The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder
When I first heard that this book was going to be released, I was excited. Flat out excited. Like so many women and girls, I grew up on the Little House series, reading and dreaming about life on the prairie in a little sod cabin. When I was young, on one of my family's epic summer vacations, we went to DeSmet, South Dakota, and to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum there, where we learned more about the life that the Ingalls family lived there. I remember being particularly struck by the description and the demonstration about how the family (and most other residents of DeSmet that winter) would twist hay into sticks for fuel in order to survive, a process that would cause their hands to bleed.
And it's with that memory that I begin my reflections on this book. As autobiographies go, it is beautiful and unique because it, quite literally, is Laura's memoirs that she decided to sit down one day and write. It's not the more polished versions that were marketed to magazines and periodicals (the story of which is lovingly detailed by the editor of this edition), but instead is complete with poor spellings, rambling thoughts, and stories that are out of order. In that way, it is an incredibly nostalgic look at life on the prairie post Civil War, just as the frontier was opening up. It's a look back at a life, a story to share so that the story will not be forgotten.
It's also nostalgic, in a way, for us who grew up on the books, because it gives us an inside look at the life depicted in the fictional family's life. It also helps us to understand a bit better, perhaps, some of the decisions that the family made as far as the constant moving and changing of careers, locations, and so on.
But that's where the nostalgia also become so not nostalgic. Because the stories that are shared through this autobiography aren't the polished, moral-laden, children's stories, but instead are the hard and harsh realities that families and individuals really faced on the frontier. Starvation, isolation, death, and so much more. Much has been made in reviews of the stories revealed about Wilder's experiences in Iowa (a chapter of her life that was completely left out of the books), stories that definitely torpedo any illusions that we might have about how idyllic life at the time was.
The story that is told here is real. It is really real. Beautifully so, as it describes a life that was not only lived, but survived and celebrated. It tells a story of how important family and community and faith are to tackling and surviving the chaos of the realities of life (in fact, I would say that it is safe to say that without any one of these three, the family simply wouldn't have made it, at least not coming out on the other end as strong as they did). It is beautifully real because it is the truth of life, not the polished versions that we like to tell...but the honest truth of what makes us who we are.
And what a beautiful thing that is.