Monday, September 16, 2013

A Wilder Rose

by Susan Wittig Albert.

While working on the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake at her home in Connecticut, Rose Wilder Lane relates to a young friend how she went home to the family farm in Missouri just as the Great Depression was beginning and encouraged her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to write the memoir of pioneer life that ultimately became the Little House series--and how their complicated relationship led Rose both to become deeply involved in shaping the successive manuscripts into publishable form and to disguise the fact that her editing almost amounts to ghostwriting.

To this day, the only name on the Little House books is that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and for some fans of the series the extent of Rose Wilder Lane's contribution to the work is still debatable. Laura has many defenders, who point to her experience as a columnist for the Missouri Ruralist and her evocative letters to her husband Almanzo from San Francisco (eventually published as West from Home) as evidence that she was the sole author of all the books, and Rose did no more than clean up the spelling and grammar as she was typing the manuscripts, and perhaps give her mother a little inside advice on the publishing process and an introduction to her own agent. Rose's published fiction, some of it based on the same family stories that went into her mother's books, is very different in tone and style, they say; it's immediately obvious that the same person could not have been responsible for both Little House on the Prairie and Let the Hurricane Roar.

Others take the position (supported by William Holtz's biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House) that Laura's original manuscript was little more than a collection of anecdotes, needing a lot of work to become a publishable narrative--work that Laura wouldn't have known how to do, but Rose, already a professional writer for twenty years, certainly did. Adherents of this view point to The First Four Years, now usually published as the last of the Little House books but obviously not as polished as the other entries in the series, as evidence that it was Rose's work on the other eight books--reordering events to impose plot and structure on the loose family stories, inserting dialogue and dramatic tension--that made them the classics that they are, and Rose deserves credit as a co-author: credit her manipulative mother, accustomed to getting her own way, denied her.

Albert's novel leans towards the latter version of the story. But if Rose was Laura's ghostwriter--and the evidence of Rose's diaries and Laura's letters tends to support this interpretation--she must also have been complicit in the deception involved. She and her mother had the same agent, and Rose knew many people in the New York publishing industry; she would have had to go to some trouble to keep the depth of her involvement a secret, but a secret it remained. 

The exploration of why Rose might have gone to so much trouble is the best part of this subtle, insightful novel. She and her mother had a troubled, complex relationship, and if Laura was used to getting her own way, so was Rose. Compassion, obligation, resentment, and yes, manipulation--on both sides--all went into the mix, as they tend to do between many mothers and daughters. This is a fascinating, well-written story, and I plan to do my best to see to it that the library where I work buys multiple copies; my only concern is that as a self-published title, it doesn't appear to be available from our usual wholesaler, but there are ways around that!

A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert, was published as an e-book and in paperback on September 1, 2013, and will be out in hardcover on October 1. Thanks to Perservero Press (that is, to the author) and NetGalley for making advance copies available.


  1. Becca, thanks for this careful reading. I'm expecting books to be available via Ingram & B&T next month. Meanwhile, if you and your readers would like to know more of the facts behind this fact-based fiction, I've posted a free (for now) Readers Companion on the booksite: Click on "Readers" tab.

    1. Ah, excellent. We use B&T, so I'll look for it next month.

      And you're welcome! I really enjoyed the novel, and I look forward to digging into the Readers' Companion.

  2. This is fascinating, Becca. Thank you for sharing it. Denise