Laura Ingalls Wilder's Autobiography Will Offer a Gritty, Uncensored Look at Life on the Prairie

Remember the little freckled, pigtailed girl of Little House on the Prairie and her stories of churning butter, sewing rag dolls, and riding covered wagons across the American plains? Well, that charming American saga, a childhood literary touchstone for many, is about to get an extreme adult makeover. This fall, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unedited autobiography, Pioneer Girl, which inspired the cherished series, is slated for publication by South Dakota State Historical Press, and will deliver a much less rosy portrait of prairie life — grittier, more historically accurate, and not-so-PG.

The nonfiction work was penned by Ingalls in the 1920s with an adult audience in mind, but when Wilder set out and failed to find a publisher in the fiscally starved 1930s, Wilder and her daughter Rose decided to shed the R-rated material, add some narrative flourish, and reshape the work into that enchanting children’s series we so lovingly lugged around as kids. Now, it'll be published in its original form, misspellings and all.

The youth series and its fictionalized rendering of the Ingalls' family adventures has since sold nearly 60 million copies in more than 30 languages, and spawned both a television series and a slew of museums and historical sites dedicated to its lore. Though frank about daily strife and the natural perils of frontier living — rough! — the children’s books depict a mostly wholesome, endearing portrait of frontier life.

But, OK, let's get real: Surviving on the prairie was rough stuff, and we can be sure that Wilder’s own experiences traversing the American West weren’t all so rosy. And the autobiography, currently in development, promises to demystify some of that naivety, delivering to its now all-grown-up readers a slew of tales clipped from the children’s series. It’s a gritty, more scandalous narrative that paints a more authentic portrait of life on the prairie, with a touch of juicy, late 19th century drama.

"And it's certainly not the fantasised version we saw on Little House on the Prairie the television show," Amy Lauters, an associate professor at Minnesota State University-Mankato told the AP.

It’s been about 14 years since I’ve read the Prairie series, so I for one am looking forward to digging into this uncensored autobiography — learning about the actual events that inspired the unfathomable adventures that so captivated 10-year-old me. Here are 8 things — some bleak, others juicy — that I’m looking forward to seeing explored in the autobiography:

1. THE MANY PLACES PA'S WANDERLUST LED THE INGALLS

Bulky, bearded Pa had a serious case of wanderlust. With elusive prosperity on the brain, he was always packing up his family and belongings to move further westward. Occasionally dire circumstances were the culprit, but the Ingalls’ peripatetic lifestyle was mostly thanks to Pa’s restlessness, which led them from Kansas to South Dakota and so many places in between, it's dizzying. Some of these locales are glazed over or unmentioned in the children’s books, but are all detailed in the autobiography, so readers can prepare for more hemisphere-traversing travels.

2. SCANDALS AND LOVE AFFAIRS ON THE PRAIRIE

Living in a small, isolated community where everyone in the minuscule population knows everyone else is bound to lead to some high school-esque love drama and indeed at least one ill-fated love triangle is said to unfold in Ingalls’ autobiography, though the characters involved haven't yet been speculated.

3. ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION, HANGOVERS AND ALL

Obviously alcohol rarely graced the pages of this children’s series, but it’s hard to believe that adults and angsty teens subjected to the hardships and doldrums of life on the prairie never turned to drink to temporarily forget their woes or cure some boredom, frat-boy style. And readers of the autobiography confirm that there is at least one scene of wild and dangerous drunken behavior in which a neighbor, blasted on whiskey, sets fire to his bedroom. Yikes. 

4. THE GRITTIER SIDE TO DOMESTIC LIFE 

Life inside the walls of those tiny frame houses and sod dugouts wasn’t always filled with wholesome scenes of pressing cheese, sewing gowns, drying fruit, and chatting by the fire, and, yup, young Ingalls encountered several incidents of domestic abuse. Domestic violence is lightly explored in book eight, when Laura, now a fledgling schoolteacher, boards with the Brewsters, a distraught couple, constantly fighting.  Remember when Laura wakes one night to find Mrs. Brewster standing over her husband with a knife? That was terrifying. Similar scenes of domestic violence, cut from the children’s series, are recounted in the autobiography. 

5. NELLIE OLSON IN REAL LIFE

As young Prairie readers, we loved to hate vicious Nellie Olson and super-bitch ways. We empathized with Laura every time she was forced to put up with her nemesis’ hair-pulling and name-calling — so of course we’re curious to find out what this girl's deal really is. In actuality, Nellie is a composite character inspired by three different children, and in the autobiography we’ll get to meet all three unpleasant creatures. 

6. THE HUMAN BEHIND THE EVER-HEROIC PA

Father-daughter relationships are often one of the most telling elements of memoirs, especially in that they are in many ways relatable across generation gaps. Throughout the children’s series, Pa, Laura’s father, is depicted as a courageous, saintly figure always saving the day and maintaining a undying spirit despite trekking through blizzards, battling disease, and combating starvation—but let's get real. There's no way could Pa have been that perfect. The autobiography should shed some light on his human flaws as well as Ingalls’ own opinions of her father. Apparently, the real Pa was much more short-tempered than the books suggest and even once skipped out on paying the family’s rent after a tiff with the landlord. 

7.  LAURA AND ALMAZO'S YOUNG ROMANCE

Was Laura really in love with Almazo? In that era, young marriages were common and women were often pressured to marry in their early teens. And their budding romance, which is chronicled in multiple books and later leads to their marriage in book eight, These Happy Golden Years, couldn’t have been all hand-holding and innocent buggy rides, could it? I’m interested to see how Ingalls herself depicts the young courtship and her own sentiments on marrying at a young age to a man nearly 10 years her senior. 

8.  WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO THE WILDERS 

After a series of tragic events, the final book ends, as most cheery childhood adventures stories do, on a rather optimistic note, but in truth the Wilders life continued on its tragic trend. In the first decade of their marriage, their infant son died, their crops were destroyed by treacherous weather, their mortgage became an insane burden, their house eventually burned down, Almazo had a stroke from which he never fully recovered, and the family was eventually forced off of their land and for years they lived essentially as refugees. Obviously not the way you would want to end a children’s story… my childhood memories are grateful for the sugarcoating. 

 Images: chiotsrun/flickr; gipy.com (6); Wikimedia Commons

Must Reads