This is a first-rate work of history due to the book’s annotations and Wilder’s nonfiction voice.
The editor, Pamela Smith Hill, highlights the process of turning nonfiction into fiction. There is also analysis of the relationship between memories and writing.
Wilder was something of a stickler for accuracy, especially in comparison with her daughter-and-editor, Rose Wilder Lane. Mother and daughter fought over accuracy, both when reconstructing their family’s past and when it came time to turn the nonfiction memoir into several novels. You can see Wilder’s voice without Lane’s editorializing in the final, posthumously published novel, “The First Four Years,” an honest look at the struggles and ugly realities faced by farmers and settlers of the time period.
“Pioneer Girl” covers the years of Wilder’s life portrayed in the famous first eight novels, all of which were given the full editing process by Wilder and Lane. Essentially in “Pioneer Girl” you get the stories from those eight novels, but in an unvarnished form intended for adults, and designed as nonfiction.
Wilder’s memories, even writing 50-60 years later, are largely confirmed by other sources consulted by the editors of “Pioneer Girl”, such as census records, biographies, memoirs, newspapers, etc. A notable exception is the Bender episode, involving the infamous serial killers. That account by Wilder seems to depend on false memories about her earliest childhood.
But I was otherwise surprised at the accuracy of her memories, especially because a few years ago I read a ton of memoirs by famous tennis players of the 20th century and found them to be riddled with false or inaccurate memories.
Wilder gets dates wrong more than anything else, but that is where you would expect memory to be weakest.
Hill notes that anachronisms are rare in the Little House novels. That again is an achievement considering the passage of at least five decades between the events in question and their being set down on paper.
Hill’s annotations are copious and analytical, but never to a fault. They cover virtually everything that appears in the “Little House” books: the backgrounds of individuals and families; American and Native American history; songs, animals, foods; the list goes on. The annotations tell you not only the background of each story but also the changes that were made to it in the novels.
And in her annotations Hill dialogues with opposing viewpoints from other scholars who have been more critical of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her novels.
Hill argues that Wilder’s previous experience in journalism made her spare with words. As many readers know, Wilder often produces sentences that are wonderful in their detail, beauty and brevity. She’s lyrical, but not in the way that Proust is.
Hill’s analysis and investigation of the “Indian Territory” setting of the third novel, “Little House On the Prairie,” is worth the price of the book alone. But all throughout the book she gives you mini-historical essays providing context, analysis, and argument.
There’s an interesting annotation about the authorial voice that Laura Ingalls Wilder used. “Pioneer Girl” is written in first-person. For the novels she and Lane gradually settled upon using third-person limited, as distinct from third-person omniscient and third-person objective. Hill writes that in —
a novel written in third-person omniscient, the author moves freely from the thoughts of one character into another. Most of the great Victorian novels, including Charles Dickens and George Eliot, relied on this technique to give their novels greater range, insight, and perspective.
But with third-person limited, the action of the Little House books unfolds “almost entirely from the fictional Laura’s point of view, giving the series its unique, childlike voice and establishing Laura as the main character.”
Hills adds that —
most literary critics continue to praise the voice and point of view Wilder adopted in her fiction; it is, perhaps, one reason the books have remained so popular. Although the market has since shifted and first-person novels for young readers are now common, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also written in third-person limited.
My single favorite passage in “Pioneer Girl”:
For some reason, there was a scare about the Catholics getting control of the government and the awful things they would do to protestants. The daughter would wring her hands and pace the floor declaring that the Catholics should never take her Bible away from her. Then a comet appeared in the sky and both women thought it meant the end of the world and were more frightened than ever. But I couldn’t see how I could be afraid of both comet and Catholics at the same time so I worried about neither.