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Laura Ingalls Wilder Lives On in ‘Pioneer Girl’

This never-before-published autobiography shows what life was really like out on the prairie. 

Little House on the Prairie Cast
Credit: ???? NBC Universal, Inc.

Fans of Little House on the Prairie are in for a real treat this year. For the very first time, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original memoir, which served as the basis for the Little House book series, will be published. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (South Dakota Historical Society Press), is a fascinating look at what really happened – and didn’t happen – out on the prairie.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s watching the TV adaptation of the book series, Little House on the Prairie on NBC each week, we learned some great life lessons from the show. The lives of the Ingalls family were hard. Not only did they not have electricity or television, they also had to farm the land and struggled to get even the basic things in life, like food. The Ingalls went to school in a one-room schoolhouse, had to wear the same outfits each week, and were also forced to deal with Nellie Oleson, one of the worst bullies to ever grace the small screen. Yet Laura and Mary, the two Ingalls children that became the stars of the show, were genuinely happy, even when all they got for Christmas was a tin cup, a candy cane and a penny.

This genuine happiness that the family had was characterized by Michael Landon’s Charles Ingalls playing the fiddle to the delight of his family each evening (although Pa’s hair was more suitable for 1970s Beverly Hills than the 1870s Midwest). Unlike other television shows of the time, which would feature a crisis of the week that would be resolved at the end of the show, Little House displayed real problems which weren’t always quickly fixed.

The Little House children’s book series also featured vivid details of what life was like in the old days, from churning butter to milking cows to the grasshoppers eating everything in sight. The real Laura Ingalls grew up, got married to Almanzo Wilder, became a newspaper columnist and, in 1929, when she “retired” at 63, decided to write a memoir from her childhood. Wilder filled six Big Chief tablets with her story. On May 30, 1930, she presented her book to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was a very successful writer in her own right. She typed up “Pioneer Girl” and submitted it to her publisher on behalf of her mother. While this first-person book was not published, it did become the basis of what became the third-person Little House book series.

Now, with the publication of Pioneer Girl, we not only see what Wilder originally wrote, we can also see how much was true – Hill painstakingly examined historical records to see what the real Ingalls family did during that time, and proves (or disproves) every event in the book. 

One of the rumors about the Little House books, as they grew in popularity over the years, was that Lane supposedly wrote them for her mother. Thankfully, the publication of Pioneer Girl disproves that theory. Instead, as Hill writes, “The transcription of the handwritten Pioneer Girl illustrates instead that Wilder possessed raw talent and description genius.” In fact, if anything, it was Lane who ended up using real-life memories from her mother for her own fiction series.

Reading Pioneer Girl can be a bit challenging with so many notes on each and every passage, but fans of the Little House TV show and book series will enjoy seeing the pictures of the real-life Ingalls family, the maps of where they lived, as well as where some of the more famous memories of the books and on-screen adaptations found their inspirations. For example, Nellie Oleson is a composite of multiple girls who got under Wilder’s skin, including one who seemed to be sweet on Wilder’s eventual husband. The annotated autobiography also discusses some adult topics, like drunkenness and love triangles, which never made it into the children’s series. But in all, the voice of Wilder will be immediately familiar to those grew up with the Ingalls family, who loved reading the books or tuning into the TV show and who don’t mind taking one last trip back to the prairie.  

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