“Almost at once we drove through the breaks along the river; crossed the Sioux river and were out on the broad prairie that looked like a big meadow as far as we could see in every direction” (Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 153).
Photographs by Jacob Jurss
I do not have a covered wagon. My horse is made of aluminum, carbon fiber, and rubber. It is fueled by coffee, not hay, and rolls instead of gallops. When I’m not researching and writing, I cycle on the backroads west of our offices in Pierre, South Dakota. I clear my head and quietly enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. Peddling my bicycle, I climb up out of the Missouri River valley and turn out onto the wind-swept flats that seem to stretch out forever. Blue skies with the occasional white cloud float lazily overhead. The sun burns the paved road, but there is nearly always a stiff headwind to help cool me down.
Perhaps the most common comparison of the wind in the prairie grasses is the comparison to waves rolling on the ocean. Watching the wind play with the grasses, I consider it an apt description. The road I travel down is far smoother than earlier roads, and livestock fences are more prevalent, but there are still long stretches of uninterrupted grasslands that stretch for miles. I think about the region’s people—the Arikaras and Lakotas, French traders, Norwegian and other immigrants and settlers—watching the same grasslands racing the sky to the horizon. I am reminded that for many readers of Wilder’s collected works it is the descriptions of place, the idea of home, that causes them to read and read again. Wilder’s vivid depictions never fail to create detailed images in my mind, but sometimes it’s important to place oneself physically in a place. I smell the air; I listen to the breeze. I race along backroads and quietly enjoy the vastness of the South Dakota sky.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Hidden Lakes Trail in Wisconsin.
Where did Laura’s Big Woods go? That is the question I am currently exploring. In her memoir, Pioneer Girl, Wilder wrote that the woods “went on and on into the north,” (Brandt 14). Today, those woods are not quite so big.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and going “up ‘nort’” meant traveling to a cabin or a tent on the shore of a lake surrounded by what was left of the Big Woods of Wilder’s memory. I remember one trip when, staring out of my parents’ station wagon windows, I watched as we passed an extra-long truck on the highway. When I asked what kind of truck had passed us, my parents said it was a logging truck used to haul the cut timber from the north and was probably headed to one of the paper mills in Wausau or Stevens Point. “Your great-grandparents worked in a logging camp as camp cooks, you know,” my mom told me. At the time, I imagined the cook camp to be like a Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty restaurant, with all-you-can-eat powdered doughnuts and huge stacks of pancakes.
A group of men transporting logs across the snow-covered ground on a sled near Rice Lake, Wisconsin, circa 1872. Wisconsin Historical Society
As my interest in history and the history of my family matured, family members showed me the letters and photographs of my great-grandparents from the logging camp. Written in a mix of Dutch and English, the letters talked about longing for home. The timber that drew hundreds into the woods, including my great-grandparents, was the Big Woods of Wilder’s childhood. The lumber was used in dozens of paper products and building materials across the nation. Timber floated down swollen rivers to Chicago, where it was shipped east on the Great Lakes by boat or by railroads that took it in all four directions. The lumber industry helped build America, but it also greatly diminished the northern woods. Today, in protected national and state parks, the woods are returning to Wisconsin, a rebirth that is welcomed by so many like me, who love to be surrounded by trees and feel at home in the Big Woods.
I last read Little House in the Big Woods in fourth grade during a unit on the history of my home state of Wisconsin. My teacher introduced me to a world more than a hundred years in the past. I remember taking a field trip to a historic one-room schoolhouse in order to experience what Wilder and my great grandparents’ childhood might have been like. I still have the black-and-white photograph of my fourth-grade class taken that day. We were all dressed in our or, rather, our parents’ best attempts to replicate period attire.
The one-room Reed School near Neillsville, Wisconsin. Wisconsin Historical Society
I do not remember reading many of Wilder’s other titles (Wisconsin’s other great cultural tradition, the Green Bay Packers, captured my interest at the time), but I do remember seeing highway signs for places with historical claims to her legacy throughout my travels in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and now South Dakota. The subject of upper Midwest and western history did make a lasting impact on my life. I went on to study history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and recently completed my Ph.D. at Michigan State University. I study the societal and power dynamics between Ojibwe, Dakota, and white settlers during the early 1800s in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. My research focused on the generation before Charles Ingalls’s birth that laid the cultural and societal foundations for the Ingallses’ world.
