A really useful book

Every once in a while you run across a book that’s so useful, you just have to tell everybody about it.

Let’s say that you’re working on an annotated edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished autobiography. The Ingallses, you’ll recall, were a highly musical family, and dozens of tunes and lyrics are mentioned in Pioneer Girl and in the Little House books. Much of this music is unfamiliar to us early-twenty-first-century types, and so our annotations attempt to give the songs some context. And to do this, we keep coming back to Dale Cockrell, ed., The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook (Middleton, Wis.: A-R Editions, for the American Musicological Society, 2011).

Cockrell has systematically tracked down every song mentioned in Wilder’s oeuvre and provides us with music, lyrics, and valuable notes on variants, provenance, publication, and the general history of each one.  An impressive effort, and it came to fruition at just the right time for the editors at the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

Besides its intimate connection to a widely loved author, let me point out two other things that make this book so engaging.

First, what a neat concept!—to use these popular semiautobiographical novels as a case study, a lens through which to examine a (surprisingly wide) cross-section of nineteenth-century American music in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Second, as Cockrell points out, there may really be no better place to start such a study. “Almost no research has been conducted on nineteenth-century Midwestern performance practices,” he remarks in his extensive editorial notes. “In fact, perhaps the fullest published account of how music was actually played and heard in that time and place is found in the Little House books.”

Rodger Hartley

Mary’s Illness

USA Today contacted the South Dakota State Historical Society last week to discuss an article that was soon to appear in Pediatrics about Mary Ingalls’s blindness (read USA Today’s coverage here). An assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan speculates that the illness that caused Mary Ingalls’s blindness was probably viral meningoencephalitis—a big term that was not likely to find its way into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books or her autobiography.

Mary Ingalls in 1889

Mary Ingalls in 1889
(photo: Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet, S.Dak.)

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder described the circumstances in this way: “Mary was taken suddenly sick with a pain in her head and grew worse quickly.” A few days later, one side of her face was “drawn out of shape,” and “Ma said Mary had had a stroke.” Two doctors in Walnut Grove attributed Mary’s failing eyesight to the stroke that had damaged the nerves in her eyes, which “were dying.” Wilder concluded: “They had a long name for her sickness and said it was the results of the measels [sic] from which she had never wholly recovered.”

In her fictional retelling of this episode in her sister’s life, which appears in the opening pages of By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder ascribed the condition to a bout of scarlet fever, one of the most deadly childhood illnesses of the nineteenth century. Pamela Smith Hill, Wilder biographer, suggests, “Wilder probably chose scarlet fever for the fictional version because it was such a deadly disease and because after arguing with Rose about whether to include Mary’s blindness in the Little House books at all, it was a swift, clear, and believable alternative.” For the age group she was writing for, scarlet fever was understandable; viral meningoencephalitis is a term best understood by medical researchers and doctors.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

Real People

Who’s real? How real?

We know that many of the characters in the Little House novels are based on real people—and sometimes in interesting ways. Take, for example, the notorious Nellie Oleson, a girl so persistently odious that you just know (or hope) that she cannot have been “real” in quite that way. As it turns out, this character is an amalgam of no less than three unpleasant people of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood acquaintance; Nellie as we know her combines all of their unpleasantnesses into a perfect triune arch-nasty.

The example of Nellie Oleson is well known, but the research and editorial team for the Pioneer Girl Project are probing the real basis of even the most occasional characters in Laura’s autobiography, Pioneer Girl. Historians wonder about any good story: Who’s real? How real? The answers are frequently gratifying, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally—well, occasionally, there’s no answer at all. That, too, is part of the practice of history.

Census records are the first tool in our box, an easy way to establish the basic fact of reality. Sometimes. Cap Garland, for example. Real? Yes. “Garland, Edmund”—for such was the lad’s given name—was enumerated outside De Smet in the 1880 census, living with his mother and two sisters, whom Laura mentions by name in Pioneer Girl.

Occasionally, the census has its little quirks that make the research all the more interesting. What about the Heath boys?

Wait, the Heath boys? you ask. Who are they?

Nobody crucial. Their story didn’t make it into the published novels. “The youngest Wilder boy and two other boys, Homer and Horace Heath, from near De Smet, were in the railroad camp when all this happened,” Laura wrote in Pioneer Girl. Well, I’m very much mistaken if you don’t know who the youngest Wilder boy is. But these Heath boys: real? Yes. So real that they were counted twice.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

This section of the census from Brookings County lists the Heath boys. Screenshot taken from ancestrylibrary.com.

