“A Worthy Companion”: Review of “Pioneer Girl Perspectives”

When reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, one is led to believe that things happened exactly as they were written. In addition, at a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, Wilder said, in reference to the most recent book published, that “every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” After Wilder’s death in 1957, however, readers and researchers began to discover many ways that the books were not historically accurate. That process accelerated when it was revealed that Wilder had previously written an adult memoir she called “Pioneer Girl” that publishers had rejected. The memoir was first made widely available to the public by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, during the 1980s. The South Dakota Historical Society (SDHS) Press published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in 2014, and it quickly became a best-seller. It is now in its ninth printing; more than 165,000 copies have been sold.9781941813089

Pioneer Girl Perspectives is a collection of essays edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project, and published by the SDHS Press. The volume was originally meant to address how the publication of Pioneer Girl shapes our understanding of Wilder and her work. However, contributors take their considerations in a number of new directions, including the life and works of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the popularity of the Little House books, and the books’ literary value.

The book is divided into four sections. “Working Writers” begins by reprinting Wilder’s Detroit Book Fair speech, and then biographers of Wilder and Lane engage the different types of writing each published. In “Beginnings and Misdirections,” authors consider the history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript and the Little House books compared to other early twentieth-century children’s literature. Historians writing in the third section, “Wilder’s Place and Time,” situate Wilder in regional and historical context. The essays in the final section, “Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths,” explore a variety of literary features of the books.

As in all books of essays, some chapters are more insightful than others. Readers of this journal will be especially interested in John E. Miller’s essay describing the midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work. He argues that the Midwest is depicted in the following characteristics of the Little House books: “(1) the prominence of the land in its residents’ thinking and the centrality of agriculture in its way of life; (2) the Homestead Act and the frontier process as integral parts of its historical experience; (3) the crucial role that small towns played in its culture; and (4) the development and nurturing of specific values as a result of those cultural experiences that helped shape residents’ special identities as Midwesterners.” Paula Nelson does a thorough job placing Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into the multiple contexts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. [Caroline] Fraser examines the use of the tale of the “Bloody Benders” in some Pioneer Girl manuscripts in order to assess Wilder and Lane’s relationship to the “yellow journalism” of the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, William Anderson gives a fascinating brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014.

Overall, Pioneer Girl Perspectives is an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket art is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane and others. Many essays fill gaps in Wilder scholarship or bring together what is already known in helpful ways. It is a worthy companion to Pioneer Girl on the shelves of anyone interested in the Little House books and the way that they depict the West—and the Midwest.

John Fry, Annals of Iowa

Reprinted with permission


One Year! The Pioneer Girl Project Celebrates the First Anniversary since the release of “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography”

It is hard to believe that one year has passed since the Pioneer Girl Project first unloaded pallets upon pallets and boxes upon boxes of books—readying them to be sent out all over the world. And what a year it has been!

Places like The Bookstore at Fitger's, in Duluth, MN, put Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography front and center in their stores.

Places like The Bookstore at Fitger’s, in Duluth, MN, put Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography front and center in their stores.

“The past twelve months have been a wild ride,” says Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project. “We are ecstatic; the success of the book has been beyond our wildest dreams.”

On November 17, 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. And, as readers of this site know, the first three printings quickly sold out as the title became the “it book” of the 2014 holiday season. As more copies rolled off the presses, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography jumped up to number one on Amazon.com and spent six weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, an amazing accomplishment for what various media networks have dubbed “a small press on the prairie.”

To date, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has sold over 145,000 copies and been featured in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. It has over 2,635 ratings and 600 reviews on Goodreads and has been held up as the best way to publish a famous author’s first draft—see the Willamette Week’s review of Go Set a Watchman and numerous conversations on Reddit/r/books. It is the stuff of publishing legends. And it does not end there.

PW Mitzis Tweet

Mitzi’s Books, an independent bookstore in Rapid City, SD, gave a shout out to the Press over Twitter when they received their issue of Publishers Weekly.

The November 2, 2015, issue of Publishers Weekly featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography on the cover. And the November 23, 2015, issue will feature a story about the book and Press.

What a great year it has been!

