For generations of Americans, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of growing up on the American Frontier provided not just a backdrop to their childhood, but also their education in pioneer life and American history and values. Wilder’s stories give us a powerful vision of self-reliance and victory over adversity as well as a cozy picture of family life. What we forget is that Wilder’s books are fiction; historical fiction, to be sure, but not strictly autobiography and never were intended to be. In recent years, several books have been published that attempt to fill in the true story of Wilder’s remarkable life.
Published in 2014, Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography is Wilder’s first draft of her memoirs, the source content for what would become the fiction series we’re familiar with. This non-fiction book, however, has episodes and perspectives that were edited out of the fiction series, written as it was for children and heavily influenced by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Pioneer Girl is also packed with annotations, giving cultural context to her memoirs with newspaper stories, census records and factual background that will inform and round out the tales told in the fiction series. For the casual reader, this book might be a bit much, but true fans will thrill to the details given of Laura’s life.
Last year, Caroline Fraser wrote Prairie Fires which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by the New York Times Book Review. Like Pioneer Girl, Fraser makes Wilder’s stories real and gives them background. She also has drawn on unpublished memoirs, letters and records to illuminate and contextualize Wilder’s entire long life. Fraser works to flesh out such idealized characters as Pa, eulogized in fiction as hardworking, resilient and ever cheerful. In real life, Charles Ingalls was morally ambiguous, put his family in harm’s way more than once and attempted to settle land he knew belonged to the Osage. Fraser puts the whole story of Wilder’s life in larger context, a context Laura herself may never have been aware of. Wilder’s life is both harsher and more exhilarating than the sanitized version presented in her fiction.
If the above sound a bit heavy, try The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, an irreverent exploration of Laura’s life as well as a travelogue to her home sites. This is McClure’s journey through “Laura World” as she calls it, a personal exploration of what the Little House books meant to her growing up and how she confronts the reality of Laura’s life as it actually was. Along the way she has hilarious adventures and meets fellow pilgrims who are also exploring what Laura’s life meant to them.