Do you have a big project that you’ve always wanted to do, always MEANT to do, but you haven’t yet? Do you ask lots of people about their advice on it and talk about it frequently? Then you know just how Laura Ingalls Wilder felt during the 1920s. She wanted to write and to tell her family’s story which she felt was too good to be lost. She’d written articles before, been paid for them, and they had appeared in print, mostly in regional publications, but she knew she could write and tell her story. So she sat down and wrote down a first draft of a memoir about her life growing up. It was always intended to be published at some point. Little asides to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, clearly indicated Laura expected other people to read it so she was expecting readers.
Three Copies In A Story
Sadly, one thing Laura really had yet to learn was the process of editing, still it was a version Laura wasn’t finished with that Rose had sent around to see if anybody would publish it. Laura had handwritten the first version and Rose did up two different typed versions of varying lengths, one for each agent she had during the time she was trying to get it published. Nobody wanted to publish it and frankly, I can’t blame them. It screams out for major editing. I’m glad, too, because had it been published as a non-fiction novelette, it’s doubtful it would have been used as a basis to write children’s books.
The Long Road to Publication
There was one more attempt to get it published, rewriting part of it as a book aimed at children called When Grandma Was A Little Girl. It was only after it failed, too, that Laura and Rose started to view Pioneer Girl as an outline of high points that could be worked into a fictional account of Laura‘s life. We know the story, how they parted the publishers for Little House in the Big Woods to pass. But that wasn’t the last to be heard of Pioneer Girl. In the early 1980s, Rose‘s heir, Roger Lea MacBride worked with Bill Anderson to create an edited version of Pioneer Girl. MacBride even announced it in the forward to one of the books he created about Laura. I detail my wait for it.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography
There were a couple of other attempts of publication over the years and they all came to naught. Then in 2007 the South Dakota Historical Society Press rolled out a new series of biographies of people who lived in and had strong ties to South Dakota. First in the series was Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography by Pamela Smith Hill. It was more a long term literary analysis than a true biography. It sold well. (Personally I recommend the section on Rose which shed new possibilities on her for me.) It leans heavily on Pioneer Girl.
Enter South Dakota State Historical Society Press
The South Dakota State Historical Society Press (SDSHSP) is a specialty type, academic publisher. They publish the magazines and journals of the state historical society and historical books having to do with South Dakota. They also have added some fiction with a strong South Dakota element, like The Discontented Gopher by Frank L. Baum.
As I understand it, the idea for publishing Pioneer Girl rose again as Pamela Smith Hill talked with the head of the publishing unit, Nancy Tystad Koupal. Hill‘s previous book had caused her to become very familiar with Pioneer Girl and she suggested since it had never been published yet, that they work with the Little House Trust and publish it. Even better, publish it with annotations. Both parts of the project took a lot of work and time – more than the SDSHSP originally thought. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, that original deadline made a lovely whooshing noise passing by, but they persisted.
In November 17, 2014, Pioneer Girl was published and was immediately a smash. Efforts to promote the book pre-publication caught the attention of news/blog people as the buzz promised secrets of an adult nature that hadn’t been in the “Little House” books and it was suddenly everywhere. Then the SDSHSP underestimated the amount of books they’d sell. After all, hints about dark secrets aside, it was really a scholarly book. They ordered what was a generous order for the books they normally published. Looking at pre-orders they doubled the order, but it still wasn’t enough. Pre-orders directly from the press and the homesites were promptly delivered. Pre-orders through Amazon were NOT. It seemed that you had to pre-order a copy any place you could buy a copy and Amazon orders weren’t fulfilled. Planned Christmas present hopes were dashed. It was February before Amazon gave up and canceled my pre-order. (Yes, that’s what I get for not going through the press or a homesite.) What’s the surest way to make sure people want something? That’s right, tell them that they can’t have it, or better yet that so many other people want it they can’t have it. Sales surged.
Sales CONTINUED to surge. Much to the surprise of everybody Pioneer Girl continued to sell. On February 15, 2015 it hit the number 2 spot on the New York Times Best-Sellers List. And it stayed there. Secondary prices soared as people longed to brag they had a copy. (Note: Never buy something with high secondary sales prices when it’s still in print, you’ll get your copy, don’t worry.)
Eventually everything calmed down, but sales continue. By the podcast I did with Nancy Tystad Koupal March 2017, the SDSHSP had sold more copies of Pioneer Girl than they had all the copies of every other single book they had published since their founding in 2017 added together. I just checked with Dedra McDonald Birzer who currently heads the press and they are currently it their 15th printing with almost 190,000 copies sold and sales continue. Both the press and the homesite giftshops I’ve talked to report it’s still selling well. Part of the money has been put aside as an endowment that will help the press keep operating far into the future.
The SDSHSP followed up on this great success. They announced they were coming out with a trilogy of follow-up books. The first one is called Pioneer Girl Perspectives and is collection essays written by Laura historians, literary people, and some people connected with Laura – including one essay written by Laura herself. On April 27, 2017 the South Dakota State Historical Society took its annual conference (which is really well done and I’m happy to see it still going) and themed it around Laura Ingalls Wilder. The book rolled out at the conference and you had a chance to get everybody then alive whose work appears in it to sign it. The speakers at the conference also appeared in the book.
The second book in the Pioneer Girl follow up trilogy will be called Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts. This volume will role out on October 15, 2021. I haven’t seen a copy yet, but this is what SDHSP says what it will include:
The three revised texts of Pioneer Girl, set side by side, showcase the intertwined processes of writing and editing and the contributions of writer and editor. In background essays and annotations, Koupal and her team of editors provide historical context and explore the ways in which Wilder or Lane changed and reused the material.
Wilder and Lane’s partnership has been the subject of longstanding speculation, but Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts is the first work to explore the women’s relationship by examining the evolution of surviving manuscripts. Showcasing differences in the texts and offering numerous additional documents and handwritten emendations, the editors create a rich resource for scholars to use in assessing the editorial and writing principles, choices, and reasoning that Lane employed to shape the manuscripts for publication. Readers can follow along as Wilder grows into a novelist that “no depression could stop.”
The cover features a painting by water colorist Judy Thompson. Thompson has done or will do the cover art for this series. She is taking the Ingalls family through the year presenting each cover in a different season. Thompson does her watercolor and then the SDHSP makes comments. When I saw her present at the De Smet Event 2017 she brought her first attempt for Pioneer Girl for us to see and it really is the best of any of her work I’ve seen so far. I’m sorry the press went another way. For this volume, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, her work, titled “Dakota Twilight,” “captures the beauty and soft colors of the prairie at twilight as Grace, Mary, Carrie, and Laura Ingalls return from a walk along the Big Slough.” The original for Pioneer Girl Perspectives was recently on display at the Homestead National Historic Park.
The Revised Texts is now available for pre-order. Be sure to buy either from the press or one of the homesites. You can order online, but I got caught in a circle of doom so I called with my order and that quickly went through.
Links from Text You Might Especially Want to Know About
This link tells you about the SDSHS conference takes you to the first of a series of posts about if you want to learn more.
My podcast episode from 2017 with Nancy Tystad Koupal.
You can order it.
Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , LinkedIn , SlideShare, and Academia.edu . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.