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.


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.

laura pioneer girl cover

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.


33 thoughts on “Laura Ingalls Wilder Week: The Autobiography

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  1. Yep, you’ve motivated me. Once I complete the Green Gable series, I’ll start reading this series, one book per month. Then I can give them to my grandchildren! 🙂

  2. I think it would be so great if you include Laura Ingalls Wilder as part of your research. Her story seems compatible with the issues you are interested in. Her autobiography is on my to-read list and I should probably put an order in given the wait. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. I hope that she recovers well.

    1. Thank you, Cecilia! I am looking forward to researching her writing on technology and learning more about her from a technical communication perspective in the future.

  3. I love this series you’ve been doing, Emily! I was so excited to hear about Pioneer Girl, and now I really can’t wait to read it, thanks to your review. My dad took my (much younger) sister to some of the LIW historic sites last summer, and she loved them. My mom read the books to me when I was little, and I remember she was reading them to my sister a year or two ago, and all the adults in the room stopped talking, hypnotized by the story, and my mom’s voice. Love those books.

    I hope your grandmother feels better very soon!

    1. Thank you, Carolyn! I think these stories are truly universal and I love the story you shared of your mom reading it aloud. How fun that your sister got to visit some of the sites! I think you’ll like Pioneer Girl.

  4. You’ve made me realize how much I miss the Little House series! I remember being obsessed with them as a kid — particularly Little Farmer Boy. Now I’m excited to read Pioneer Girl!

  5. I ordered a copy of this book from the South Dakota Historical Society website when you blogged about it before, but it’s such a massive book I’ve not started reading it yet. I’m excited to sit myself down at a table (it’s too heavy to hold) and look back at Laura’s life. I also think it’s pretty exciting that you may be able to use Laura’s writing in your research.

    1. I know, right? So exciting to research her writing in a way that connects to my field. Yes, this book is massive. It reads quickly because the large size is mostly due to pictures and notes about the historical context, which I only read when interested. Have fun sitting at the table with this one!

  6. wow! I should add a visit to this place to my ‘bucket list’. A lot of memories with the Little House books. My 2nd grade teacher read it to us back then. We would turn the light off and she would read by candle light in the classroom so we could pretend we were living in Laura’s time with no electricity. Thanks for the post!

  7. I’ve only just discovered your blog and have enjoyed binge-reading it!

    I too love Laura’s work and even took a free online class about her writing. I might suggest you look into Rose’s work and the controversy about how much she actually wrote and revised. One is a novel, A WILDER ROSE by Susan Wittig Albert, and the other is a collection of the very columns–early writings–of Laura’s that you mention here, called LITTLE HOUSE IN THE OZARKS.

    Fun thing that has nothing to do with anything–I’ve loved Laura’s work since I was a child, got the series in hardcover as a gift from my husband when I adopted my daughter so I could read them to the baby (and she would inherit them someday) AND learned during my bookselling days that my husband and I were married 100 years to the day after Laura and Almanzo.

    Have you seen the Little House Cookbook?

    1. I have seen the cookbook! We checked it out from the library just a few weeks ago. And I have read about how Rose was very involved in her mother’s writing. Have you read the new autobiography? And how about Rose’s Let the Hurricane Roar? That book is very similar to the Little House stories, just from the parents’ perspective. They were Caroline and Charles! I bet Rose was enthralled with Laura’s stories as a child. Glad you are here and that we can talk Little House together!

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