New Words

In the course of my work making editors’ corrections to the “Pioneer Girl” annotations, I have come across several unfamiliar words. Most of these terms have simply fallen out of usage and been forgotten. Some became clear as I read through the manuscript, but others remain puzzling.

When I first read of a “lunatic fringe” in “Pioneer Girl,” for example, I immediately thought of its modern definition, which refers to a fanatical group. I was surprised to learn, as many Wilder fans may already know, that the term referred to the bangs that fall across one’s forehead. Apparently, this hairstyle was not looked on especially favorably in the late 1800s.

“Fichu” was another unfamiliar word. Laura’s good friend, Ida Brown, gave her one as a wedding gift. The vintage dictionary we sometimes consult here in the office defines a fichu as a small cape, usually made from lace and triangular in shape, similar to a scarf. I also learned that this very fichu is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

When Laura became engaged, she wore the garnet-and-pearl ring Almanzo gave her on her “first finger.” This one still has me stumped. Did she wear it on her index finger, or was the nineteenth-century “first finger” what we call a “ring finger” today?

I had also never heard of “lawn” in connection with a dress. Laura had a pink sprigged “lawn” dress. I have since learned that lawn is a sheer, lightweight fabric, now usually woven from cotton but, in the nineteenth century, also made from linen.

Laura’s father, Charles, would sometimes sit with the graybeards in the “Amen corner” of the First Congregational Church. I now know that those who led congregational responses or who were especially ardent worshippers would sit in that section.

In These Happy Golden Years, Laura wore her new hat, which she described as “a sage-green, rough straw, in poke-bonnet shape.” I have since learned that a poke bonnet is one with a projecting brim or front, designed to shade the face. “Pie-plant” had me stumped at first, too, but the definition of garden rhubarb makes sense.

Little did I know that working with the Pioneer Girl Project would expand my vocabulary in so many ways. I’m looking forward to solving the next “word mystery.”

—CO

Wheels of Fire(trucks)

On the whole, our circumstances here at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press are not much like those of Laura Ingalls. We do, it’s true, work in a building cut into the side of a hill, and oxen could easily wander over the roof, supposing there were any oxen around. But we all felt a little closer to her two weeks ago, when we experienced our very own prairie fire.

Miniature prairie fire at the CHC, October 2013

As you can see, our parking lot is being rebuilt, and the fire began with some sparks from a machine cutting metal. From its humble beginnings the fire took off downwind, devouring the drought-parched natural prairie grasses that make up our front lawn. (While we evacuated the building, the statue, Dale Lamphere’s Citadel, regarded the threat with more or less equanimity.)

As Ma says with relief in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 275), “there is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors,” and presently our good neighbors arrived in the form of the Pierre Volunteer Fire Department.

The firefighters in action

They extinguished the fire in a few minutes. It did no damage to the stone face of our building but scarred the earth impressively.  And yet only two weeks later, green shoots are in evidence on the burned ground. Even so late in the season, the miniature prairie ecosystem is working to restore itself.

Green shoots ascend from the ashes

It’s a sight that might have given Laura Ingalls, and all those who have experienced danger and disappointment on the prairie, hope for the future.

But we’re keeping an eye out for grasshoppers just the same.

RGH

A Thank You to Our Supporters

What is the most important part of a project? You might say the finished product, but, to even begin, there need to be people who believe in the value and abilities of your plan. While the Pioneer Girl Project is what brings us together, it is the support of our donors that has made the dream of many—to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished manuscript—a foreseeable reality.

The Great Plains Education Foundation, Inc., of Aberdeen, South Dakota, got the ball rolling with an $80,000 challenge grant. Contributions from Dennis and Carol Anderson, the South Dakota State Historical Society, Historic Preservation Office, BankWest, Inc., the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, John and Margaret Fowler and the Growth Opportunities Through Rail Access Coalition helped us to meet that challenge. De Smet Farm Mutual Insurance Company of South Dakota, NorthWestern Energy and the South Dakota Community Foundation have also recently joined the project as Pioneers (donations of $10,000 or more). It is because of these donors that the South Dakota State Historical Society Press will be able to offer Wilder’s autobiography at an affordable price. The book will include behind-the-scenes essays and details concerning the life of this significant author.

With the help of the Homesteaders (donations of $5,000 to $9,999) like First PREMIER Bank / PREMIER BankCard, we will also be able to bring important events and materials to readers throughout the nation to promote knowledge of Wilder’s life and writings.

Please visit the Pioneer Girl Project Donations page and thank everyone for their contributions toward the long-awaited publication of this important manuscript, including our Friends (donations up to $999) and Settlers (donations of $1,000 to $4,999). The Pioneer Girl Project is coming together because of our donors, large and small, and, of course, because of followers like you. Thank you for your support as we research and publish Laura Ingalls Wilders’ Pioneer Girl.

For information on how you can contribute to the Pioneer Girl Project, please email info@sdshspress.com or donate now by visiting the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation Pioneer Girl Project donation page.

—JMc

When is a crab not a crab?

When it’s Laura Ingalls’s ultimate weapon in the struggle against Nellie Oleson.

Fearsome creatures roam through the pages of Wilder’s novels: howling wolves, screaming panthers, devastating grasshoppers, hungry bears lurking in the woods, and a badger that sends Laura into headlong retreat. But pound for pound, what can compare with the animal that Laura meets while wading in a pleasant pool? Ever-vigilant, swift to attack, slow to disengage, alien in form and bellicose in disposition, audacious, ferocious, tenacious: it is the Jabberwock of the Minnesota prairie, the legendary beast of Plum Creek—of course, I mean the old crab.

