Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (South Dakota Historical Society Press, 472 pages)
If, like me, you devoured the Little House books when you were a kid, then you need to get your hands on this book. Not only does it give us Wilder's unadulterated memoir, but it also provides us with a TON of information about everything you ever wanted to know about pioneer life and the Ingalls/Wilder experience.
Hill's exhaustive and detailed introduction explains just how this never-before-published memoir was the basis for all of Wilder's subsequent books for children about frontier life. In 1929 or 1930, after her sister Mary died, Wilder decided to set down on paper everything she could remember about growing up on the move, living at various times in Wisconsin, Dakota territory, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota. The memoir reads like a series of vivid scenes, many of which were adapted and expanded for the Little House books.
In writing this memoir, Wilder realized that she had grown up during an important and turbulent time in American history, when the frontier was disappearing and white settlers were swarming over the continent, illegally settling on Native American land and claiming it for themselves. The Wilder family took part in the westward move in order to find a better life and perhaps even prosper. Despite Charles Ingalls' mutiple talents and ingenuity, though, the family often struggled, moving around in order to take advantage of opportunities that would keep them housed and fed.
The life Wilder depicts was difficult, and at times dangerous, but she took pleasure in remembering the cousins and friends she'd played with, the singing and dancing schools she's attended, and the winter festivities she'd participated in each year. Like her father, Wilder looked forward to moving further west and seeing for herself what the vast continent had to offer. She'd play on mud banks, wade through creeks, and gaze across the prairie, even as she did her chores around the house and helped take care of her baby sisters.
This annotated autobiography offers us a more comprehensive picture of Wilder's life and that of her family, filling in names and places, and also correcting some of the changes that were made for the Little House books (for instance, two of her uncles were merged into one for purposes of consistency in the children's books). We also have fascinating photos of the places where Wilder lived (many photos are from the 1870s and '80s) and images of her extended family and many friends.
You don't have to read every single annotation or all of the textual commentary, but they definitely enrich the reading experience. I see this book as the kind of thing I can return to again and again, whether it's to look up a specific piece of information, or just read parts of the memoir again, because Wilder's style is so fluid and inviting. So get yourself a copy from the South Dakota Historical Society Press. You are welcome.