Laura Ingalls Wilder turned me into a reader. Her Little House books were worth the effort that reading was to me at that time. It’s not too strong to say that I loved Laura, and still do.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Pioneer Girl because I knew that this book would expose the ‘real’ Laura. Would that spoil the Laura I thought I knew? No. It makes her even more human and fascinating!
Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a very well regarded journalist and novelist by 1929 when the economic Crash hit America. Laura was in her sixties. It was Rose’s suggestion that her mother should write down memories and stories from her pioneer family past, and that might raise much-needed money. At that stage, those memories were intended for an adult audience. So Laura got to work, writing freehand in school exercise books. She called the work Pioneer Girl, and in the text we get much that is familiar from the fictionalised stories we already know, but more stories, much of it bleak or shocking stuff.
The Ingalls family had already illegally tried to land-grab territory belonging to Indians before the events of Little House In The Big Woods begins. There’s a moment when Pa packed them all into the wagon to do a midnight flit from a place where he owed money. We learn about baby Freddy, born between Carrie and Grace, who died aged nine months. During the desperate Long Winter when food and fuel was so scarce they burned twisted hay and risked lives in order to get more grain, the Ingalls family had another family living with them. A young couple, keen to get away because they knew their baby was due rather too soon for decency after their marriage, landed on the Ingalls’ and got snowed in. Ma acted midwife. Through those desperate months, the young couple hogged the place by the stove and did nothing to help! And, would you believe it, it was Cap Garland who Laura fancied more than she did Almanzo for quite some time! (Actually, I think I’d sensed that all along …!) There are more surprises to find.
We are treated to photographs of many of the people who appear in the stories, and given brief histories of what happened to them. Arch enemy Nellie Olsen is actually an amalgamation of three girls who Laura disliked for different reasons over the years!
We see how the stories were tidied-up and shaped for a child audience. The back and forth editing process between mother and daughter is alternately funny and heartbreaking.
But Laura comes through, intact as the Laura we already know, but with added grit and humour and stubbornness, and we find that other members of her family are of course more complex than their fictional counterparts.
This book is a clever production. It never bores with its footnotes. It’s a handsome big book, and a great treat to read … and I know that I’ll re-read it before too long. Thank you, Laura!
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