I think I've read every existing biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as her writing outside the Little House books, such as her travel journals and her newspaper columns for the Missouri Ruralist. I've also read Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter, and the entire Rocky Ridge series, by Roger Lea MacBride as well as some of Rose Wilder Lane's fiction, which she based on material from her mother's autobiography. When I heard that an annotated autobiography of LIW was about to be published, I planned to read it, but I didn't think it would cover any new ground. After all, I wasn't one of those uneducated donkeys who thought the TV series was an accurate depiction of Wilder's life. I had read ALL THE BOOKS.
I was pleasantly surprised, because Pioneer Girl does offer a fresh perspective on LIW. In the 1930's, Wilder wrote out her life story in a series of notebooks, and called it Pioneer Girl. Her daughter Rose tried to help her get it published and the original version was edited into three other versions. None were published, but Wilder mined Pioneer Girl for material for her Little House series. The Annotated Autobiography is the original Pioneer Girl, fleshed out with footnotes that give a lot of background material both about LIW's world, the people in it, and also about how the Little House series evolved from this material and her collaboration with Rose Wilder Lane. The autobiography gives new insight into the characters of Wilder's family members. For example, the real "Ma" seems more human, less prim than her fictional counterpart. There are also incidents in Pioneer Girl that weren't mentioned in the biographies I've read.
There have been some unkind suggestions that LIW had no writing ability whatsoever and that her Little House series was actually written by Rose Wilder Lane. A recent article in The New Yorker concludes: "Some critics...have charged that Laura Ingalls Wilder could not write. One has to agree with them." That is outrageous.
The basis for these suggestions is that Wilder's earlier writing, including Pioneer Girl, does not resemble the writing in the Little House series. Pamela Smith Hill points out that LIW's original writing stint was as a newspaper columnist. She wrote about set topics with a limit on her number of words. Naturally, this would have had an effect on the style of the original Pioneer Girl. It was only as LIW wrote Pioneer Girl, her ability to write fiction started to develop. As I progressed through Pioneer Girl, I could see Wilder's voice emerging. Some of the descriptive passages are very good, but she didn't intend Pioneer Girl to be fiction, so it doesn't read like fiction. For people to take this as a sign that LIW couldn't write seems grossly unfair. I'll be honest--at the outset of Pioneer Girl, I thought Pamela Smith Hill comes across as an apologist for LIW, but by the time I had gotten halfway through the autobiography, I didn't need convincing. LIW had the ability to create fiction. It has never been a secret that RWL edited her books, but that doesn't mean she ghost wrote them.
LIW had a vision for how she wanted her fictional family to appear and when her real life clashed with her vision, she re-arranged the facts. Rose didn't always agree with her mother's decisions, but it seems that LIW won most debates. For example, Rose didn't think Mary's blindness should be included in the novels, because it was too depressing for young readers, but LIW insisted on it. Independence is one of the main themes of the Little House series and LIW crafted her fiction to make the Ingalls family appear as self-sufficient as possible. I didn't realize that Mary's college for the blind was a public school. Since the Dakota Territory didn't have its own school for the blind, they sent their students to the one in Vinton, Iowa. Mary was identified as an eligible student and the territory paid her tuition, although the family had to come up with her traveling expenses, books, clothes, and spending money, which would have been a stretch, considering their circumstances.
Pioneer Girl is a must-read for anyone who loved the Little House books. Myself, I think it is time to start planning my LIW pilgrimage. I would like to take a long road trip, first to Mansfield, MO and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. From there, I'd drive to DeSmet, SD (if LIW's twitter persona can be considered a reliable source, it is overrun with tourists in the summer). From DeSmet, I'd drive to Malone, NY and Almanzo Wilder's house. Malone is in northern NY, near the St. Laurence river. My family drove through the town every summer on our way to Vermont, but we never stopped at Wilder's house. I'm thinking either fall, 2015 or summer, 2016.