“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

Buffalo Blankets and Heated Seats

I woke to single-digit temperatures and negative wind chills the other day. It wasn’t the first day of cold, nor will it be the last for this winter. It’s only December, which has always been a busy travel time for me, and keeping an eye out for snowstorms occupies much of my travel plans. My little family has crisscrossed the frozen Midwest dozens of times. Tied for our most harrowing journeys are (1) getting caught in a South Dakota snowstorm that forced us to find shelter at a ranch house and (2) driving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan across the Mackinac Bridge less than a half hour before it was closed due to high winds and snow. Both of these trips happened around New Year’s, and both were made in the little rusted-out two-wheel-drive Pontiac-Grand-Am-that-could.

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Cutter in Cedar Creek, Dakota Territory. South Dakota State Historical Society

The Grand Am had a little more horsepower than Almanzo Wilder’s cutter had when he and Laura Ingalls were caught in the horse-drawn vehicle as a snowstorm roared across the frozen plains of eastern Dakota Territory (Pioneer Girl, pp. 264–66). Even though the Grand Am’s heater worked (occasionally), I did think about finding a buffalo blanket for the emergency bag that we re-packed each winter.

In thinking about this post, I wondered what the difference was between a cutter and a sleigh. Thanks to the Internet, it did not take me long to find out that largely it is a question of size.1 Cutters are a type of sleigh. Generally, sleighs accommodated larger groups, while cutters were sufficient for two people. Cutters were usually used for courting, as Wilder recalled in These Happy Golden Years in the chapter titled “Jingle Bells” (pp. 89–94). A racing cutter was likely the inspiration for James Pierport’s 1857 tune “Jingle Bells.” 2

Re-reading Wilder’s dangerous journey through temperatures dipping 45 degrees below zero, I’m thankful for a warm apartment and for finally having a four-wheel drive vehicle. Throughout the afternoon as I wrote of cutters and sleighs, the temperature warmed to the teens and low twenties, but I know another winter is upon us. If the last five winters are any indication, I’ll soon be driving in the dark, with wind-chills somewhere around negative thirty or forty and fifty-mile-per-hour winds whipping my vehicle back and forth. In that moment, I know I will be thankful for heated seats.

Jacob Jurss

 


1. Kimberly Turtenwald, “The Difference between a Cutter & a Sleigh,” Gone Outdoors, goneoutdoors.com/difference-between-cutter-sleigh-8560748.html; “Sled” and “Cutter: Sleigh,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com.

2. “History: One Horse Open Sleigh,” Equestrian Culture, equestrianculture.com/custom_type/one-horse-open-sleigh. See also Joel Brown, “Jingle Bells’ History Takes Surprising Turn, BU Today, Dec. 8, 2016, www.bu.edu/today/2016/jingle-bells-history/.

The Little Town in the Land of Used-to-Be

A few months ago, a high-school student asked me what I thought Laura Ingalls Wilder’s favorite place was of all the places she had lived as a young person. Of course, a definitive answer to such a question is not really possible when Wilder herself is not around to consult. But, as I told the student, Wilder’s writings do suggest an answer: De Smet, South Dakota.

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De Smet, 1883. Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society

Another South Dakota author, Elizabeth Mills Irwin, captured what I think De Smet meant to Wilder. In her book, Home of the Heart: Mound City Stories (2000), Irwin wrote: “For everyone, at least for the lucky, there is a home, a secret place to which one returns, in memory and in dreams, for solace when today is a wrong day, when doubt clouds the future, when wherever we are now, we need something that is not there. It is our heart’s home” (p. 13). De Smet was Wilder’s heart’s home and possibly Almanzo’s as well.

In 1948, Wilder wrote to a friend: “Almanzo and I were speaking of De Smet the other day, and of how we were still homesick for Dakota” (quoted in A Little House Sampler, ed. William Anderson, p. 231). The Wilders had returned to South Dakota three times in the 1930s, but she still wrote of her yearning for the prairies and what she called “the Land of Used-to-Be” (ibid., p. 227). Those faraway days were now mostly a memory of her youth, as she recalled in her poem “Little Town of Memory”:

Oh little town of memory
I hear your voices singing
I see your faces bright and gay
I hear your sleighbells ringing—

Those three trips home had taught her what so many of us have learned about going home, and she concluded her poem with these lines:

It all has gone beyond recall
Its music fades away. (A Little House Reader, ed. Anderson, p. 166)

And, yet, it did not fade away, neither for Wilder nor for her millions of readers. In writing By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, Wilder visited her heart’s home of De Smet, South Dakota, “in memory and in dreams,” and preserved it for all of us.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

I am indebted to Paula Nelson for the gift of Elizabeth Mills Irwin’s book.

Prairie Fires

Congratulations to Caroline Fraser on her new book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which received a great review from historian Patricia Nelson Limerick.

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Earlier this year, Fraser contributed to the South Dakota Historical Society Press book Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder with her essay “The Strange Case of the Bloody Benders: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and Yellow Journalism.” In Prairie Fires, Fraser looks further at the questions she brought up in this essay and at much more.

One-hundred and fifty years after Wilder’s birth, the Little House series continues to shape ideas of the historical United States—its settlement, its literature, and the roles of women, among other things. Laura Ingalls Wilder is and always will be an important voice of American heritage.

—Jennifer McIntyre

Look Out—Locusts!

