Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
Laura Ingalls Wilder
South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014
472 pp., 39.95
Rachel Marie Stone
Making All Things New
In one of my favorite chapters in all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, Ma coerces Laura into giving Charlotte, her beloved rag doll, to the bratty child of a neighbor, Mrs. Nelson. Anna has terrorized Laura and her sisters all day, and, in Wilder's close third-person narration, Laura looks forward to her departure, and to "straighten[ing] Charlotte's skirts and her hair when Anna went away."
And then, "a terrible thing happened. Anna would not give up Charlotte." Anna howls and kicks, and because she speaks and understands only Norwegian, Laura surmises that Anna thought she had intended Charlotte as a gift. In any case, when Laura tries to take the doll back, Anna screams.
"For shame, Laura," Ma said. "Anna's little and she's company. You are too big to play with dolls anyway. Let Anna have her."
Laura has no choice but to "mind" Ma, and watches from the window as Anna skips away with Charlotte. Ma scolds her for "sulking," but later, when "the wind went howling by the eaves" and Charlotte's box is empty, and the house, without Pa, feels empty too, echoing Laura's sense of hollowing bereavement, Ma apologizes. "I wouldn't have given your doll away if I'd known you care so much."
Not long after, on a "stormy day," sent to the Nelsons' house on an errand, Laura finds Charlotte "drowned and frozen in a puddle. Anna had thrown Charlotte away." She gathers the battered, now-ruined doll ("Anna had scalped her"), hides it under her shawl, and run homes to Ma, who comfortingly draws Laura onto her lap and invites her to tell her all about it. In the course of their conversation, they agree that "it had been a terrible experience for Charlotte," and that Laura is justified in taking her back. And then, that very evening, in an episode which—so it seems to me now—requires the suspension of disbelief, Ma makes Charlotte "as good as new":
Ma ripped off the torn hair and the bits of her mouth and her remaining eye and her face. They thawed Charlotte and wrung her out, and Ma washed her thoroughly clean and starched and ironed her while Laura chose from the scrap-bag a new, pale pink face for her and new button eyes.
Before going to bed that night, Laura lays Charlotte in her box, fully restored.
I, too, had a beloved rag doll when I was a girl. It was nothing anyone would have coveted. On the contrary, my doll was so ragged and stained that the sight of her elicited disgust. A "yuck," uttered thoughtlessly by a friend's mother, had me up in the night, weeping and clutching my dirty doll protectively, though I was probably "too old for dolls." I read and re-read this chapter in On the Banks of Plum Creek (which has a wonderful chapter title: "The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn") as if it were holy writ. I begged my mother to help me re-make Susan, and we did what little we could.
But at what point in repairing a rag doll does the rag doll in question cease to be herself and become another rag doll entirely? It seemed to me that without her smiling, smudged face, Susan would cease to be Susan. When, in my young adult years, she had finally become too filthy and threadbare to keep, I removed all her stuffing, washed the fragile fabric of her as gently as I could (washing her stuffed was out of the question; the tension created by her firm stuffing would have ribboned her fabric flesh) and rolled her in a towel to await whatever dolly resurrection may yet be in store for her.
I still read "The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn" with something like religious delight. The brusque misunderstanding of parents who say things like "for shame!" and are insensitive to the fragile hurts of childhood gives way to consolation, reassurance, empathy (even for a doll's emotions), and the making new of all things before bedtime.
Wilder's books have become classics of children's literature. The American Library Association established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1954; it honors an "author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children." Yet Wilder did not begin as a children's novelist. For many years, she was a columnist and editor at The Missouri Ruralist. In her retirement, she purchased a stack of writing tablets and, in tidy longhand, began her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, recently published in an exhaustively annotated transcript edition by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. The press did not anticipate the popular demand that quickly depleted the first print run of this scholarly edition.
Wilder must have considered writing for children before she began work on Pioneer Girl in the spring of 1930. In 1919, her daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, discouraged her mother in a letter: "there is no opportunity to make a name with children's stories," exactly the sort of advice that's satisfyingly ironic in hindsight.
