grasshoppers” were actually locusts. In the notes for this section, Pamela Smith Hill discusses the visit of the Rocky Mountain locusts to that area from 1873 to 1874. Through many difficulties the family made it through the winter despite the locust plague disaster, but Pa had to leave to find work. However, with the warm summer sun the next year, the locust eggs hatched. The locusts grew and ate the grain, grass, and leaves once again. Laura describes smashing the large insects as she and her siblings walked from place to place, “They got up under our skirts when we walked to school and Sunday-school; they dropped down our necks and spit ‘tobacco juice’ on us making brown, ugly spots on our clothes.” The crops were destroyed again and Pa said that “he’d had enough.” The family soon packed up and moved to Iowa. Many other families had to leave as well. One family was going west to Oregon because the father was a beekeeper and the locusts had eaten all of the pollen bearing flowers needed for bees to produce honey.

The account of the hard winter of 1880-1881 in the Dakota Territory occupies an entire chapter in Pioneer Girl. Laura describes in detail the hardships of that winter. From the cows with their frozen eyelashes, which caused them to be unable to see, to the hours of being inside with nothing to do, the stories are engaging. The Wilders did not have coal or kerosene for fuel, so they used “rag lights” lit by axle grease that Pa had for greasing his wagon. They also made fuel for fire by tightly twisting hay into knots. Laura recounts this procedure in detail, therefore she must have made many of these twists for the family to have some warmth. The knots made fuel that produced a hot fire but was consumed rapidly. Laura tells about the perils of trying to walk or travel anywhere with all of the snow. The train normally ran through their town, but it was halted on the tracks by the piles of snow that were so large its plow could not cut through. Because the trains could not get through, there were no supplies coming to the town; the Ingalls’ Christmas turkey could not even be delivered until the spring. Trying to go anywhere in a blizzard could be fatal. Laura described how she and Carrie were at school when a blizzard began and the teacher dismissed the class. The teacher and a man named Holms walked the children from the school across the prairie to the town. They were blinded by the snow so they could not see the buildings and they almost walked through town, but suddenly, they bumped into the last building. If they had kept walking, they would have been lost on the prairie in the blizzard. However, after the difficult and snowy winter, spring arrived and the prairie “turned a beautiful green.”

In Laura’s teen years, prior to her marriage to Almanzo Wilder, she was very interested in the latest from the world of fashion. She described in great detail a dress that she had purchased. The editor has provided extensive notes for readers who do not sew to describe how clothes were assembled in the era. Sunday was the day to wear one’s best dress not only for worship, but also for afternoon buggy rides in the country. Laura and Almanzo took many excursions in his buggy with Laura exquisitely dressed. Wilder included many period fashion details not only in her autobiography but also in her novels, which provide readers with explanations of the more modest attire of the day.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s plan to publish her autobiography as history was thwarted by editors, but she was encouraged to rewrite the material in a series of novels. Perhaps because of Laura’s love for children and her family, she worked to fictionalize her life experiences so that young people living during the Great Depression in the 1930’s would realize how families could work together through difficult times. The Ingalls’ several moves as Charles sought work for steady income might have spoken to the children of the day as many saw their fathers leave home to work in the Roosevelt administration’s Civilian Conservation Corps and other economic recovery programs. As a teacher, mother, and a pioneer, Laura would have wanted to encourage and comfort the children of her day. Laura Ingalls Wilder was an accomplished author who told her stories with additional details to add color and life. Thanks to the editors’ of her day redirecting Laura’s literary efforts to fiction rather than history, American children’s literature has a treasured series of novels; thanks to Pamela Smith Hill’s editorial work providing Pioneer Girl, Laura’s initial desire to publish her non-fiction autobiography has been fulfilled. Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography, encourages the reader to once again investigate life as it was lived amidst hardships, but most of all in the middle of a beautiful prairie, filled with wildflowers.


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