Few people who read the much loved Little House series will be aware that the books have given rise to an academic industry. Scholars have toiled away, researching the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her husband Almanzo and their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. More contentiously, they have asked, ‘Who wrote the books?’ Diehard fans believe that their sweet little Laura wrote every word. Some readers concede that Rose had a hand in tidying up the books. Others argue convincingly that Rose, a professional writer, rewrote the books completely, from her mother’s drafts. A Wilder Rose
is not an academic book. Susan Wittig Albert acknowledges a debt to William Holtz ‘s The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder and bases her own book on the assumption that Rose was in fact the principle author of the books. She writes:
‘But while the story itself is true, A Wilder Rose is a novel. With the diaries, journals, and letters as my guide, I have taken my own imaginative journey through the real events of those years. I have treated the real people as fictional characters’
I’m not usually keen on fictionalised accounts of real lives, but this book drew me in and won me over to the idea; it reads in part like a genuine autobiography.
Rose Wilder Lane would deserve a biography even if she hadn’t been the daughter of Laura Ingalls. In her long, busy life, she travelled widely, wrote numerous stories for magazines, articles for newspapers, novels, including the famous Let the Hurricane Roar and non-fiction, like her life of Hoover. She was also a political activist, defending libertarianism and accusing Roosevelt of ‘setting himself up as a dictator.’ She really hated the New Deal. With hindsight, you can see these views as those of ‘Pa’ in the Little House books. Born in 1886, she was a truly emancipated, independent woman who made a name for herself without help from anybody. Susan Wittig Albert has split the narrative between a third person account of Rose’s life in Connecticut and Rose’s own reflections as she looks back at her life. I found her ‘voice’ completely believable.
The novel begins in 1939, when Rose is living in her ‘little house’ in King Street, Danbury, Connecticut. In accordance with her refusal ‘to buy food crops that are subsidized by FDR’s New Deal government’ she is trying to live self-sufficiently. Considering her desire to escape her parents’ hard way of life, this is ironic. She is sharing her house with a young couple; the wife, Norma Lee is an ambitious young writer, avid for details about Rose’s life. Rose thinks nostalgically of her happy years in Albania with her friend ‘Troub’, Helen Dore Boylston, author of the Sue Barton books. From Albania she returned to visit her parents’ farm, another ‘little house’: Rocky Ridge in Missouri. Then disaster struck: the great Wall Street crash of 1929.
Rose had invested money from her writings and had persuaded her mother to put her money into investments, too. Their savings were wiped out and Rose found it more difficult to sell her work. She also felt responsible for her parents and found herself trapped, away from her intellectual friends and stuck with the small town mentality of her mother’s circle, where ‘what people thought’ was so important. It’s clear that her relationship with her mother is a difficult one. A visiting friend says, ‘Your mother may seem like a sweet little old lady, with her white hair and blue eyes. But she is the most overbearing woman I have ever known.’ Rose’s mantra is now cash, cash, cash; how to make money for herself and to ensure a comfortable old age for her parents.
Laura (referred to by Rose as Mama Bess) had been writing a column for the Missouri Ruralist which Rose thought romanticised the back breaking drudgery of life on a small farm. Now Laura came up with a memoir she had written of her girlhood, which she called Pioneer Girl. Naturally she showed it to Rose the professional, the one with publishing contacts. Rose saw at once that the book would not do as it was and agreed to knock it into shape. So began the long and often acrimonious collaboration between the two women, a collaboration which they kept a secret.
Rose now found herself trapped again. Harper & Row published Little House in the Big Woods as a children’s book in 1932; little did Rose realise she would become chained to a series for which she would get no credit and no royalties. ‘Would I have asked for recognition and a share of the royalties if I had known that each book would take two or three months away from my writing projects and sap whatever meager store of energy I might have for my own work?’ She was stuck with the task until These Happy Golden Years came out in 1943. Readers were disappointed by The First Four Years, written by Laura alone.
‘My mother and I have had our differences, but I have always known that she was an extraordinary person, a never-give-up woman who pushed herself beyond the limits that hindered other women of her era.’ Rose was in some ways very like her mother. She comes over here as strong willed, fiercely independent, indomitable, not always very likeable but ‘an extraordinary person’. She never gave up her political work: the photo below shows her testifying before Congress in 1939. Susan Wittig Albert says, ‘Rose and Laura’s stories are a continuing testament to the strength, resilience, and courage of American pioneers and to our enduring belief in what it means to be an American.’ In this book she’s made that quite clear to a British reader. It may be a fictional account of a few years in the women’s lives, but the voice she has given Rose is entirely believable.
To be published by the Persevero Press in September. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.
Photo Library of Congress