On 24 June 1880, a census taker enumerated a “Heath, Horice S.” and his brother, “Heath, Homer N.” on a farm just across the line in Brookings County. They were respectively twenty-five and twenty years old and were born, respectively, in New York and Wisconsin to parents who were also born in New York. They were listed as laborers.

Now, at some point in June—we don’t know exactly when—the following two laborers were enumerated in Beadle County, to the west of De Smet, boarding with thirty-two other laborers (smells like a railroad camp to me): “Heath, Horace” and “Heath, N. H.,” twenty-four and nineteen years old, born in New York and Wisconsin to parents born in New York. The first thing you learn in dealing with nineteenth-century census records is that the transposition of someone’s initials, or a year’s discrepancy in age, are commonplace. These were the same guys, counted twice in the 1880 census. I suspect that railroad camps—and other places using a seasonal workforce—were fertile ground for errors of this kind.

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

This section of the census from Beadle County shows the Heath boys and Almanzo Wilder. Courtesy ancestrylibrary.com

Oh, and look who appears on the same manuscript page, between Horace and Homer:

Wilder, A. J., twenty-two years old, laborer, born in New York to parents born in New York and Vermont. (Almanzo Wilder, too, was counted twice in 1880: once in this railroad camp in Beadle County and again outside De Smet with his brother Royal and sister Eliza.)

Real people.

Rodger Hartley

Mapping Pioneer Girl

There are many tasks associated with producing a book such as Pioneer Girl. Some are obvious: getting the words written and checked, for instance. But others might not seem so apparent at first glance.

One of those less-obvious tasks is that of preparing the information needed by the mapmaker. There are many places, towns, trails, and areas covered in Wilder’s autobiography, and we think it is important to help readers know where they are as they follow her story. As such, we’re working with high-quality mapmakers to ensure that we get a useable and helpful series of maps. But mapmakers cannot be expected to simply guess what needs to be on the maps they are preparing. We must give them the names of the places and towns and so on that should be included. They also need historical base-maps from which to build these new maps.

We’ve been scouring through the manuscript, highlighting any geographical term that might be important or useful to a reader. Then we start searching for original maps from the era in question that will provide us with the markers/locators for the modern mapmakers. We scan and photocopy any and all useful material, add a thesaurus of places, rivers, boundaries, and so on, and package it all up and send it off to the mapmaker.

When the final maps appear in the published book, most of us will enjoy them but perhaps not consider how they got to be there in the first place given that no single, original map could provide everything necessary. We won’t be disappointed; we’ll just be pleased that the maps make enjoying Pioneer Girl all the easier.

Martyn Beeny

The Sources

Today a copy of Barnaby Rudge arrived for me at the South Dakota Historical Society Press offices through interlibrary loan. No, it’s not my light reading for the morning coffee break. It’s for the Pioneer Girl Project. But what, you may ask, do Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens have to do with each other? Other than their mutual status as classic authors?

(If you can guess why this book is on my desk, you’re good.)

As we research, edit, and write annotations for Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, I am impressed by the breadth and depth of background it takes to understand a life. Even a normal person’s life. For isn’t that what makes Laura Ingalls Wilder special: that for most of her life, she was not a celebrity? To her contemporaries, she was literally the girl next door (or on the next quarter section), yet as an author, she makes her readers see what is extraordinary and worth telling in the everyday lives of everyday people.

And how many details make up such a life! All the source materials for the annotations come across my desk. For the first quarter of the manuscript, I have several articles on the Osage Indians, a book on medicine during the Civil War era. Another on women’s hair ornaments, a pamphlet on public-land laws, and a serious tome on the history of Redwood County, Minnesota. And a Dickens novel.

Image from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

An image from an early Barnaby Rudge

We don’t know if Wilder read Barnaby Rudge, but we do know that Dickens and his work had a far-reaching effect on the popular culture of the time. In the original, unedited Pioneer Girl manuscript, Wilder says about one of her cousins: “Edith was to [sic] small to know us but she laughed at me and held out her little hands. They all called her Dolly Varden because she had a pretty dress of calico that was called that.” Not being an English major, I had no clue what this passage might mean. But Dolly Varden, it turns out, was a character from Barnaby Rudge, a flirtatious beauty who inspired a style of dress in the late nineteenth century. So even this unlikely source provides a little more insight into Wilder’s world.

Imagine writing about your own childhood. How many of the details would be obscure or incomprehensible to a reader eighty years hence? When I visited my own cousins earlier this year, I teased one of them about his Justin Bieber haircut. Someday, a remark like that will require annotation. One of the greatest values of the Pioneer Girl Project is the way in which it enriches our experience of the things that Wilder and her family, friends, and neighbors knew on a day-to-day basis.

Rodger Hartley

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