Transcribing the Original

Many months ago I began transcribing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript into MS-Word format. It was my first contact with this historic document, and I rejoiced that Wilder had such clean handwriting, so unlike my own.

Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl as a remembrance of her childhood. It is a remarkable account in its own right, but what gives it special significance is its place in literary history, for this is the account that Wilder later spun out into the world-famous “Little House” series.

World famous those books may be, but I have a shocking confession to make: I have not read them. [Editor’s note: All these months later, Rodger has in fact at least perused some of the famous books!] That’s right; I am probably the first person since the 1930s to read her autobiographical manuscript before reading the books that it spawned. Those who have sought Pioneer Girl out before have done so because they loved the books and wanted to get closer to the truth of the story—whereas I read it because it was my job. Here am I, a newcomer to the world of Wilder, suddenly wrapped up in the Pioneer Girl Project, the most exciting development for fans and scholars of this author in years.

I feel like a bit of an outsider, but in a way, I think that my unfamiliarity made me a better transcriber, because every word was new to me. Now, of course, we’re well past the transcription stage. Now we’re deep in to research, gathering photographs, and so on, and I frequently have to refer to the published books. And when I read something that I remember from the Pioneer Girl manuscript, I get a little thrill of recognition. I’m interested to see how the story grew and, sometimes, changed. It gives me a hint, I think, of the excitement that confirmed fans of Wilder’s work will feel when they read Pioneer Girl—but in reverse.

Working on this project has definitely put the “Little House” series on my reading list. By the time Pioneer Girl goes to press, I will probably have read most of those books—just not in the right order. After that, it’ll be catch-up time.

Rodger Hartley

Seeing the Original

I flew into Springfield, Missouri, in a thunderstorm and all but kissed the ground as I deplaned. My fellow weak-kneed passengers agreed that it had been the worst flight in our collective experience. It was an inauspicious beginning to what proved to be a magical trip.

The next morning, Pam Smith Hill and I drove the roughly forty-five miles to Rocky Ridge farm near Mansfield, Missouri, for our first look at the original, handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript. The trip was the culmination of weeks of negotiation and preparation. We had earned the right to publish the manuscript, and we were working our way through various typescripts and digital copies to determine what constituted the core text. Outside of the staff and board members of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, no one had seen the original manuscript in decades. We were excited.

We also had permission to photograph a number of artifacts in the museum collection to illustrate passages of the annotated edition. Pam had prepared the list, and professional photographer Keli Tetzlaff and her boss Angela D. Smith of Springfield accompanied us. With the help of staff member Kathleen Forte, we began in the museum, photographing Pa’s fiddle and other treasures and then moved to the Wilder farmhouse to see Wilder’s writing desk and the small, sunny room in which she did her writing. She had launched her journalism career in this house, writing columns for the Missouri Ruralist, and she penned the later novels here as well. (She had written the early ones in the stone house that her daughter built for her and which we would visit later.)

The scale of everything was so tiny that I felt like a giantess. The small alcove off the living room that formed the author’s library served as a frame for a photograph of Pam and me that proved the point: we modern women were much taller and, in my case, broader than the diminutive Wilder. Again, the exquisite Prairie-style architecture and detail of the house made a deep impression on me, as it had on my first visit to the author’s home ten years earlier. It was so modern for the time period and yet so classic. The beautiful W. H. D. Koerner painting of homesteaders in a covered wagon added a bright splash of color to the warm woods and muted fabrics of the sitting area.

Last of all, we met with museum director Jean Coday, who opened the vaults and brought out the aging tablets that contain the handwritten story of the young Laura Ingalls Wilder. The lined pages of these inexpensive pads of paper have toned over the years and become somewhat brittle, and although they have been treated for acidity, they are fragile. We pulled on white gloves and touched them carefully. Seeing the originals made clear some of the puzzles in the digital copy we were using to create the core text. In the era before computers, there had been no easy way to insert corrections or add text, and Wilder had used the cut-and-paste method, pasting in one edge of a slip of paper that contained additional handwritten text and thereby creating a flap that covered the original text but could be lifted up to continue reading. Or she had drawn lines or directions to additions on the back of a page or later pages. All in all, we learned a lot about the text in a few minutes of examination.

As we drove back to Springfield at the close of an intensely busy but successful day, we were tired but invigorated. We were, in fact, looking forward to the months of study, writing, and editing that loomed ahead of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal