Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
by laura ingalls wilder
edited by pamela smith hill
south dakota historical society, 472 pages, $39.95
The South Dakota Historical Society released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder last fall. The book sold out in a matter of weeks. This represents an interesting turnabout. When the manuscript was first written in 1930, it was not a success. Wilder had not yet published the Little House on the Prairie series that would gain her fame. Her autobiography was rejected by a number of publishers. It was only when her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a popular writer of juvenile fiction, reimagined and remarketed Pioneer Girl for a juvenile audience that it finally saw print.
More a diary than a polished memoir, it follows the movements of the Ingalls family through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakota Territory. We see the local color of habit, dress, and mannerism, and learn about the events that formed the basis of her novels, which, as Wilder once wrote, constituted “not a history, but a true story founded on historical fact.” Editor Pamela Smith Hill provides extensive annotations, drawing on newspapers, census accounts, maps, and letters.
Some have focused on the differences between Wilder’s autobiography and her novels, particularly on the adult focus of the one and the juvenile audience of the other—with much praise for the so-called “grit” and “harsh reality” of Pioneer Girl. The love, courage, and optimism of the autobiography are overlooked, as are the grit and harsh reality in the novels. By the Shores of Silver Lake begins with the unanticipated arrival of Aunt Docia at the shanty: “Ma sighed. She was ashamed of the untidy house, and so was Laura. But Ma was too weak and Laura was too tired and they were too sad to care very much.” This scene alludes to the profound depression surrounding the real-life events of the Ingalls family in Minnesota, where nine-month-old Charles Frederick Ingalls dies, Mary Ingalls goes blind, and the family is bankrupted following the great grasshopper blight of 1874–1876 and doctor’s bills from illnesses. While Wilder includes the last two events explicitly in her children’s novels, she leaves out baby Charles’s death, which is only described in the autobiography.
Another event found only in the autobiography is the near-rape of Wilder in Minnesota, when the husband of a sick woman she was caring for came into her bed, drunk one night, ordering her to “lie still!” Laura, then about eleven years old, thwarted the attack by threatening to scream. But the novels do not shy away from the dangers awaiting young women. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura and her cousin Lena respond with horror upon hearing of the marriage of a homestead girl of thirteen years. When the family runs a bed and board, Caroline, fearing the rough male boarders, orders Laura and Mary to lock themselves in the bedroom.
As a child, I identified with the bold heroine Laura, the feminine version of her father. As a wife and mother rereading these books to a brood of six, it is Caroline Wilder, the figure of “Ma,” who draws me in. The belief that Wilder’s novels are unrealistically prim is bound up with our debates over feminism and femininity. Many self-identified feminists reject traditional femininity, claiming women’s roles and even feminine characteristics of softness or pity undermine female strength and ultimately limit their opportunities. Likewise, many traditionalist Christians shun the term “feminism,” identifying it with a movement that rejects the roles of mother and wife, thus weakening the family, and making women more like men—a move that undermines divine division between the sexes. But in the figure of Ma we see a strong Christian woman who leads her family in education, culture, courage, and love. The strength—the feminism—she embodies is based on the Christian virtue of fortitude.
When the wheat crop fails, destroyed by blackbirds—does Caroline wring her hands and weep? No, she makes blackbird pie and everybody eats it. She sends her eldest daughter, Mary, blind from illness, to college, where she learns braille and higher mathematics. Two of her daughters become newspaper writers; one (Carrie) runs four different newspapers and holds down her own homestead. On the prairie, Caroline does not admonish her children to stop bickering or pick up toys, but she tells them repeatedly, as a motif running throughout the series, “that they must never be afraid” and “they must be cheerful”—breathtaking advice on the prairie where there is much to fear and plenty that is grim.
Caroline is a woman concerned with settling her family while her restless husband, Charles Ingalls, feels a pull to move. In the beginning of Little House on the Prairie, we are told that there were no more animals in the big wood because “wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either.” Restless, like a wild animal, Charles Ingalls eschews the company of those other than his family. However, Caroline questions the move—“must we go now?” For, we are told, the weather was cold and the house snug.
Despite her preferences, Caroline quietly, but actively, supports her husband’s decision to move. She cooperates not as an act of placid obedience, but of sacrificial courage. Whenever “the new house” is built, the “moving day” ends with Caroline placing her tiny porcelain shepherdess upon the mantel. The house is now a home—Caroline’s home. Wilder underscores Caroline’s shepherd-like guidance throughout the series with the image of the Good Shepherd and the recurrence of the Twenty-Third Psalm.
Wilder gives us a refreshing take on the lost art of homemaking; it is not the punishment of the repressed automaton wife as our culture portrays it. Rather, Wilder describes it as bound up with creative resourcefulness: The homesteader constantly innovated on the prairie where nothing but dirt and sky were readily available. From washing clothes with no running water to sweeping clean houses literally made of dirt, everything these women did required physical strength and immense spirit. These sacrificial acts provided order and sanity, and ultimately civilized untamed parts of America.
Hence, in addition to fortitude, Caroline and the pioneer woman represent civilization and culture. In both Pioneer Girl and the novels, the family’s wayfaring ends because Caroline insists upon the education of her children, something that can only take place living near town. She protects the intellectual and moral growth of her children, which was not easy in the land savage with beasts or in the town savage with men where the family previously had found itself.
Caroline’s example stands in contrast to figures like Laura J. Brown. According to the notes of Pioneer Girl editor Pamela Smith Hill, Brown was the secretary of her county’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Mrs. Brown, Wilder tells us, “was literary and wrote for several church papers, neglecting her personal appearance and her house which was always dirty and in disorder.” Then there is the dreadful Mrs. Bouchie—she so despises the Dakota Territory that she threatens her husband at night with a butcher knife to demand that the family return east. There is also the kindly Mrs. McKee, who is too frightened by homesteading’s loneliness to stake her family’s claim alone, with only a child in tow.
Wilder’s criticism of Mrs. Brown and of other women suggests that feminine virtue is irrevocably tied to the home. Against a feminism that would separate women from the house and their roles as wife and mother, Wilder praises women who fiercely guard their households’ moral and physical survival. Popular culture bombards young girls with the choice between the seeming empowerment and sexual license of secular feminism and the mindless obedience, as they depict it, of traditional roles like the ones supposedly seen in Pioneer Girl and the Little House series.
But there is little docility in Wilder’s women. When Laura Ingalls weds Almanzo Wilder in Pioneer Girl, she tells him that she can’t promise to obey him when doing so goes against her better judgment. This is why I often feel that we would do well to reappropriate the term “feminism.” Terms such as “feminine vocation” or “femininity,” which Christians use as alternatives to “feminism,” have a connotation of docility and passiveness that fails to describe the women we most admire, whether in Wilder’s time or in our own.
Sarah Klitenic Wear is professor of classics at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.