"Without Pioneer Girl," writes Pamela Smith Hill, editor of the volume, "neither Wilder nor Lane would be remembered today." Lane's most successful novels, Hill notes, owe considerable debt to Pioneer Girl. As to the rationale for publishing Pioneer Girl more than 80 years after it was penned, Hill cites the critics who "have charged that Wilder could not write and that Lane was the genius behind the Little House books." It is true that Lane revised Pioneer Girl extensively. It is obvious that Wilder expected her to do so: the manuscript contains little asides; messages to Lane. "You are their namesake, my dear" Wilder wrote of the wild prairie roses. Other sections are marked as "Private," such as one detailing the time Wilder "caught the itch at school and couldn't touch the baby. Gosh how it did itch and Ma rubbed us with sulphur and grease." These and other indications in letters and diaries suggest that Pioneer Girl is best thought of as a rough draft; less an autobiography than an emptying out of Wilder's memories spanning sixteen years, from age 2 to 18.
For those who've read the Little House books, much will be familiar here, albeit in compressed, nascent form. The character Laura, created by Wilder when she began rewriting Pioneer Girl as fiction for children, is utterly recognizable in Wilder's "I"; the narrator is at least as precocious, tomboyish, cheeky, and endearing as Laura the character.
Unlike Lane, whose idea of nonfiction accommodated substantial fabrication, Wilder felt it important that her novels for children convey "a true picture of the times and the place and the people. Please don't blur it," she wrote her daughter. In the novels, Wilder took certain liberties with the sequencing of events and greatly expanded upon scenes that are merely sketched out in Pioneer Girl, but rather than reading as embellishments, the novels held alongside the autobiography seem rather to be more fully developed versions of the same story, peopled by the same characters. "I had seen and lived it all," Wilder wrote, "all the successive phases of the frontier … . In my own life I represented a whole period of American history."
Pioneer Girl certainly paints a grittier picture of family life on the prairie than do the novels, although anyone truly familiar with the Little House books will hardly regard Pioneer Girl as astonishingly revelatory of a whole set of heretofore secret horrors—the starvation of The Long Winter was by no means captured through a nostalgic filter. True, Wilder left her little brother entirely out of her fiction: "little Brother got worse instead of better and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead." Nor did she refer to the episodes of drunkenness, post-traumatic stress, and domestic abuse that she touches on in Pioneer Girl. Celebrity gossip culture tends to reward the sharing of details once regarded as private, but Wilder was of a different era. It would be anachronistic to regard the novels as somehow less "authentic" than Pioneer Girl merely because they do not tell all.
"I have learned that if the mind is allowed to dwell on a circumstance[,] more and more details will present themselves and the memory becomes much more distinct," Wilder once said in a public address. Writing Pioneer Girl seems to have been a crucial step on the path to the Little House series; the act of writing and rewriting and remaking the raw materials of Pioneer Girl into the stuff of literary legend seems to have conjured heightened memories—and a new identity for Wilder, who, well into her sixties, became an artist.
Do not come to Pioneer Girl expecting to discover dark secrets glossed over or transformed into light in the Little House books. Read it, instead, to learn something about the difference between a logbook and a story; between streams of remembered events and a fully developed memoir or autobiographical novel. Read it to better understand the alchemy that transforms those seemingly vaporous things—memories—into enduring national treasures.
But there is one significant exception, one place where the Little House story greatly idealizes the Pioneer Girl memory: the restoration of the rag doll (called Roxy in Pioneer Girl) never happened:
I had kept Roxy so carefully that she was still nice and I thought her beautiful, with her curled black yarn hair, her red mouth and her black bead eyes. When Anna cried for her, Ma said I was getting to be too big a girl to play with dolls and she thought I would better give Roxy to Anna … . The very next time I went to Mrs. Nelson's I saw Roxy lying face down in a mud puddle.
There the manuscript leaves the sad episode—in the mud, where Roxy/Charlotte stayed, unredeemed by Laura and Ma, remembered always by Laura as "still nice" and "beautiful." Revisiting and revising the story in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Wilder permits herself an ending that perfectly satisfies a child's—nay, a human's—longing for empathy, for restoration, for gathering up the fragments and making all things new. Which is, perhaps, what we seek when we read stories.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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