Laura Ingalls Wilder aficionados seem to have a boundless appetite for books about the author. And publishers appear eager to feed this hunger whenever possible, with books ranging from personal explorations like Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World Of Little House on the Prairie (Riverhead, 2011) to the upcoming children’s biography Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Sept. 2014, Holt/Ottaviano). The missing piece in nearly everything published about Wilder, however, has been the sound of her own voice, something that Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill and publisher South Dakota Historical Society Press are working to remedy as they prepare a heavily annotated version of Wilder’s 1930 autobiography, Pioneer Girl, for publication.
Wilder’s Little House books have always been understood to be the writer’s fictionalized autobiography, but the extent of the fictionalization has long been under discussion by readers and scholars. The publication of Pioneer Girl, edited and annotated by Hill, author of the award-wining biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life (South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2007) should go a long way towards resolving many of the details under debate.
Wilder would surely be pleased that her autobiography, which she and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane tried in vain to get published for three years, will finally be available to readers. In 1930, two years after moving into Rock House in Mansfield, Mo., not long after her sister Mary’s death in 1928 (her father died in 1902 and her mother in 1924), Wilder began writing stories from her life. “I think that after the deaths of Mary and her mother, she became much more conscious of her own mortality,” Hill said, “and probably realized that if she wanted to set down her stories, this was the time.” Thinking of magazine serialization in a periodical like the Saturday Evening Post or the Ladies Home Journal, followed by publication in book form, she aimed her autobiography at the adults who had been following her newspaper and magazine columns.
Lane, who had already written several books and dozens of magazine stories, advised her mother on “issues of style, structure, and sometimes even content,” according to Hill. “Together they formed a mother-daughter editorial team to prepare the rough draft for publication; they revised and edited the original manuscript.” In spite of submission efforts by Lane and subsequently by literary agents Carl Brandt and then George T. Bye, however, it was turned down repeatedly. Eventually Lane tried her hand at reworking some of the material into a juvenile version, and Marion Fiery, children’s book editor at Knopf, offered Wilder a three-book deal. Before Wilder could sign the contract, though, Hill explained, Knopf shut down its children’s publishing division. The editor offered the manuscript to Virginia Kirkus, then children’s book editor at Harper and Brothers, who bought and published Little House in the Big Woods.
In writing this book, along with the ensuing books in the series, Wilder left out many of the darker aspects of her life. Hill’s proposal for the Pioneer Girl project notes that, in a speech at the 1937 Detroit Book Fair, Wilder said: “There were some stories I wanted to tell but [it] would not be appropriate to put them in a book for children.” These stories include the birth and death of her little brother Charles Frederick, or “Freddie” as she calls him in Pioneer Girl, who was born when the family lived in Walnut Grove, Minn., in 1875, and died just nine months later, as the family moved east to Burr Oak, Iowa.
In the Little House books, Wilder also excluded many of the family's experiences in Walnut Grove and all their experiences in Burr Oak. These usually involved her observations of townspeople, including an episode when a shopkeeper dragged his wife by her hair, poured kerosene on the floor, and then set their bedroom on fire. “Still, Wilder makes it very clear in Pioneer Girl that her parents worried about the social environment their daughters experienced, particularly in Burr Oak, where the family ran a hotel that was next door to a saloon,” said Hill.
The idea of publishing Pioneer Girl came to Hill after her 2007 biography of Wilder was released. Researching her book in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, in 2006, she overheard a phone call between an archivist and a Wilder fan asking about obtaining a photocopy of the writer’s unpublished autobiography. Surprised to learn that such requests were routine, she later fielded similar questions from readers of her biography. In 2009 she proposed that SDHSP publish an annotated version of the work that would place it in context of Wilder’s times and, as she wrote in her proposal, “provide insight into significant differences between Wilder’s autobiography and her fiction” as well as explore the working relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, which itself has been a subject of some controversy.
Nancy Tystad Koupal, director and editor-in-chief of SDHSP, was immediately enthusiastic about Hill’s proposal, even as she understood the challenges involved. “I knew from the beginning that the scope of the project was beyond the capacity of our regular staff,” she said. “We would need more research, more marketing and more support staff, for map research and fabrications, photographic search and indexing, for example. While the model is not exact, we looked at the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press.”
