Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lessons from Half-Pint: What “Pioneer Girl” Can Teach Writers

Like many women my age, my very first book love affair was with the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because it was a TV series at the same time I discovered the books, my love quickly flowered into obsession. I poured over all the books regularly, slept with my favorites, wrote my first “fan fiction” based on the Laura/Almanzo/Nellie love triangle (he took them both out on buggy rides!), planned my life around 8pm on Monday night when the show came on, and forced my friends into acting out “Little House” scenarios. Of course, we all fought over who got to be Laura. When I found out that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original manuscript “Pioneer Girl” had been discovered and published, I squealed like the fan girl I am. I’d heard that she had originally written a book for adults that contained material her publishers deemed too adult for the children’s series that resulted (like the death of her baby brother, which actually was addressed in the TV series). Now I’d finally get to read those stories myself!

It’s a lengthy book, which covers all the material from the books Wilder wrote (except “The First Four Years,” which was written by her daughter Rose.), plus extensive notes from Wilder’s biographer. The book was originally non-fiction and intended for adults (although the voice is still rather young, reflecting the age of its protagonist). I was fascinated by the stories that had been left out of the series for children, but even more so by the decisions that Wilder, helped by her editor daughter Rose Wilder Lane, made to turn the book from a biography intended for adults to a children’s series that was labeled fiction. In many cases, Wilder deliberately turned a non-fiction scene into a fictional one in order to express a specific character trait or dramatic theme.

It’s not a coincidence that everyone wanted to play Laura in our games of make-believe. It was a deliberate decision on Wilder’s part to make her fictional counterpart a brave and sassy tomboy. And Wilder altered her family’s timeline, removed people from their lives and created composite characters in order to stress that her fictional family was completely self-reliant, on a non-stop journey to move west (in reality, they ended up moving back east and living with extended family members for a while), and that Laura received all her moral guidance from Pa. As a writer who was sometimes derided for just writing down events that had actually happened to her family, Wilder was sorely misjudged. “Pioneer Girl” reveals her to be an author with a strong hand who knew the story she wanted to tell and the characters she wanted to create, and how to do it.

What this says to me as a writer is that choices that determine character and theme are very important, and they can be seamless. When Laura jumps bareback on a horse for the first time and joyously gallops away, I never thought, “Boy she is a strong and confident young woman!” But Wilder knew that was the type of girl she wanted to portray, and fearlessly riding bareback for the first time was the way to do it.
It also goes to the expression of “kill your babies.” There was good work in what Wilder decided to leave out, but it didn’t fit her themes, so she left those scenes on the cutting room floor. It takes a careful eye to realize when work doesn’t fit, and not all writers have it.

Reading “Pioneer Girl” was a wonderful journey back to my very first book love affair. (And now I’m going to have to read everything written by Laura’s daughter Rose and her other descendants….) I wasn’t expecting to get a personal writing lesson from Wilder as well. What an amazing book “Pioneer Girl” is.

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