If you loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books about her pioneer childhood, you should read A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert.
If you are reluctant to believe that Laura's daughter Rose may have written the books, you must read this novel.
When I was rescued from my existence as the daughter of a divorcee because my mother had married a rancher in western South Dakota, Laura Ingalls Wilder became my guide, my sister and my best friend. I was nine years old when we moved to the ranch and I entered the small-town grade school, a society of rural kids who had known each other since birth and didn't care for "city kids." My happiest moments began when the teacher who wrangled five grades in the "lower room" read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder's books about her "Little House on the Prairie."
Suddenly I could imagine myself living happily ever after among the neighborhood ranching and farming families. My parents made my childhood as educational as possible by buying a cow for me to milk and filling the chicken house with egg-laying hens. At home as at school, we spoke of Laura's family as if they were neighbors, as indeed they had been on the Dakota prairie a couple of hundred miles east of our home.
With my degree in American Literature, I was teaching and writing professionally before I met scholars of prairie literature who raised doubts that Laura had written her books alone. Some said that Laura's daughter Rose, a best-selling author in the 1920s and 30s, was deeply involved with creation of the books. Various scholars examined the abundant evidence—Laura's other writings, Rose's writings, their letters to each other—and concluded that Rose had edited Laura's work extensively, had rewritten it, or perhaps had written it in the first place.
These opinions met considerable resistance. Neither editors nor readers wanted to believe anything that alters our nostalgic image of the housewife seated at her well-scrubbed kitchen table writing masterpieces with pencil in a yellow tablet after gathering eggs and before starting supper on the wood stove.
A Wilder Rose features Rose Wilder Lane telling her story to a writer friend, Norma Lee Browning, allowing Rose to speak for herself. Rose's words are drawn directly from her letters and diaries. Each element of the novel is founded upon the historical record, including the writings of Laura, Rose, and various writers and editors who shared their lives.
Rose was a successful journalist, magazine writer and world traveler, author of Henry Ford's Own Story (1917), Diverging Roads (1919), The Making of Herbert Hoover (1920), and The Peaks of Shala (1923) among other books. In 1928, at her mother's request, she moved from Albania to her parents' Missouri farm to help the aging couple. She built them a new home and turned the old farm house into a writers' retreat, often filled with friends from all over the world. Rose's magazine writing paid the bills for both households—until the stock market crash of 1929. Suddenly writers could hardly find sales in the formerly lucrative magazine market and both Rose and her parents were nearly destitute.
Then Laura wrote an autobiography she called "Pioneer Girl," more than 300 tablet pages she intended as a book for adult readers. Naturally, she brought the manuscript to her daughter, assuming Rose's professional connections would ease publication.
Rose was an experienced and well-paid ghost-writer for, among others, Lowell Thomas, a world traveler and broadcaster. Had she known she was going to ghost-write eight novels for her mother, she might have created her usual contract to do so.
Instead, she spent several months creating a coherent story from her mother's manuscript. Editing and revising, she drew more memories from her mother, but Albert indicates that, so far as is shown by the available documents, Laura never saw the first five chapters of the book. When the editor asked for 25,000 additional words, Rose rewrote the entire book, drawing on Laura's written vignettes to create additional scenes. Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, bearing the name of Laura as author. Meanwhile, Rose wrote Let the Hurricane Roar, a novel also based on her family history, published in 1933. She continued to write and publish her own work throughout the time she worked with her mother's writing. From Laura's initial outpouring came the material from which Rose produced subsequent books.
The character Rose, speaking to her friend Norma, considers how this deception evolved. "Would I have felt differently if I had known that this book was only the first of an eight-book series? 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? Perhaps."
Because the author draws on Rose's own words throughout the novel, the conclusion is inescapable.
Susan Wittig Albert's introductory note to A Wilder Rose clarifies her position on the writing relationship between Laura and Rose:
"I have treated the real people as fictional characters and the real events as fictional events. I have chosen some storylines to expand and dramatize and omitted others. I have put words into people's mouths and listened in on their internal dialogue. I have invented incidents and imagined settings. In all this, I am exactly as true to the real events, settings, and people of A Wilder Rose as Rose and Laura were to the real events, settings, and people of the Ingalls family's pioneer wanderings across the American plains. The books they wrote are fictional representations of Laura's life as a child growing into young womanhood."