Even though my research for the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts covers aspects of history not focused on in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, one episode that I just cannot get out of my head is the plague of locusts that destroy the family’s crops in Minnesota. The family’s powerlessness to combat the locusts and the insects’ seemingly mysterious departure four years later have lodged themselves in my mind. And so I dig into research of the plague. William Watts Folwell’s 1926 A History of Minnesota , volume 3, devotes the entirety of Chapter 4 to “The Grasshopper invasion, 1873-77.” The locusts that descended on the people of Minnesota left a lasting impression on the state’s history. As Wilder described it, Rocky Mountain locusts swooped from the sky, “their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun. They were dropping to the ground like hail in a hailstorm faster and faster.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 79) Folwell quoted another eyewitness as saying that seeing the locusts flying “‘may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our visual organs perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations.’”(History of Minnesota, p. 95).

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The Ingalls and others were helpless when it came to protecting crops from Rocky Mountain locusts, c. 1870. Minnesota Historical Society

Imagine locusts as a hungry, eating, chomping snowstorm! Such devastation boggles the mind; yet, while scientists believe the Rocky Mountain locust is extinct, such plagues of locusts continue to devastate farms and crops in other parts of the world. In 2015, locusts destroyed crops in Russia, and in 2016, northern Argentina experienced their worst season of locusts in sixty years. In a quotation given to the New York Times, Juan Pablo Karnatz reported farmers seeing “locust clouds that were more than four miles long and nearly two miles high” (Jan. 26, 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a report in November 2015 that unusually heavy rains in “northwest Africa, the Horn of Africa and Yemen could favor Desert Locust breeding” (www.fao.org). The increasing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change could bring more frequent and more intense swarms of locusts to these regions.

In the 1870s, the Ingalls could do little to fend off the attacks. Charles Ingalls attempted to defend his wheat by setting fires near the crops, reasoning that the smoke might discourage the insects. It was a futile effort, and eventually he left the family homestead to find work farther east in order to send money back to help the family survive the winter.

Jacob Jurss

C-SPAN Stops by the Pioneer Girl Project

Earlier this fall, C-SPAN correspondents stopped by the Pioneer Girl Project office to speak with Nancy Tystad Koupal during BookTV’s City Tour of Pierre, South Dakota. From discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself to why Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is such a big book, Koupal outlined the Project’s early beginnings, current research, and overall goals as it continues down the path of research into the life and legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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Below are a few excerpts from the program. You can watch the entire episode online at c-span.org.

“We decided to go with the handwritten original because that was the closest to Wilder’s original voice,” says Koupal. (However, as detailed in a previous post, once that decision was made, the work did not end there.)

“I was in New York and my staff called me and said, “We’re on the New York Times Best Seller list!” We were pretty excited. . . . It opened up a whole new world of conversations.”

“One of the things that the Annotated Autobiography did was it allowed us to think more comprehensively about what the Pioneer Girl Project was doing. And what we decided we wanted to do was really look at those [other Pioneer Girl] texts and start to answer some of those questions . . . what kind of an editor was Rose Wilder Lane? What kind of a memory did Laura Ingalls Wilder have? To what extent was that memory supplemented by her daughter’s work? And this is just on the nonfiction aspects of it. . . . Then you move into fiction, and how did that daughter/editor/agent lead her mother into fiction, and what were the roles of the two women?”

“We don’t understand, as a reading public, . . . the role of authors and editors—that most good authors have good editors. . . . We don’t talk to enough editors, we don’t know what it is that they really do, and I think we should rectify that.”

Two other South Dakota Historical Society Press authors were interviewed during the Pierre City Tour, Cathie Draine, author of Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Phillip, and Nathan Sanderson, author of Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range. Find more information about both books at sdhspress.com.

 

At the Hoover

Earlier this month, I cleared my schedule so that I could spend five uninterrupted days researching Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. It was my second trip to this amazing repository in a lovely little Iowa town of about twenty-five hundred people just outside of Iowa City. Although the leaves carried a tinge of yellow, signaling the onset of autumn, the weather had turned summery, and people were enjoying the Hoover park and museum. As an added bonus, on Friday, September 15, the grounds were a sea of bright colors as friends and relatives came to watch more than seventy immigrants become proud United States citizens. On that same day, I was privileged to see the original manuscript of Wilder’s “The First Three Years,” another highlight of the trip.

Archivists Spencer Howard and Matt Schaefer brought the manuscript from the vault, laid it on a research table in the reading room, and ordered me to “glove up.” Pulling on white cotton gloves, I gingerly touched the manuscript just as I had carefully explored the Pioneer Girl manuscript six years earlier. As with her autobiography, Wilder had written this adult novel of the first years of her marriage in pencil on cheap, wide-lined school tablets. Overall, however, the manuscript, and especially the first tablet, is in much rougher shape than the original Pioneer Girl manuscript, with strike-overs and eraser holes rubbed into the cheap paper. In a seemingly helter-skelter fashion, Wilder had appended text, crossed it out, and covered it over with scraps of paper, leaving a puzzle for researchers to decipher. In contrast, the extant tablets of Pioneer Girl are clean, with almost no strike outs or false starts and clear instructions for following the author’s intentions. Wilder’s care with that manuscript compared to the haphazard nature of this one confirms my speculation that the original Pioneer Girl is a fair copy prepared for her typist. It is not a first or working draft as “The First Three Years” manuscript clearly is.

Through special fundraising efforts, the Hoover library staff has had “The First Three Years” treated for acidity and stored in acid-free wrappers. Damaged pages have been stabilized, and the three tablets of the manuscript are housed in a specially made case. It is a beautiful presentation. Congratulations to the staff at the library for their foresight in preserving this important manuscript for future generations of Wilder scholars.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

 


 

1. Nancy Tystad Koupal and Rodger Hartley, “Editorial Procedures,” in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014), p. lxv. Some of Wilder’s other remaining manuscripts, especially those of Little House on the Prairie, are clearly first or working drafts as well, showing the same characteristics as “The First Three Years.” Others, like Pioneer Girl, are fair copies prepared for the typist.