Never forget, the “Little House” books are fiction. That way you won’t feel cheated when you find out that Nellie Oleson was a composite character, or that Jack the brindle bulldog didn’t die — he was given away. (Or maybe that will make you feel worse.)
Before she became famous for her children’s novels about growing up in Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota in the late 1800s, Laura Ingalls Wilder tried writing a memoir, but nobody wanted it. “Pioneer Girl,” a rough-edged autobiography about her childhood, was rejected by publishers in 1930.
A few years ago,Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill took it on, with the South Dakota Historical Society Press as publisher. The book came out last fall and spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. (See sidebar.)
Hill will be in the Twin Cities this week for events at Micawber’s Books and the Roseville Public Library.
Q: What is it about the Little House books that people find so captivating?
A: At the heart of the books, of course, is the fictional character of Laura herself. She is daring, smart, plucky, independent, sometimes fierce and always loyal. But she is also flawed in a very believable way. She can be quick-tempered and unforgiving. She sometimes lacks self-confidence. These qualities make her credible, appealing and timeless. That’s why the Little House books cross generational, geographical and cultural boundaries. Laura’s character speaks directly to the hearts of readers.
Q: What was the most interesting fact you uncovered as you edited “Pioneer Girl”?
A: In the original rough-draft version of “Pioneer Girl,” Wilder recalled an episode in Walnut Grove, Minn., when she was about 11 or 12 years old. The Ingalls family was struggling to make ends meet financially, and Wilder had been hired as live-in help to look after a young, more well-to-do family in town.
The husband was an alcoholic, and although Wilder’s writing about this episode is restrained, it is clear that the husband intended to sexually assault her. Wilder escapes assault, but the episode gives readers a totally different view of Laura Ingalls and her experiences in the American West.
It’s interesting, too, that Wilder didn’t include this episode in the edited versions of “Pioneer Girl” that she and her daughter prepared for publication. They must have felt the scene was too disturbing for mainstream adult audiences of the early 1930s.
Q: Since the Little House books were written as fiction, Wilder took some liberties. What were some of the shockers you found in the memoir?
A: The fictional dog Jack dies of old age at the family’s farm on Plum Creek in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” It’s a lovely, moving scene, written with great beauty and restraint. I was shocked to learn that Charles Ingalls threw Jack in as part of a swap for a new team of horses on the Osage Diminished Reserve — “Indian Territory,” in the Little House books.
The beloved Mr. Edwards is complete fiction, very loosely based on a vague character from Wilder’s past. The fictional Nellie Oleson is based on three girls Wilder knew. The real Laura Ingalls never spent an afternoon with Pa watching the railroad being built in Dakota Territory, and as a young woman in De Smet had several suitors other than Almanzo Wilder.
Q: How long did you work on the annotations? And how did you go about tracking down names and details?
A: I began researching and writing annotations for “Pioneer Girl” early in 2011, and continued to make edits, changes and corrections to the book right up until it went into production in the fall of 2014.
I relied on census information, letters and diaries, historical documents, old histories and newspaper accounts, e-mail and personal interviews, as well as a wealth of online materials.
Researching and writing the book required a line-by-line analysis of Wilder’s rough draft, along with line-by-line readings of the four edited versions of “Pioneer Girl” that Wilder produced with her daughter’s editorial assistance.
Then I had to cross-reference all this with Wilder’s Little House novels and Rose Wilder Lane’s two pioneer novels and several short stories, which also sprang from “Pioneer Girl.”
Q: You grew up in the Ozarks, near Wilder’s Rocky Ridge Farm. Were you a “Little House” fan as a child?
A: A neighbor recommended the Little House books to me when I was 10. I started with “Little Town on the Prairie” and was immediately hooked when I realized that the Laura Ingalls in the books went on to become the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote them.
I’d always assumed writers lived in New York — not in the Missouri Ozarks. The following year, my parents took me to Rocky Ridge Farm for the first time, and I was even more inspired when I saw Wilder’s original manuscripts on display in her farmhouse.
In my 20s, I moved to South Dakota, where Wilder set five of her nine Little House books, and my respect for her work deepened. That’s when I began writing about Wilder professionally — as travel writer for the South Dakota Division of Tourism. And year after year, decade after decade, I’ve found new aspects of Wilder’s writing life that have inspired and intrigued me.
Q: Why do you suppose Wilder was never able to get this book published?
A: Ultimately, “Pioneer Girl” didn’t find a home primarily because of its place in time. Wilder finished the manuscript in 1930, not even a year after the stock market crash of 1929. Magazine and book publishers were struggling.
It’s amazing, in some ways, that “Little House in the Big Woods” found a home. The publisher who initially bought the manuscript closed its children’s department in 1931, and Wilder had to find another publisher. The Depression-era publishing world was extraordinarily grim and challenging.
Q: Were you already familiar with “Pioneer Girl” through your work on the biography?
A: Yes. I read several versions of “Pioneer Girl” and quoted from them in my biography of Wilder. This time around, I was struck even more by the central role “Pioneer Girl” played as an outline for Wilder’s Little House books.
Wilder, for example, uprooted an episode from “Pioneer Girl,” and with a bit of creative license, plopped it right into “Farmer Boy,” a novel based on her husband’s childhood.
Also this time around, I saw even more clearly how heavily Rose Wilder Lane had relied on “Pioneer Girl” herself for several short stories and two novels. It’s amazing, I think, to find a previously unpublished manuscript that inspired multiple short stories and 11 novels written by two different authors. And then there’s that whole mother-daughter connection, which makes this story even more amazing and unusual.
Q: There has been a lot of speculation about the amount of influence Wilder’s daughter, Rose, had on her work. Do you have an opinion on this?
A: I do, but it’s complicated and would require its own interview to cover the subject thoroughly. So I’ll just say this: Based on the correspondence we have between Wilder and Lane, it appears that Lane was her mother’s editor — an aggressive and sometimes manipulative editor, but one who helped Wilder find the unique and artistically inspired voice that has made the Little House books so enduring and timeless.