Therefore, the novel's central question becomes: how will each reader react to realizing that our concept of Laura writing her novels alone is impossible? How will readers who have loved Laura's stories accept that these two admirable women told lies of commission as well as omission? What justification might exist for the fiction they maintained all their lives?
Albert's novel is so moving and so convincing in part because her development of the characters of Laura and Rose echoes details true to the character of the prairie people where I grew up and where I live today.
Our relationships with our parents are complex and convoluted. Rose was burdened because, she wrote, she had burned the house down. Her story was that while her mother was ill after the birth and death of Rose's baby brother, Rose stuffed too much hay into the wood stove and caused a destructive fire. If the story was true, Rose, little more than a baby herself, was already doing the hard work necessary for a prairie life. She knew that actions have consequences and we have to live with them.
I can identify with Rose's guilt. Growing up on the prairie with parents much like hers, I learned the same lessons early. Even accidents have repercussions and a responsible person acknowledges them and accepts blame if necessary. Guilt is a burden that moves many of us in many directions today, and Rose thrived on it through much of her life. Could she have assumed responsibility for that fire to avert blame from her mother? We will probably never know, but the idea is not impossible.
Rose wonders if her mother thought "that affection somehow 'spoiled' a child. That life was real, life was earnest, and too much coddling insulated us from that essential truth, which would shortly be visited upon us by cruel experience." Similarly, my father often quoted the "life is real" saying while my mother frequently assured me that it was her job to make sure I was not spoiled so I'd be ready for the horrors of real life.
Laura deplored fiction, including the best-selling novels her daughter wrote, but she insisted that her own writing was the truth. Even though I have always written nonfiction, my mother, until she died at 92, never stopped urging me to "get a real job."
As Rose ponders her mother's disregard for the life of a professional writer, she wonders, "Do any of us ever outgrow those old childhood hurts, or do they grow and fester in our spirits the whole length of our lives?"
The question might apply to any of us; as Albert has remarked, "the family censor sits on our shoulders, editing our pasts." I could believe that Rose was so anxious to create a better relationship with her mother that the deception became immaterial. When I found myself publishing a book that contained truths I knew my mother could not accept, I presented her with her own special manuscript copy—from which I had removed anything that would disturb her rosy view of our lives. She loved showing her personal copy to nursing home visitors. "My daughter wrote this," she would say.
Perhaps as Rose took the written drafts and rewrote them, her mother became immersed in planning the next book. When Rose brought or sent Laura the finished drafts, she might simply have mailed them. Perhaps she convinced herself that the published version was what she had written. Even when my co-editors and I heavily edited manuscripts for our three anthologies of autobiographical writing by Western women (Leaning into the Wind, Woven on the Wind and Crazy Woman Creek), novice writers often told us how pleased they were that we had not changed their words!
And what about some of the editors who had seen Laura's writing before Rose worked it over? Did they suspect the truth? Perhaps they ignored their suspicious, afraid to lose such popular books.
Still, the Rose of the novel believes that her mother is deeply uneasy. "That was her mother's way; the more troubled she was about something, the less likely she was to say anything about it to anyone." Precisely so do the people in my Dakota neighborhood behave today: the more unpleasant the topic, the less likely they are to talk about it. Rose and Laura never discussed their collaboration in public. Likely they never discussed it in private.
I've met many writers like Laura, people who enjoy writing as a pastime but cannot take it seriously as a profession. Laura says to her daughter in A Wilder Rose "The more I see of the hours you have to put in, the better satisfied I am to raise chickens... I could never let myself be driven the way you are, Rose." Albert says the statement is almost a direct quote from a letter Laura wrote to her husband Almanzo from San Francisco in 1915, when she was visiting Rose.
