Lessons from Laura: The evolution of the Little House books

Laura IngallsLaura Ingalls Wilder submitted her autobiography, Pioneer Girl, to literary agents in 1930. The factual account of her life was intended for adult readers and it languished, failing to find favor with publishers until she re-worked part of the story into a shorter volume for children, entitled When Grandma was a Girl.  That book, expanded and revised, was published as Little House in the Big Woods in 1932.

Years ago, I acquired a copy of the version of Pioneer Girl Wilder submitted to literary agent George T. Bye around 1931. It is one of my prized possessions, and here’s why: studying that early version of Wilder’s work and comparing it to the finished Little House books gave me hope for my own future as a writer.

Pioneer Girl was not published in its original state because it wasn’t ready yet. Finding the right way to present the story took time. And revision. When it was ready, it became the beloved series of children’s books.

As writers, we all have to start somewhere. Then we have to be patient, develop our ideas, and let the stories simmer. We can’t rush the revision process, as much as we might want to!

This passage is from the Pioneer Girl manuscript:

One day when he [Pa] was riding Patty, the pony, across the prairie, he rode down into a little wash and found himself surrounded by a pack of wolves.  Patty was terrified and tried to run, but Pa held her down. He knew that if she started the wolves would run them down and kill them both, for he could not kill the whole pack with one muzzle-loading gun.

Patty trembled and sweat with fear, but Pa made her walk slowly among the wolves. They must have lately made a kill and eaten well, for they could not have been hungry. Carelessly they ran on by.

 When they were gone, Pa came home as fast as he could.

The same story, retold in Little House on the Prairie (1935):

All at once, Patty came running across the prairie. She was stretched out, running with all her might, and Pa was leaning almost flat on her neck.

She ran right past the stable before Pa could stop her. He stopped her so hard that she almost sat down. She was trembling all over and her black coat was streaked with sweat and foam. Pa swung off her. He was breathing hard, too.

 “What is the matter, Charles?” Ma asked him.

Pa was looking toward the creek, so Ma and Laura looked at it too. But they could see only the space above the bottom lands, with a few tree-tops in it, and the distant tops of the earthen bluffs under the High Prairie’s grasses.

“What is it?” Ma asked again. “Why did you ride Patty like that?”

 Pa breathed a long breath. “I was afraid the wolves would beat me here. But I see everything’s all right.”

“Wolves!” she cried. “What wolves?”

 “Everything’s all right, Caroline,” said Pa. “Let a fellow get his breath.”

 When he had got some breath, he said, “I didn’t ride Patty like that. It was all I could do to hold her at all. Fifty wolves, Caroline, the biggest wolves I ever saw. I wouldn’t go through such a thing again, not for a mint of money.”

 ***

 One thing had led to another, and Pa was starting home later than he had meant.  He took a shortcut across the prairie, and as he was loping along on Patty, suddenly out of a little draw came a pack of wolves. They were all around Pa in a moment.

“It was a big pack,” Pa said. “All of fifty wolves, and the biggest wolves I ever saw in my life. Must be what they call buffalo wolves. Their leader’s a big gray brute that stands three feet at the shoulder, if an inch. I tell you my hair stood straight on end.”

“And you didn’t have your gun,” said Ma.

 “I thought of that. But my gun would have been no use if I’d had it. You can’t fight fifty wolves with one gun. And Patty couldn’t outrun them.”

 “What did you do?” Ma asked.

”Nothing,” said Pa. “Patty tried to run. I never wanted anything worse than I wanted to get away from there. But I knew if  Patty even started, those wolves would be on us in a minute, pulling us down. So I held Patty to a walk.”

 “Goodness, Charles!” Ma said under her breath.

 “Yes. I wouldn’t go through such a thing again, not for any money. Caroline, I never saw such wolves. One big fellow trotted along, right by my stirrup. I could have kicked him in the ribs. They didn’t pay any attention to me at all. They must have just made a kill and eaten all they could.

 “I tell you, Caroline, those wolves just closed in around Patty and me and trotted along with us. In broad daylight. For all the world like a pack of dogs going along with a horse. They were all around us, trotting along, and jumping and playing and snapping at each other, just like dogs.”

 “Goodness, Charles!” Ma said again. Laura’s heart was thumping fast, and her mouth and her eyes were wide open, staring at Pa.

“Patty was shaking all over, and fighting the bit,” said Pa. “Sweat ran off her, she was so scared. I was sweating too. But I held her down to a walk, and we went walking along among those wolves. They came right along with us, a quarter of a mile or more. That big fellow trotted by my stirrup as if he were there to stay.

 “Then we came to the head of a draw, running down into the creek bottoms. The big gray leader went down into it, and all the rest of the pack trotted down into it, behind him. As soon as the last one was in the draw, I let Patty go.

 “She headed straight for home, across the prairie. And she couldn’t have run faster if I’d been cutting into her with a rawhide whip. I was scared the whole way. I thought the wolves might be coming this way and they might be making better time than I was. I was glad you had the gun, Caroline. And glad the house is built. I knew your could keep the wolves out of the house, with the gun. But Pet and the colt were outside.”

 “You need not have worried, Charles,” Ma said. “I guess I would have managed to save our horses.”

”I was not fully reasonable, at the time,” said Pa. “I know you would save the horses, Caroline. Those wolves wouldn’t bother you, anyway. If they had been hungry, I wouldn’t be here to—“

“Little pitchers have big ears,” Ma said. She meant that he must not frighten Mary and Laura.

 In this version, having Pa tell the story to Ma after the fact, and showing her reaction greatly increases the tension and draws us all into the scene.

More examples to follow.

Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder, with annotations by Pamela Smith Hill, will be available in June 2013. Pioneer Girl can be preordered for $35 direct from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press by contacting (605) 773-6009 or emailing orders@sdshspress.com.

Share
4 Comments
  1. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an e-mail. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

    • Yes there is a “Contact Tracy” at the bottom of the home page, and also on the far right of the tool bar.

  2. awesome article and very usefull

Leave a Reply