What We See in the Prairie
In the age of confessional memoir, it is no surprise a first-person account of growing up includes scenes of poverty, unwanted sexual advances from a teacher, and illness. But what has drawn so many readers to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl, is our memory of its narrator and the way she approaches calamities with a gentle stoicism in her beloved Little House books. It is as if in the telling of them she reassures us that we, too, will survive our prairies, our own long, hard winters. The new book, a massive undertaking of textual and visual annotations of Wilder’s autobiography from the South Dakota State Historical Society, has sold out multiple printings because what we see in this prairie is a map of resilience.
Like millions of other American women, I was a child when I encountered Wilder’s stories of mid-nineteenth century life. Hers were among the first books that I returned to read on my own after my mother read them out loud at bedtime. I was thrilled when buzz last summer anticipated the publication of Wilder’s original nonfiction manuscript, written in her sixties in the 1930s. I imagined it contained more ‘adult’ thoughts: sophisticated musings scrubbed from the fictionalized versions published for children. It would tell me what really went on, fill in silences that exist in the children’s series like gaps where the wind blows in between boards nailed together to make a claim shanty, tell me what was true and what was invented.
I had underestimated Wilder, a pioneer in more than the literal meaning of the title. Both her third-person children’s fiction and this version of her life are distinct from most accounts of the white settlement of the West because of their perspective: a woman is author and protagonist. Ultimately, this manuscript offers the same vision of how to live that was expanded into multiple books of fiction in collaboration with her daughter Rose and editors; if anything, the book’s voluminous notes and scholarly research will dazzle inquisitive historians of all ages who are equally interested in the machinations of a text in the hands of many typists and editors as in the history of the American West.
Yes, reality was altered in the novels. A brother who died as an infant is omitted from the children’s books. Some locations where the family lived, or the decisions her father took about how to make a living, do not match up with they were shaped for her fiction. We learn more about the prairie saloon culture: in Pioneer Girl’s most gruesome scene, a man burns to death when he lights his cigar while there is a swill of whiskey in his mouth, accidentally setting the liquor on fire, which spreads to his lungs.
But the same truth imparted to me first by hearing and then by reading the Little House books remains in Pioneer Girl. “Living with danger day after day people become accustomed to it. They take things as they come without much thought about it and no fuss, in a casual way,” Wilder writes to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, printed in a footnote of the annotated autobiography. This observation—the 46th footnote in the seventh section of the encyclopedic book—defines both versions of Wilder’s work.
Few childhood readers can forget the terrifying image of Laura’s hostess holding a butcher knife over her husband in the night. There is further obvious domestic violence in Pioneer Girl—wives shot at and dragged by their hair. From an adult perspective, we can intuit more about the trauma behind the description of men as “wild” after returning from the Civil War. So it is we, the readers, who have changed – not the storyteller.
Just as in the novels, much remains unresolved in the memoir’s main text, such as when the family leaves behind the hotel where they work—an experience not in the novels. But these silences and omissions are fitting, given lives often interrupted unexpectedly. They remind us that the narratives we self-consciously build about our lives are just that, and that the facts are something set apart.
The land is unforgiving: “the bees could not find any honey to store for eating in the winter. Then, because they had nothing to feed them, the bees stung all their baby bees to death and threw them out of the hives.” Blizzards “gave the impression of a malignant power of destruction wreaking havoc as long as possible, then pausing for breath to go on with the work.” Nature is the mirror through which Wilder sees the world: she describes her sister after a stroke as like “an oak tree struck by lightning on one side.”
Reflecting on the settlement of California, Joan Didion writes, “Each arriving traveler had been, by definition, reborn in the wilderness, a new creature in no was the same as the man or woman or even child who had left Independence or St. Joseph however many months before: the very decision to set forth on the journey had been a kind of death, involving the total abandonment of all previous life…”
The people of Pioneer Girl exist similarly, though in each reincarnation, when they uproot and set out for a new frontier or retreat back eastwards, they encounter people from past lives. Grasshoppers decimate wheat crops. They face starvation in conditions far below zero. The railroad company fails to pay wages. Debt piles up. They leave behind many houses built with their own hands, many friendships forged in the companionship of physical labor. They start again. They branch out into other means. They sell meat when they have no crops. They board with strangers. Children suffer indignities they foist onto one another—being pinched while suffering from measles. There is not much handwringing. Rather, it simply is.
On sectarian problems and the nighttime sky, which agitate others, Wilder writes, “But I couldn’t see how I could be afraid of both comet and Catholics at the same time so I worried about neither.” Perhaps because of man’s struggle with nature, it is in wild things she also takes the most pleasure—sunsets and the moon. Her favorite part of the day is going after the cow; she feels she belongs closest to the land. “The farm was home to us. Town was just a place to spend the winter.”
Going west is “the direction which always brought the happiest changes.” Wilder moves with her family every few years until settling into her own home with her husband. Achieving a home of her own is the culmination of a quest narrative, but reflecting on adolescence she imparts the spirit that helped her arrive there: “I learned, many years ahead of the scientific discovery, that anger poisoned one.” Arriving at the end of this autobiography, I marvel that the book has taken almost a century to reach readers—and at all that we’ve been able to learn about its author and ourselves in the process.