Laura Ingalls Wilder Week: The Autobiography

Last week was spring break for me, so I took the time off to visit my dad and my grandmother, who is ill with cancer, in Missouri. My grandma finished her last radiation treatment while we were there, so we are hoping that things look good and that she’ll start to get stronger and be able to care for herself again.

While there, my dad took us to the Laura Ingalls Wilder house in Mansfield. I have been wanting to visit this historic site for some time, but we were last there during Christmas, and the house is not open until March 1. I had good timing for this trip, and we took a day to visit the site.

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So this week on my blog, I’ll be posting all about that day trip and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

To see Monday’s post, click here. To see Tuesday’s post, click here. To see Wednesday’s post, click here. To see Thursday’s post, click here.

Today is the last post.

This day trip was a treat for me because I loved all of the books in the Little House on the Prairie series as a girl. I have a vivid memory of reading On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), and a few years ago I read them all aloud to my daughter, and then I listened to them again in my car during my long commute to school.

Most recently, just a week or so ago, I finished reading Pioneer Girl (2014), the newly published and never-before-seen autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is her original manuscript for publishers of the Little House series, which was meant for adults and rejected and rewritten until it became the beloved children’s series. Pamela Smith Hill has edited and annotated the original manuscript and published it in a beautiful coffee table format. I’ve spend the last few weeks savoring it and enjoying the annotations and learning more about the people and the places and the history behind the Little House books.

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The autobiography contains stories that didn’t make it into the children’s books, and they are more realistic and gritty, but not in any way that is offensive or upsetting. It is simplistically written, and we can see how much Laura improved her writing from that draft to the published books.

Much of the details of this book are familiar through their fictionalization in the children’s series that it eventually became. I loved rereading these stories, and seeing which ones were true and which were exaggerated or changed for creative reasons.

The most exciting new story is in the appendix as “The Benders of Kansas.” In it, Laura recounts Pa having had a close encounter with the infamous Bender family, who were serial killers in Kansas. Laura remembers that he had almost stayed at their inn, but decided not to and came home instead. If he had stayed, he would have been another victim. However, the annotations and historical evidence suggest that Pa and the Wilders were never in the same place at the same time as the Benders, and that this story is likely a false memory. Nevertheless, it was gripping.

I was also delighted to learn that when Laura was married, she bristled at the idea of promising to “obey” Almanzo. She wrote, “Mr Brown [sic] had promised me not to use the word ‘obey’ in the ceremony and he kept his word” (p. 322). I loved seeing Laura’s spunky independent spirit carried on into her adulthood, and that she was passionate enough about this issue to speak up for herself at that time.

In the introduction, I learned more about Laura’s professional writing career before she published the Little House series. Apparently, she was a columnist for the St. Louis Star Farmer and wrote about “farming techniques and innovations, the role of women on the farm and beyond, the changing seasons, war and peace” (p. xxiv). I see potential here for my research on technology and technical communication historically. I would love to look into Laura’s early professional writing as part of my future research.

I highly recommend it for those of you interested in the Little House series and in the history behind the novels and the experiences Laura had on the frontier. I had trouble finding it in stores and online because apparently it sold out quickly and they had to run a second printing. I am glad to hear that my excitement for this book has been shared by so many others.

I actually ended up finding my copy of Pioneer Girl in a bookstore because a former student of mine knew I was looking for it. She came across the last copy they had in stock while working. She was kind enough to hold it for me.

I’m a huge fan of this series of books and of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week about her and her life and my tour of her houses.

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