Casual writers are not driven, but real writers must write and they may not be patient with anyone less serious about writing. Wanting to help her mother make an income as Almanzo aged and the farm income dwindled, Rose could have done the familiar work of editing and rewriting as a labor of love or duty without considering the job any different than dozens of others. However, in working for her mother, she didn't get the payment she so desperately needed.
What would you have done? Or perhaps more directly—since I am a writer whose mother wrote journals and poetry when she was young—what would I have done if my mother had brought me a manuscript to edit for publication?
I would have been flattered; I'd have worked hard to make it publishable. And because she was my mother, I would never have asked credit or payment, assuming that she would treat me fairly.
Albert presents another justification for Rose's work with her mother's memories, one I find particularly attractive. Rose's childhood was lonely and poverty-stricken. Writing her mother's pioneer childhood as beautiful, abundant and generous might have been a way for Rose to do several things at once. Perhaps she wanted to imagine her parents' lives as more satisfying; perhaps she wanted to erase her mother's hardships by writing stories that made it brighter. The novels invent for Rose a mother who loved her as well as provided generously for her well-being. Did she create a happier childhood for herself, as well as for her mother? Did she enjoy creating a marriage partnership unlike her unsatisfactory union?
Every writing is a new challenge, one of the factors that keeps us working at the profession. Rose thinks that "from the day she'd begun professional writing—almost thirty years now—she had always felt that way. Whatever else she was writing—it just wasn't good enough. It didn't meet her expectations of what it should have, could have been." Moreover, she felt each piece of writing completed was her last, that she'd never be able to find another worthy idea. I know no serious writer, including me, who hasn't wondered the same.
Moreover, many successful writers have had a fallback profession like teaching or selling insurance. Rose was writing furiously in the deepest darkness of the Depression of the 1930s, trying to survive on almost nothing while she helped her aging parents make enough money to live on. She had no insurance against failure, no spouse to support her. So she wrote constantly for money—magazine articles, novels, nonfiction works—anything to create an income.
Albert's scholarship has convinced me; the novel's structure allows the reader to understand and empathize with the way Rose was drawn into a collaboration that became a deception. Despite Rose's fame, she never received credit or financial benefit for the books. Laura got the pride of authorship; Laura got the royalties.
More importantly, Rose convinced me.
I don't care who wrote the books. Laura's voice, as Rose interpreted or created it, is still that of my guide and friend. Perhaps Laura's daughter made the storyteller a better person, helping her say what she could not express herself.
I was also delighted to learn what a very good writer Rose Wilder Lane was; she has much to say to our current political situation. Since her own writings were so much different than those of her mother, she proved her writing skill by creating the voice of the kindly storyteller for her mother's stories. Few writers are so skilled. Her benevolence created books loved by millions.
Interviewer Lynn Goodwin asked Susan Wittig Albert what advice Rose and Laura might give to aspiring writers. The differences, as Albert sees them, are intriguing.
Rose, says Albert, might say "Write, write write... And be sure to keep a day-to-day diary of your various writing projects... to satisfy the curiosity of the researchers who may come along and want to know what you were doing on a particular day." Such a diary became part of the background for this book.
And Laura? She'd say, "Tell the story you have to tell, as well as you can tell it... And... it's very good to have a daughter who is a professional writer."
Susan Wittig Albert is the national bestselling author of 50 adult novels and works of nonfiction, as well as more than 60 novels for young adults. She says, "I have a deep admiration for women writers who keep on keeping on through hail and high water... Rose was one of those women."
She calls this work a labor of love, but notes that when she originally proposed it as narrative nonfiction, editors were enthusiastic about the writing, but worried that Laura's fans would not be pleased. So Albert chose to take a more direct route, self-publishing through her own Persevero Press. As major publishing houses have consolidated and narrowed their focus, this option becomes more and more attractive to authors, even well-known writers with proven records of saleable writing. And this, too, should encourage writers, particularly women, and particularly we who write about sometimes unpopular topics.
See an interview with Susan Wittig Albert and additional information about women writers. And for details about the lives of Rose and Laura, including photographs of the homes where they lived while writing, as featured in the novel, see the book's website.
(See other reviews of this book, here & here)
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