Through a great deal of serendipity, I found myself offered a position as a summer researcher and associate editor for the South Dakota Historical Society Press. My first task has been to read through the Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin chapters of Wilder’s Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts of Pioneer Girl. My previous reading of pioneer memoirs has made this both a familiar experience and a unique one as I stumble across passages that recall my distant memories of Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods.
As I conduct my research, I hope to bring another perspective to Wilder’s work and the world that Wilder remembered, and I look forward to hearing from the large and engaged community of Wilder readers and scholars. I have winced at the stereotypical depictions of the Osage, an American Indian tribe in Kansas whose lands were invaded by American settlers, have been horrified by Wilder’s tales of the Bender murders, and have laughed at Laura’s antics as a mischievous three-year-old. One message I have thus far gleaned from Wilder’s remembrances is that Pa always, always needed to take his gun with him. It never seems to fail that, when he doesn’t, there is a bear, panther, or pack of wolves nearby to give him and the family a scare. Indeed, referencing Grandpa’s encounter with a panther, Pa said: “A man’s a fool to leave his clearing without taking a gun. But we all do it” (Bye, p. 18).
In 2010, the South Dakota Historical Society Press set up the Pioneer Girl Project as a research and publishing program to create a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography, as well as to create books dedicated to exploring Wilder’s life and works. We had just earned the privilege of publishing Wilder’s memoir from the Little House Heritage Trust, and we were determined to do a thorough and professional job of it. We modeled the project loosely on the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press, which was then publishing Twain’s multi-volume autobiography. Since 2010, we have had a dedicated team working in period newspapers, census and land records, archival collections in five or more states, and other primary and secondary materials to research the life and times of the original pioneer girl and her manuscripts. In 2012, we began this website as a way to share our research with those who were interested in Wilder’s life and legacy.
The first phase of our project came to fruition in 2014, with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. And, as you all know, that book found both a national and international audience and went on to become another bestselling volume by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moreover, its financial success gave the Pioneer Girl Project team the resources to plan three additional books. The second is Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in May 2017.
The idea for the additional books began as the research for and editing of Wilder’s original handwritten autobiography was drawing to a close in 2014. The project team could see that many questions remained unanswered about Wilder as a person and about Wilder as a writer—and especially about the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Because we had been studying the text of the handwritten Pioneer Girl so meticulously and comparing it to the typed and edited versions, it became clear that there was indeed something special about that mother/daughter, writer/editor relationship. This complex relationship reveals itself more fully as we examine Lane’s edits to her mother’s writing and then evaluate the evolution in Wilder’s response. Clues about this process abound in both the nonfiction and fiction texts, drafts, discarded pages, and other materials held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and elsewhere.
In the upcoming books, we plan to address nonfiction and fiction processes separately. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts will concentrate on Wilder’s and Lane’s interaction in the creation of the nonfiction autobiography. The book will contain the text of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography in a side-by-side format. This presentation will facilitate intertextual comparison among the Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts. The book will also contain annotations that highlight differences among the manuscripts and provide an analysis of Wilder’s and Lane’s working relationship as revealed in those manuscripts and elsewhere. The annotations will not repeat material published in the first volume, offering instead new information about Wilder’s life and its historical context where relevant. The Revised Texts will focus on the editorial work that Rose Wilder Lane performed on these adult, nonfiction manuscripts and the revisions or additions that Wilder herself made to them.
By contrast, the fourth book will analyze Wilder’s transition from nonfiction to fiction writer. In Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, we will take a closer look at Lane’s role as her mother’s editor and agent in the field of children’s literature and at Wilder’s initial attempts at writing fiction. While the overarching purpose of both books will be to study the relationship between Wilder and Lane, the fourth book will examine the fiction writing/editorial process itself, a process in which both women took active roles. Other books have discussed this process, but The Path into Fiction will be the first to explore it completely within the context of the most critical piece of evidence—the draft manuscripts themselves.
We are excited about these forthcoming books, and we think that the study of the texts themselves will tell us much about the creative and editorial processes as well as about Wilder and Lane as working writers.