It is clear that her encounter with this crusty old crustacean made a strong impression on Wilder, who was eight or nine years old at the time. The crab first appeared in her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, where it is clear, as it is from her detailed description in On the Banks of Plum Creek (p. 129), that the animal was not, in fact, what we would call a crab. So what was it?

Orconectes virilis, one of the crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota.

“Don’t tread on me.”
Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson.

As it happens, we are not the first ones to ask. Wilder’s daughter and editor Rose Wilder Lane wondered, too, and wrote Wilder for clarification. Lane included her own description of a crab: about the size of a turtle, with eyes “like a snail’s,” and appearing somewhat like an oversize spider. Lane suggested that the creature that Wilder saw might really have been a crawdad or crayfish. Wilder confirmed her daughter’s suspicions but also affirmed that young Laura had not been frightened for no reason: “I assure you he was enormous.”1

One might wonder why Lane let the error stand, but perhaps that’s the wrong question. To declare Wilder’s usage to be an error is to make unwarranted assumptions about her historical and linguistic context. Wilder agreed that it was not a crab, but added, “we always called them crabs.” Wilder was no more wrong in calling her crawdad a crab than a Texan is wrong in calling her 7-Up a coke. Some words simply had different meanings to Wilder and her neighbors, and our job as annotators is to suggest an explanation when something doesn’t seem to make sense. It usually comes down to differences in time, place, and circumstance.

I would point out that none of the three crayfish species indigenous to southwestern Minnesota is exactly “enormous,” either—but history—and biography—are all about context. Wilder’s “crab” may not really have been so huge, but it clearly made an enormous first impression. Try running into one for the first time as an eight-year-old, with no internet or Animal Planet to prepare you, and let me know how it goes for you.

We know how it went for Nellie Oleson.

RGH

1. The correspondence discussed here between Wilder and Lane dates to the summer of 1936 and is found in Wilder’s papers at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.

A New Time Frame for Pioneer Girl

“When is the new release date?”

The question above has been on the minds of many who follow the progress of the Pioneer Girl Project, and the South Dakota State Historical Society Press has been working hard to get Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished work into book form. In February, readers of this blog saw that the publication of Pioneer Girl had to be delayed. As explained in A Matter of Timing, publishing Wilder’s manuscript involves layers of history and research into her writings, family, and friends. As Director Nancy Tystad Koupal said, “Each twist and turn has been exciting, but unfortunately, it has also been time-consuming.” Your patience throughout this process has been greatly appreciated.

The end of researching and writing is in sight, and the Press looks forward to presenting readers with the annotated edition of Pioneer Girl in the summer of 2014. Stay tuned to pioneergirlproject.org for more specific details in the weeks to come.

Thank you for your continued interest in this important project. You can pre-order Pioneer Girl by emailing orders@sdshspress.com or calling (605) 773-6009.

JMc

An Interview with Pamela Smith Hill

Pamela Smith Hill was recently interviewed by Alaina Mabaso of Alaina Mabaso’s Blog. From Laura’s dog Jack to the Pioneer Girl Project, Hill and Mabaso discussed, among other things, Wilder’s career and work.

Click here to read the full interview on Mabaso’s blog, titled Pa sold Jack with the ponies, and other Laura Ingalls revelations: an interview with Wilder biographer* Pamela Smith Hill.

 

 *Pamela Smith Hill wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in 2007. For more information or to purchase this book visit www.sdshspress.com.

Pa Ingalls—Fact or Fiction

After visiting De Smet, a follower of the Pioneer Girl Project posed the following questions:

“Was he [Pa] different than the one portrayed on Little House? Laura does say in a biographical piece that it was the Pa she wanted. What are your thoughts?”

The Pa of the Little House novels was the father Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered and sought to immortalize.  As she wrote her daughter Rose Wilder Lane in 1937: “Pa was no business man.  He was a hunter and trapper, a musician and poet.” His stories, Wilder said, inspired her to write the Little House books.  Even before her first novel was published, she noted that Pa’s stories “impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.”

The essence of Pa’s character in the Little House books is consistent with Wilder’s portrait of her father in Pioneer Girl.  He was affectionate, warm, playful, musical, and restless.  But based on the historical record and Wilder’s recollections, it is clear that the fictional character in her novels is romanticized and idealized.  In Pioneer Girl, for example, Pa sneaked his family out of town in the middle of the night after failing to negotiate the rent with the landlord. Wilder suggested that Charles Ingalls justified it to his family by calling the man a “rich old skinflint.” Wilder’s fictional Pa would never have done such a thing.   Quite simply, the fictional Pa is more heroic, more noble, and more mythic than the real Charles Ingalls or the one who emerges from the pages of Pioneer Girl.

Wilder had much to draw upon in creating her character. The real Charles Ingalls made significant contributions to the communities in which he lived, serving as justice of the peace, school-board member, church officer, and civic-minded leader.  At his death in 1902, the De Smet News and Leader wrote of him: “As a citizen he was held in high esteem, being honest and upright in his dealings and associations with his fellows.  As a friend and neighbor he was always kind and courteous and as a husband and father he was faithful and loving.  And what better can be said of any man?”

— PSH