Pioneer Girl

Warning: this is a long blog post.

Last week I was able to re-read Pioneer Girl. This was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unpublished memoir. She wrote it at the end of the 1920s, before any of the Little House Books. She had hopes that it might be published in a national magazine or as a book. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane had been a published writer for over ten years, and Wilder thought that she might approximate Lane’s success. Unfortunately, although Lane typed the manuscript, sent it to her agent, approached several publishers about it herself, and transferred the manuscript to a later agent, it was never published during either woman’s lifetime.

In fact, it was not published until this century, when the South Dakota State Historical Society raised money for a massive editing project. Pamela Smith Hill (who I have mentioned in previous posts) was the general editor. After five years, the beautiful book was published in 2014. It became a runaway bestseller. The total in print now exceeds 165,000.

Anyway, at some point, Lane pulled some of Pa’s stories out of Pioneer Girl and packaged them as children’s fiction. It was this work that developed into Little House in the Big Woods, which appeared in 1932. From there, Laura went on to write the other Little House books during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Like The First Four Years, Pioneer Girl was written for an adult audience. It is a memoir of Wilder’s life from her earliest memories to her marriage, from about age 2 to 17, during the years 1869 to 1885. It includes many of the events that later appeared in the Little House books, but it also has many that did not. For instance, it describes the year that the Ingalls family spent in Burr Oak, Iowa, which is completely omitted from the children’s books. The writing is less polished and the feelings are more raw in this book. But it is great to be able to read more directly about Wilder’s life in her own words.

Some of the accounts of religion in general and Christianity in particular are basically the same as in the Little House books. These include the descriptions of the Christmas tree in Walnut Grove, of Reverend Alden, of Pa giving his boot money to help buy the church bell, the first church service in DeSmet (in the surveyor’s cabin), and the strict Sunday observance of Mr. McKee.

But Pioneer Girl gives a number of glimpses into Wilder’s childhood faith that never appear in the Little House books:

1. Pictures from the family Bible. Apparently Laura and Mary loved the pictures of “Adam naming the animals” and “the Flood with people and animals all mixed together climbing out of the water onto a big rock.” (36) In the Little House books, the book most likely to be mentioned is Polar and Tropical Worlds.

2. A dramatic story of sin and repentance. Laura eats an icicle after Ma tells her not to, then lies to Ma about it. She repents later and tells Ma. “She smoothed my hair and said of course she would forgive me, because I had told her I was sorry and that now I must say a little prayer and ask God to forgive me too. She told me to say ‘Dear God please forgive me for telling a lie?’ And when I did, Ma said she was sure I would never be so naughty again, then she tucked me in kissed me and went away.” (61) Nowhere in the Little House books does Laura ask God for forgiveness.

3. A Sunday School picnic outside Walnut Grove that vividly reminds Mary and Laura of their socioeconomic status. “The lemonade and ice cream were there too, but the lemonade was 5c a glass and the ice-cream 10c a dish. As we had understood the lemonade and ice cream were provided for the Sunday school scholars we had taken no money, so we went without any. As Mary and I agree we would not have asked Pa to give us money for them anyway so it didn’t really matter.” (120-121)

4. Two churches, not just one, in Walnut Grove.

a. Wilder gives detailed descriptions of revival meetings both at the Congregational Church and the Methodist Church in Walnut Grove. (135-136) It seems that these may be one source for the descriptions of the revivals in Little Town on the Prairie, but Pioneer Girl gives generally positive descriptions, not the negative descriptions given of Rev. Brown looking like the devil.

b. Wilder describes going to the Congregational Church for Sunday School and morning worship, then to the Methodist Church for worship and Sunday School every Sunday afternoon. She did this to be part of a contest to see what child could memorize all the Sunday School “Golden Texts” and “Central Truths” for the year. The prize was a reference Bible. Both Laura and another boy, Howard Ensign, succeed. (136)

There are also several descriptions given in Pioneer Girl that are very different from the Little House books:

1. Laura’s Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Tower, is described, but nothing negative is said about her as in On the Banks of Plum Creek. It just says: “We loved to go to Sunday school. Our teacher, Mrs Tower, would gather us close around her and tell us Bible stories and every Sunday she taught us a verse from the Bible that we must remember and tell her the next.

2. A fuller explanation of how Rev. Brown came to be the pastor in DeSmet is given than in Little Town on the Prairie. Apparently, Rev. Brown claimed that Rev. Alden had sent him to organize the church. He had a letter from Mr. Alden introducing him to Pa. So Pa and Ma assisted him. Later they learned that: “Mr Brown was a retired preacher going west to get a homestead. Mr Alden had given him a letter to Pa out of kindness, but he had no authority to organize a church.” (192-193) Rev. Alden decided later not to interfere.

In fact, Rev. Brown gets even harsher treatment than he does in the children’s books. At one point, he is depicted as showing up at the Ingalls house right before meals. In one instance: “Ma had prepared a kettle of beans with only the small piece of meat necessary to cook with them. As we sat down at the table Mr Brown came. Being company the food was passed to him first. After helping himself to a huge plate of beans, he took the plate of meat, looked at it and around the table, then scooped all the meat onto his own plate saying, ‘Might as well take it. There ain’t much of it anyway.’” (256) In the Little House books he is eccentric and somewhat scary. Here he is depicted as downright selfish.

Finally, two passages that only appear in Pioneer Girl provide important clues to Wilder’s experience of Christianity. The first is her description of an experience of God’s presence. The Ingalls were living in Walnut Grove, but Pa didn’t have much work, and the family needed money. As a result, Laura was staying with a couple whose husband was gone a lot. “One night while saying my prayers, as I always did before going to bed, this feeling of homesickness and worry was worse than usual, but gradually I had a feeling of a hovering, encompassing Presence of a Power, comforting and sustaining and thought in surprise ‘This is what men call God!’” (137) This account did not get into the Little House books, because it is part of the two skipped years between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. It is similar to the description in Silver Lake of the special peace that came to her during prayer. This account is more explicitly connected to God and his grace. (Correction, 22 July 2016: This post originally said that this religious experience happened while Laura and her family were living in Burr Oak, Iowa. But it was actually when they were living in Walnut Grove.)

The second passage presents Wilder’s judgment of another young person’s expression of Christianity: “Howard Ensign had joined the Congregational church after their revival and would testify at prayer meeting every Wednesday night. It someway offended my sense of privacy. It seemed to me that the things between one and God should be between him and God like loving ones mother. One didn’t go around saying ‘I love my mother, she has been so good to me.’ One just loved her and did things that she liked to do.” (136) This attitude may explain why expressions of faith seem muted in Wilder’s writing.

How might Pioneer Girl contribute to an overall understanding of Wilder’s faith? I think in several ways:

First, this memoir, her first attempt to write the story of her childhood for publication, is more clear and straightforward in its description of her childhood faith than the depiction found in the Little House books. This difference could be because of her view of audience (this has also been suggested by a commenter on a previous post). It could be because of the influence of her daughter. And it could be just because she believed that faith was primarily a personal matter.

Second, it is clear that Wilder’s relationship to God and Christianity, like all individuals’ faith experience, is complicated. It was shaped by her parents’ influence, the institutional church, individual religious leaders (Rev. Alden and Rev. Brown), and particular religious experiences. Any real understanding needs to take all of these influences into account.

Finally, it is interesting to me that there is no mention of Jesus Christ in the memoir, the same as in the Little House books.

Up next: I think I’m going to re-read the major biographies for what they say about Wilder’s faith.

All page number references are from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014).

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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