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New stories — not for kids — in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Pioneer Girl’ autobiography

December 12, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Laura Ingalls Wilder is known for the “Little House” series, based her family’s journey across the American plains. But until now, Wilder’s autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,” has never been published. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Pamela Smith Hill, author of “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life,” on the details Wilder saved for her more mature account.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a look at the unvarnished life of a much beloved American literary icon.

Her autobiography, the basis of much of her writing, was written almost 100 years ago, but never published until now.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: She didn’t begin to write until she was in her 60s, but Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first effort at fiction, “The Little House in the Big Woods,” published 1932, was the Egypt of a series about life on the Great Plains of the 19th century that’s been treasured by generations of children, selling some 60 million copies and translated into more than 40 languages.

Later generations took to the long-running 1970s TV series based on the books. All of these “Little House on the Prairie” stories were in fact based on Wilder’s own life, and it turns out that she originally tried to tell her story in an autobiography, one that was never published.

Now, some 90 years later, the South Dakota Historical Society Press is bring out “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography.”

The editor is Pamela Smith Hill, an English professor at Missouri State University who also wrote a biography of Wilder.

And welcome to you.

So, it’s interesting. Her first impulse as a writer was to nonfiction.

PAMELA SMITH HILL, “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography”: Yes, exactly.

What a lot of people don’t understand about Laura Ingalls Wilder is that she actually started her professional writing career as a journalist. She wrote for The Missouri Ruralist, a major farm publication in Missouri in the early 20th century.

So she was used to dealing with facts and reality. And I think that’s one of the reasons why she attempted to write an autobiography first.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the autobiography doesn’t seem to be intended for children, from what I read. I mean, it has a lot about adult relationship. It has some real-world violence.

How different is it from what we came to know in the novels?

PAMELA SMITH HILL: When Wilder wrote “Pioneer Girl,” she intended to write it for an adult audience. You’re absolutely right about that.

She was hoping that a major national magazine, like The Saturday Evening Post or The Ladies’ Home Journal would serialize her autobiography. She was hoping for magazine serialization and then, if that was successful, a book deal later on.

So, with “Pioneer Girl,” she hoped to earn money twice, first in magazine form and then as a book. It was a very kind of different publishing world than, when Wilder first wrote “Pioneer Girl” and finished it in 1930.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what do we learn about her from reading her own words? What voice kind of jumps out at you?

PAMELA SMITH HILL: The voice in “Pioneer Girl” is more mature, but it’s also very intimate, very personable.

It’s almost as if you’re sitting across from Laura Ingalls Wilder at her kitchen table, and she’s telling you her life story. But she’s telling it as an adult looking back on her childhood. And that’s a very different voice than what we hear in the “Little House” series.

In terms of her life itself, what she reveals in “Pioneer Girl” is in many ways similar to what she discusses in the novel, but she presents a tougher life, a harder life, and yet the Ingalls family itself was still very loving and optimistic, very warm.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an example that you can give us?

PAMELA SMITH HILL: Well, I think most Wilder fans already know that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a baby brother. She didn’t write about his birth or his death in the “Little House” series, but she does explore his very short life — he lived only nine months — in “Pioneer Girl.”

I think that’s one of the most revealing episodes in the autobiography. But she also talks about a period in her family’s life where the Ingalls family didn’t moved west, as they always do in the novel. Instead, they moved east.

And Charles Ingalls abandoned his dream of living off the land. Instead, the family managed a hotel for a short time in Iowa. I think the family pretty much hit rock bottom financially and they were really struggling to make ends meet.

So there’s a whole section in “Pioneer Girl” that will be new to readers of the “Little House” books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, finally and briefly, what explains the incredible success of those novels over so many years and through so many generations?

PAMELA SMITH HILL: Wilder’s first editor described the “Little House” books as the books that no depression could beat.

Wilder wrote the “Little House” books in the Depression and in the 1940s, into World War II. I think the books have a great deal of optimism and hope, but I think what makes the books endure is Wilder’s unique and personable voice. It’s very intimate.

It’s at once simple and yet eloquent. And it also manages to age along with its main character. So the opening books in the series are very childlike and full of wonder. In the end of the series, the voice is more mature, and yet somehow still consistent.

And I think that unique voice offers readers a chance to project their own dreams and feelings and aspirations into the book. I think that’s why it’s endured.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Pamela Smith Hill is the editor of “Pioneer Girl” by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Thank you so much.

PAMELA SMITH HILL: Thank you.

 

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