As I've read all the Little House books by Laura Ingalls
Wilder, and some of her daughter's books, I was fascinated
to read this biographical novel. Taking their unpublished
letters and diaries, and a wealth of published material
from Rose Wilder Lane's thirty-year writing career, Susan
Wittig Albert has compiled a look at the people and process
behind the famous books. Didn't we all want to know what
happened after Laura married Almanzo?
A WILDER ROSE is revising By The Shores of Silver Lake as
the book opens in the late 1930s, putting aside her own
work to finish her mother's book. Already in print are
Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy and On The Banks
of Plum Creek. Rose's name isn't on them, though her
writing skills prepared her mother's pioneering stories.
Rose has work published in her own name, such as Let The
Hurricane Roar, (which is very similar in theme and style).
She's lived in Albania, Columbia and New York, contributing
to papers and getting a good grip on the publishing world,
which is just beginning to open quality children's
literature imprints. Laura lives with the infirm Almanzo
on a farm in the Ozarks, scribbling remembered stories and
maintaining the polite fiction that she is the sole author.
Rose speaks to her friend, journalist Nancy Lee, who knows
the truth, about her complex relationship with her mother.
Nancy persuades her to talk about her life. Rose took a job
as a telegraph operator aged seventeen, and had not lived
at home since. She'd married and divorced, travelled in the
1920s and '30s, writing for magazines. Between earthquakes
and Mussolini's invasion, Albania became no longer safe, so
Rose came home, supporting her parents as their farm
provided a bare subsistence. The diminutive, strong-minded
Laura needed to know that she was safe. But Rose hates the
parochial outlook of rural folks, the unending drudgery of
a simple farmhouse. She has a travelling companion who
later writes the Sue Barton nursing books, and they plan to
build a farmhouse with electricity and plumbing. Having
grown up dirt poor, Rose saves and invests, and persuades
her elderly parents to move into the new home for which she
has borrowed rather than raid her comfortable stocks.
All too soon, in two days the markets lose thirty billion
dollars. All Laura's family were writing women, and she is
penning farming columns for a local paper. Now she brings
Rose the first chapters of her autobiography, and as
magazine work has dried up, Rose gets to grips with
refining the tale. Pioneer Girl doesn't sell to magazines
but Rose decides to wring a children's book from the early
chapters. Laura is determined that it must not be
fictionalised... and they need money to pay the mortgage
and bills, as their investments have collapsed. Rose has a
background of ghost-writing and knows agents and
publishers. She turns the first-person narrative into a
third-person one and goes to New York.
It's easy for me to sit here and say, "Those people were so
stupid for investing their hard-earned money and taking on
debt." Yet knowing that it happened to my friends in
recent years, I'm still thinking it as I read. People took
the advice of banks and financial advisors, and bought
stocks. They did not have the refined comment on politics
and economics of today's media at their fingertips. Even
those who spent their money on workshops and stores found
their clients were unable to spend. Ironically the lack of
work for Rose, and the ease from lifelong hard work for her
mother, meant the collaboration could take place which gave
us a cherished series of recollections.
As a writer myself I found the process fascinating by which
the series took shape, rejected, accepted with conditions,
rewritten time and again. Laura resented letting Rose
make major changes, but that was the only way that the
books would get published. Rose was a jobbing writer and
knew her trade. She said that the rejection letters were
the best thing to happen, because they forced Laura to see
that Rose was right. And the books they each wrote gave
readers courage during the Depression. The bleak years of
dustbowls were hard to read, too similar to today's
challenging times, but somehow these women supported
Susan Wittig Albert is known for her mystery series titled
after plants such as rue and indigo, but she is also past
Professor of English in Texas and New Orleans universities,
and a Doctor of Philosophy. She supports women writers,
social and human rights causes, and A WILDER ROSE explores
all of these themes.
In 1928, Rose Wilder Lane—world traveler, journalist, much-
published magazine writer—returned from an Albanian sojourn
to her parents’ Ozark farm. Almanzo Wilder was 71, Laura 61,
and Rose felt obligated to stay and help. To make life
easier, she built them a new home, while she and Helen
Boylston transformed the farmhouse into a rural writing
retreat and filled it with visiting New Yorkers. Rose sold
magazine stories to pay the bills for both households, and
despite the subterranean tension between mother and
daughter, life seemed good.
Then came the Crash. Rose’s money vanished, the magazine
market dried up, and the Depression darkened the nation.
That’s when Laura wrote her autobiography, “Pioneer Girl,”
the story of growing up in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, on
the Kansas prairie, and by the shores of Silver Lake. The
rest—the eight remarkable books that followed—is literary
But it isn’t the history we thought we knew. For the
surprising truth is that Laura’s stories were publishable
only with Rose’s expert rewriting. Based on Rose’s
unpublished diaries and Laura’s letters, A Wilder Rose tells
the true story of the decade-long, intensive, and often
troubled collaboration that produced the Little House books—
the collaboration that Rose and Laura deliberately hid from
their agent, editors, reviewers, and readers.
Why did the two women conceal their writing partnership?
What made them commit what amounts to one of the longest-
running deceptions in American literature? And what happened
in those years to change Rose from a left-leaning liberal to
a passionate Libertarian?
In this impeccably researched novel and with a deep insight
into the book-writing business gained from her own
experience as an author and coauthor, Susan Wittig Albert
follows the clues that take us straight to the heart of this
fascinating literary mystery.