Book Review: Pioneer Girl

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Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder & Pamela Smith Hill:

I am a Laura Ingalls Wilder nut, of course.  I mean, anything pioneer and it’s probably my favorite thing.  Oregon Trail game?  Check.  Sewing a quilt?  Check.  Conestoga wagons and horses or oxen? Count me in.  Heck, I’ll even churn butter.  For a limited amount of time (let’s not get nuts).

So when I found out that the South Dakota Historical Society was putting out the original, adult version of Wilder’s novel?  I went a little crazy.  I’ve been following their blog for years while they researched the annotations, and it’s been fascinating.  I tried to pre-order a couple of times but it was a complicated system.  Then, the book came out and sold out of its small print run almost immediately.  Because it was being distributed by the South Dakota Historical Society Press, it wasn’t something I could run down to Barnes and Noble and grab, even if it wasn’t a scarce commodity.  While The Frugal Frigate (my local indie bookstore) has a GREAT selection, they don’t stock many adult books.  There is no e-book version.

And then I walked into the bookshop in Damariscotta, ME, and there it was in all its painted glory.  After picking my jaw up off the floor and then drooling on it, I had to buy it.

It’s been an interesting read.  It’s not what I expected it to be, but in many ways it’s so much more than what I expected.  First of all, it’s the VERY first draft of her manuscript, before her daughter started to help her edit it.  There are at least three other versions, but they elected to print the first version with the idea that it was the most pure.  Wilder’s natural prose is vibrant, but the manuscript is definitely a first draft.  I tells, it doesn’t go into enough detail, and it finds vagueness more than it finds concrete facts.  This last thing is somewhat remedied by the annotations, but there’s only so much the annotations can do for the rest.  Still, it’s a fascinating narrative.  If you’ve read “The First Four Years,” it sort of reminds me of that in style. Only it’s so much more racy.  They didn’t lie when they talked about how much more this one holds in atmosphere and tone, something you don’t get from the Little House books themselves.

The footnotes are so vast and varied that it seems daunting to get through them all.  It was also a bit of a trick to figure out how to read them along with the text.  In places there are two to three pages of notes for every page of the manuscript.  I finally found that reading a page of the manuscript and then going back and reading only the footnotes for that page was best.  It takes a while.  Much longer than I’m used to, and non-fiction typically takes me longer anyway.

So, did I like it?  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book.   I know this is blasphemy, but I didn’t start liking Wilder’s Little House books until about “By The Shores of Silver Lake,” when the girls grow up a bit and are able to express wants and needs, not just play and work.  I felt the same about this book.  I didn’t start enjoying it until they moved from Walnut Grove the first time.  Then it got CRAZY.  I mean, the wives being led around the house by their hair, shootings in the saloon, robbers tying people up kind of crazy.   I’m all on board now, and dying to find out what happens next.

I’m about 2/3 of the way through.  If you can find it, it’s 100% worth the search.  It’s such a luxurious thing too – big and hefty on pretty paper with a velvety cover.  You won’t be disappointed. Especially if you are a Wilder and/or a pioneer lover.

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