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Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Pierre, 2014, $39.95

Mention Laura Ingalls Wilder or Little House on the Prairie to anyone over age 30, and a certain theme song starts to swell in their memory. Indeed, the popular TV series (1974–82)—which, beyond a few faithful early episodes, deviated wildly from Wilder’s fiction and even recycled plots from director/star Michael Landon’s Bonanza days—came to overshadow Wilder’s beloved series of children’s books, originally published between 1932 and ’43. Readers were aghast.

But how many of Wilder’s fans are aware that before penning children’s books, Wilder had written a factual account of her late 19th-century childhood? The would-be author was 63 years old when she completed the Pioneer Girl manuscript in 1930. Publishers in the midst of the Depression were unwilling to take a chance on an autobiography by an unknown, though. So, with editorial guidance from daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a successful writer in her own right, Wilder repackaged the manuscript as juvenile fiction in serial form. The first title, Little House in the Big Woods, debuted in 1932, with the signature Little House on the Prairie following three years later. The series comprises nine books.

In 2007 the South Dakota State Historical Society Press published the biography Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, by Pamela Smith Hill and then got permission from the Little House Heritage Trust, the administrator of Wilder’s estate, to finally publish her autobiography.

Pioneer Girl relates the Ingalls family’s true-life homesteading sojourn across the Midwest, from Kansas through Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, back to Minnesota and, finally, on to Dakota Territory between 1869 and ’88. As such it provides a detailed portrait of the era and region and an intimate look at the trials and triumphs of a fairly representative family. Enhancing the story are detailed maps and 125 images of the people and places in Wilder’s life. But the true gift of this volume lies in the extensive annotations provided by biographer Hill, who fleshes out the personal and historical foundation of Wilder’s narrative. Neither an insipid TV show nor a toned-down children’s story, Pioneer Girl is a cornerstone volume of American pioneer literature.

—Dave Lauterborn

Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Wild West.