She quickly set about pursuing the first necessary step towards publication: obtaining permission from the Little House Heritage Trust, which holds the rights to Wilder’s literary works. That permission was obtained, thanks in part to the good relationship between the SDHSP and LHHT established by the publication of Hill’s biography. “Others have expressed interest in publishing Pioneer Girl in the past,” said Noel Silverman for the Little House Heritage Trust, “but the Trust felt that a scholarly treatment by a historical society press – with the offer to put the work into the hands of a Wilder scholar who was interested in annotating it – was a much better complement to the Little House series than a commercial publication. The publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography will, I think, prove an invaluable resource to anyone interested in understanding the transformation which occurred between the historical record which Laura Ingalls Wilder created in the writing of Pioneer Girl and the works of literature which Laura Ingalls Wilder created in the writing of her novels.” In 2010 Hill began work on the book.
In November 2011 Hill and Koupal traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., where the original manuscript is kept, to view it and to photograph a number of artifacts to illustrate the book. Museum director Jean Coday opened the vaults to show them the lined notebooks in which Wilder wrote her story. Other than the staff and board members of the museum, they were the first to view the handwritten manuscript since the 1930s.
According to Hill, the handwritten manuscript is only one of “a multitude of versions, buried in archives across the United States,” the result of the numerous submissions made by Lane and subsequently by the two literary agencies. There are at least four full-length versions written for adult readers, all completed in 1930: Wilder’s original, handwritten rough draft and three edited and typed variations – all created, Hill said, “to appeal to the national magazine market of the period. Two of the four versions were submitted to the literary agents in New York and the final version of the manuscript was then marketed to several magazines.”
Hill made the decision to work from the handwritten original because she thought it was important to present Wilder’s personal, unedited voice as much as possible. “Publishing the handwritten draft, with its inevitable quirks and rough spots,” she said, “gives readers a sense of what it might have been like to sit in Wilder’s living room at Rocky Ridge Farm and hear her reminisce about her life. The rough draft is also significant,” Hill added, “because Wilder drew from this version when she later began writing her Little House series. Some phrases and scenes from her original draft appear in her fiction with only minor editorial changes.”
Once the project was underway, SDHSP set up a website, www.pioneergirlproject.org, with an ongoing blog, to keep readers updated as to the process and progress of the book. Koupal explained that creating the Pioneer Girl Project had several purposes: “to share information about the ways in which we were approaching the tasks involved, to support project-dedicated staff and to recognize the donors who were helping to provide the funds for the research, editorial production and marketing support we needed for a project of this scope.” The site includes posts from the various participants as well as photos and videos documenting events such as Hill and Koupal’s visit with Coday, which includes a virtual tour through Wilder’s Mansfield home and artifacts such as Wilder’s parents’ marriage certificate.
In one post, associate editor Roger Hartley, assigned to transcribe Wilder’s handwritten manuscript into electronic form, rejoiced at the writer’s “clean handwriting.” He had not read the Little House series as a child and wrote: “I feel like a bit of an outsider, but I think that, in a way, my unfamiliarity made me a better transcriber, because every word was new to me. I am probably the first person since the 1930s,” he continued, “to read her autobiographical manuscript before reading the books it spawned.”
Originally scheduled for publication in June 2013, the project proved to be more difficult than anticipated and on February 25, 2013, the publisher announced it would be delayed. A firm publication date has not yet been set. “An annotated study of an important and historical literary figure’s seminal work is a massive undertaking,” Koupal noted. “It proved to be a bigger research and writing project than anyone anticipated, encompassing research not only in manuscript and artifact collections, but also in newspapers, county records, land office records and census data.”
The project, the most ambitious undertaken by the Press to date, is being funded in large part by grants and donations at a variety of levels; the Great Plains Education foundation of Aberdeen, S.D., was the first to jump on board with an $80,000 challenge grant. Other major donors include De Smet Farm Mutual Insurance Company of South Dakota, NorthWestern Energy and the South Dakota Community Foundation. Bearing a preorder price of $35 and a retail price on publication of $39.95, the book is slated to have a trim size of 9 x 10 inches and will include approximately 125 photographs and other images, and eight maps. A final page count has not yet been determined. For information on ordering, click here.