At last! The "raw" story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life, as she wrote it on those famous yellow tablets, and gave to her daughter, Rose Lane, to edit and type. If you've been following my work on A Wilder Rose, you'll know that Pioneer Girl was one of the sources for the Little House books, on which Laura and Rose collaborated. After long years (Laura wrote her manuscript in the early 1930s), it has finally been published. Readers and scholars alike will be delighted to have it. Kudos to the South Dakota State Historical Society for bringing us this book.
The story takes us deep into the real life of a pioneer family that barely clung to a hard-luck existence on the margins of nineteenth-century American settlement. It also reveals a great deal about Wilder’s ambitions and competence as a writer, and the great distance a story can travel between real life and fiction.
But however glad we are to finally have easy access to Wilder’s autobiography, Pamela Hill’s editorial work (which makes up at least half the book) raises some significant questions. Central to these is what scholars call “editorial intrusion.”
To put it plainly, an editor of an important literary document (and Wilder’s manuscript is certainly important) has a very special obligation, beyond his or her first duty to represent the text exactly as the author produced it. In notes and textual annotations, the editor must be impartial on controversial issues and present the text fully and neutrally, so that scholars and general readers can read without distraction or undue editorial influence.
All editors will agree that neutrality is a difficult thing and that they spend a great deal of time examining their work to be sure that their opinions and interpretations (especially regarding controversial issues) don’t distract from the reading or lead the reader to particular conclusions. In other words, an editor should never get in the reader’s way.
The text of Laura's writing is carefully and accurately presented, but it is heavily laced with Hill’s editorial intrusions. Some are seemingly factual but are inaccurate and the sources are undocumented. Others are opinions presented as fact. Many are designed to buttress the editor’s long-standing contention that Wilder is the primary author of the Little House books and to brush aside suggestions that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was anything more than an “editor” of the books and “literary agent” for the series. All are presented in the margins of the pages, rather than as appendices in the back, where they would at least have been less obtrusive. The editor is not only getting in the reader's way, she is telling the reader how to read the text.
But you don't have to let her do that. I suggest that you read and enjoy Pioneer Girl for what it is: a valuable presentation of Wilder’s unpublished autobiographical manuscript, the source from which she and her daughter later drew the Little House books. Use the historical notes (most are quite helpful) to further your own understanding and research. Weigh each editorial comment thoughtfully. Be aware that these reflect the editor’s opinions and don’t always tell the full story behind this important manuscript and the ways in which it was subsequently developed.
That said, I loved Laura’s tale, with all its artlessly gritty details, just for itself, and I can see why Rose found it so engaging that she spent months attempting to interest editors in her edited versions. I will be reading and rereading it for a long time to come.