In 1974, I was seven years old and already smitten with Laura Ingalls when the television series Little House on the Prairie premiered. I’d already met Laura and family on the pages of her Little House novels, and, in the four decades since, scenes from the TV show and passages from those yellow paperbacks have combined in my memory, conjuring a sentimental haze.
Laura, Mary, and Carrie running down a hill in Minnesota, lunch pails in their hands, calico dresses blowing in the breeze. Pa emerging from the barn, his expression tender as “Half-Pint”—his pet name for Laura—tells him about some wrong that he must make right in Walnut Grove. Candy sticks, fiddle playing, and checker games. Laura’s iconic braids. And that horrid Nellie Oleson.
The Little House stories introduced me to my first feelings of nostalgia. I came to believe that Laura’s Midwestern childhood—in spite of nasty Nellie—was easier and happier than mine. That my house had more than a quilt as a front door or that I was never in danger of a wolf attack didn’t sway me from this conviction. I was quite certain that life was much simpler and sweeter in pioneer days.
Like many in my generation, when I learned about Wilder’s never-before-published memoir Pioneer Girl, I couldn’t wait to read it. I wasn’t alone: the book was a runaway bestseller at the start of the year and ranked among the top books on Amazon for much of last month.
Even Melissa Gilbert, who starred as Laura in the television show, remains captivated by all things Ingalls. Five years ago, she published Prairie Tale, a memoir that details her stint as Laura, and, last fall, she released My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours. The women who played Mary Ingalls and Nellie Oleson on the program have also written memoirs—the latter is called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.
Little did Wilder know that the book she began when she was 63 years old would capture her culture’s attention for decades. Pioneer Girl was the basis of the Little House novels, and it details her life from ages two to 18 as her family travels through and settles in Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and what was then “Dakota Territory.”
Wilder had been a columnist for years, publishing personal sketches and articles on farming techniques in regional newspapers such as the St. Louis Star Farmer and the Missouri Ruralist. But it wasn’t until years later that Wilder—now retired and settled in the Ozarks—started on her autobiography.
Pamela Smith Hill, editor of Pioneer Girl, The Annotated Autobiography, suggests that the recent death of her sister Mary might have intensified Wilder’s sense of her mortality, making more urgent this long-envisioned task. Regardless, in 1929 or 1930, equipped with pencils and a stack of writing tablets, Hill writes, “Wilder wrote her life story straight through.”
“Once upon a time years and years ago,” Laura Ingalls Wilder began.
I can’t imagine an editor that takes more pains in her diligence than does Hill in the new volume, published by the South Dakota Historical Society. Her notes detail everything from the differences between kinds of plums and varieties of jackrabbits to detailed minutiae about every person whom Wilder mentions in Pioneer Girl. The book is nearly 500 pages long; many of these are devoted to Hill’s research.
Despite my wistful memories of the Little House books and TV show, Pioneer Girl is not all grassy meadows and hymn sings. As has been noted in many reviews, the book paints an uglier picture of life “on the prairie” than do the children’s stories. The blizzards are colder, the people are generally less respectable, and the food is much, much scarcer.
Not long into reading Pioneer Girl, that sentimental fog that’s risen in me whenever I’ve thought about Laura Ingalls completely burned off. As Hill said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the real Laura Ingalls saw a “much grittier world” than did the fictional one.
“In Pioneer Girl, we see that the real families struggled harder, that their hardships were deeper,” Hill said. “At one point, Charles Ingalls turned his back on his dream of living off the land and the family goes east. He struggles to find work…. the real Charles Ingalls does something that the fictional Charles Ingalls would never do: He sneaks his family out of town under cover of darkness because he can’t pay the rent.”
Wilder writes about murder, debauchery, and domestic abuse in Pioneer Girl, and she includes the story of her father finding a drunken neighbor abusing his wife, “dragging her around the room, by her long hair.” Ma and Pa Ingalls attend a temperance lecture, even though they dislike the hypocritical speaker who, while “telling the evils of drinking,” hides a bottle of whiskey in his pocket. And, at age 12, Laura narrowly escapes being raped.
Wilder’s world, like our own, was marked by inequality, human failings and duplicity, and by the brutal forces of nature, whether in the form of grasshopper infestations that ruined wheat harvests or winter blizzards that left snowdrifts two stories high. Like the Ingalls family—and, happily, Ma and Pa Ingalls are shown to have been exceptionally loving and generous people despite their faults—we’re all humans in need of grace as we write our own life stories, year after year.
Violence, hypocrisy, child abuse, poverty, and hunger—sounds like the world we inhabit today.
In 1940, in an essay titled, “Look Homeward, Americans,” novelist Carson McCullers proposed that nostalgia is a “national trait for Americans…as native to us as the rollercoaster or the jukebox.”
“It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth,” McCullers wrote. “As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
We are then falsely nostalgic.
And, so as delicious as it’s been to bask in feelings of (false) nostalgia about Laura Ingalls’s childhood, Pioneer Girl oddly emboldens me to face the brokenness of the present and no longer to pine for a time that, in fact, never actually was.