Pioneer Girl Schools Watchman: A Lesson in Craft

First drafts aren’t meant to be seen. Though many may contain moments of brilliance, they are generally seeds of a story. They are first words on a page. Unshaped. Unsculpted.

Pioneer Girl, Illustration by Judy Thompson, South Dakota Historical Society

Two classic authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Harper Lee, have recently had their first drafts revealed. These are the drafts that did not make them famous. These are the drafts that were put away, hidden for decades.

Yet the way in which both first drafts were revealed were dramatically different. Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an annotated autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, and released by South Dakota Historical Society Press. This volume was originally published in fall of 2015 but the small press was overwhelmed by orders. Many readers waited months to receive their pre- ordered hard copies.

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was released as a second novel, though admittedly a “lightly copy edited” first draft of what would eventually be To Kill a Mockingbird.

Watchman, as is, may take a few lessons from Pioneer Girl.

What Pioneer Girl did successfully is to take Wilder’s early memoir drafts and compare them, through copious annotations, to the Little House on the Prairie series. Pamela Smith Hill has also analyzed the work of various editors and publishers, from the Brandt and Brandt, and Bye editions. She comments on Wilder’s growing expertise in the craft of fiction, as her stories were revised from memoir to the novel series.

“By the time Wilder fictionalized the scene,” notes Hill, “she had mastered some basic principles of creative writing and the scene is gripping.”

For example, In Pioneer Girl, Pa has to face angry railroad workers who are demanding their pay. Hill compares the emotional feel of the autobiography to the fictional.“…a crescendo of threatening dialogue increases the sense of menace in the fictional scene.” Wilder’s first draft reads, “…the men started to talk ugly, but the others were quiet while Pa told them how foolish they were…”

This scene, typical of first drafts (telling instead of showing), turned into a longer, dramatic scene in On the Shores of Silver Lake. Wilder increases the tension by drawing out the drama overnight, and intensifies the dialogue with the railroad men yelling, “Open up that store or we’ll open it for you!”

This exemplifies the before and after. It shows how Wilder worked on the draft, added action, added dialogue, to make it a powerful chapter.

Go Set A Watchman, designed by Jarrod Taylor, Harper Collins

Watchman has many tough spots to get through and was roundly criticized for its flaws. Painful dialogue, rambling chapters that are character sketches rather that plot movement.

That stilted dialogue is present when Henry finds Jean Louise after she discovered the Citizens meeting.

“You in a snit about something…?”

“You saw me?”

“Yeah, I was hoping you’d be waiting out side for us but you weren’t. Feeling better today?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t bite my head off.”

The saving grace is that a kernel of future characters are present. The core of Jean Louise gives the reader a shimmer of headstrong Scout. Atticus, a bigot in Watchman, has a few hints of his former self, his future character. Hidden in long-winded prose, a hint of the Tom Robinson case is there. “Atticus took his career in his hands and made good use of a careless indictment…he own acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge.”

It would have been fascinating to let the readers see Lee’s process for turning her Watchman characters into those in To Kill a Mockingbird. Show us how she worked with Atticus, how she changed him over time. Let us know if the suggestions were editorially driven or her own impetus in carving out a final character.

The annotated technique could have been used for Watchman. Maybe an annotated version was too academic, maybe it was too time consuming. Maybe there wouldn’t have been the sales and the best seller list…but wait. Pioneer Girl was on the New York Times Best Seller List for six weeks.

Ironically, Lee said in a 1964 interview, “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”

Watchman could have used the opportunity to show the craft and hard work of writing, as Pioneer Girl did. This would have been a fascinating study in craft and, at the very least, not put forth what Lee herself deplores.

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