—Jennifer McIntyre

All in a Cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that librarians, parents, and others caution young readers with. I’ve always taken issue with that phrase because, for me, the cover is an introduction to what I will be reading, a reminder of the world I will be jumping into every time I turn a page. Thus, from my point of view, the cover is an important part of the reading process, and a degree of judgment seems only natural. A good cover draws readers into the story before they have even cracked the spine. PG cover 72dpi 220px

The goal of the publisher is to create a cover that both attracts readers and provides a window into what the book contains. Some artistic license may be involved in conveying the essence of what readers can expect to experience. Even though there is a photograph of Laura Ingalls with her hair loose down her back, when we released the cover image for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, a “hair controversy” ensued. In general, some readers claimed, the real Laura Ingalls would have worn her hair up, but when I look at the artist’s rendition on the cover of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, I am immediately transported to the wind-swept West and the beginnings of an American writer’s journey.

The cover does a great job of what it should do: catch the reader’s eye and engage the reader’s mind. As Nancy Aguilera wrote on this website, “I imagine Laura walking away . . . with her bonnet on and hair braided, under Ma’s watchful eyes, and then as soon as she’s out of sight she takes off her bonnet and shakes out her hair, enjoying the feel of theCover- By the Shores of Silver Lake warm prairie breezes blowing through her beautiful thick hair while she sits gazing at Silver Lake.” According to an Amazon reviewer, “The cover is beautiful, and not only does it look so much like teenage Laura, it also fits really well with the Garth Williams illustrations we are all familiar with.”

Deb Hosey White, in her blog on Goodreads, goes further: “If ever there was a book that felt special when I first held it in my hands and began turning the pages, this is the book.” The reader’s experience should begin from the moment they see and pick up the book, and that is what the Pioneer Girl Project production team aimed to do in creating this cover and the book it encloses. Based on the overwhelmingly positive comments and industry reviews, I would say they have succeeded. The New York Times Book Review even featured the cover along with their best sellers lists in the Sunday, April 12, print edition.NYTimes 4-12-15-1

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is a scholarly book (in fact, it has been called the encyclopedia on all things Wilder), but it is also the story of a woman’s childhood and adolescent experiences, and the watercolor painting by artist Judy Thompson illustrates this combination wonderfully well.

Jennifer McIntyre

The Universal Appeal of Pioneer Girl

Readers who have followed this blog will not be surprised by the groundswell of enthusiasm that Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography has generated around the world. But every once in a while, the phenomenon expresses itself in a way that surprises even the staff here at the Pioneer Girl Project. For example:

Strolling into the office on Monday morning, we found tear sheets from two publications, both of which featured Pioneer Girl. Were they:

A. The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian
B. The Columbus Dispatch and Entertainment Weekly
C. The Christian Science Monitor and Foreword Reviews
D. The Wall Street Journal and The National Enquirer

The answer is D. That’s right, folks, D. We read them on the same day. Strange bedfellows, no? In fact, we had already known that a write-up in the Journal was coming, but the Enquirer made us grin with amusement. Wilder’s book appears on a page with Barbara Walters, Nicolas Cage, and Carrie Underwood. That’s pretty A-list company for an author who has been dead for nearly sixty years.

strange bedfellows

The fact is, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s appeal, both as a fiction writer and a historical figure, is broad and long-lasting. Indeed, all of the news outlets listed above have featured Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in the last six months, along with leading online and broadcast media like NPR, BBC, Slate, and a fantastic review by Wendy McClure, author of The Wilder Life, on Refinery 29.

So keep your eyes open – you never know when Pioneer Girl may receive notice in a publication near you.

Rodger Hartley

Pioneer Girl Still Available

UPDATE 1/27/2014
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is now TEMPORARILY OUT OF STOCK. A second printing was ordered prior to Thanksgiving and shipped January 16-23. Orders are still being accepted, and orders placed after 5 p.m. CST, February 20, will be shipped in April.

On November 17, the South Dakota Historical Society Press began shipping Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Since that time, enthusiastic reviews in places such as Foreword Reviews, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times have helped to make the book highly in demand. Already we are near the end of our stock from the first printing.

If you would like to buy a copy of Pioneer Girl, we encourage you to order as soon as possible, and while we cannot guarantee pre-Christmas delivery using our normal media mail rate, you can call us at (605) 773-6009 to arrange first-class shipping. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday.

In addition, we would like to announce that a second printing is in the works.  We promise that Pioneer Girl will be in print as long as readers want to explore the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thank you for supporting the mission of the South Dakota Historical Society Press and the Pioneer Girl Project.