Writing a Woman’s Life: Rose Wilder Lane, Part 1

This post was originally published at HerStories, a Story Circle Network blog (June 10, 2013). I’m reprinting it here (slightly revised) at the request of friends and fans who watched the recent American Masters program on Laura Ingalls Wilder and were disappointed (as I was) in its scant depiction of Rose’s life and the role she played in her mother’s books. This is Part One of a three-part series. I’ll reprint Part Two and Part Three over the next few days. I’ll look forward to your comments.

Rose Wilder Lane, about 1918


Ever since I wrote Writing From Life: Telling the Soul’s Story,  I have spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about the importance of writing our own stories: documenting our lives, our passions, our hopes, our achievements in journals, memoirs, poetry, drama, song, and fiction. I’ve done my share of this personal work. Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place is my story about twenty-plus years of life in the Texas Hill Country. And An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days is the journal of one year of that life.

I’m also interested in writing the lives of other women, and I’ve done my share of that, too. Some of these women (China Bayles and Ruby Wilcox, for instance) are entirely fictional. But some are real, like my eight-book series of fanciful mysteries following Beatrix Potter’s life in the years 1905-1913. Writing a woman’s life is a fascinating project, for many women’s experiences are rich in unexpected secrets, unexplored depths, and unrecognized achievements. I spent nearly two decades researching the life of a particular woman, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this process, illustrated by what I’ve learned about her.

The woman who fascinated me for so long was Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), the daughter and only of Laura and Almanzo Wilder. She was born in Dakota Territory, grew up in Mansfield MO, and left home at 18 to become first a telegrapher, then a reporter and feature writer, a freelance journalist, a world traveler, a magazine fiction writer, a best-selling novelist, and a political philosopher.

I was compelled to learn more about Rose because, as a girl, I loved the eight Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, I didn’t just love them, I adored them. I remember reading them aloud to myself, perched in the catalpa tree outside my bedroom window, loving the sound of the words, the flow of the sentences, the craft of the story, so simple and yet so real and compelling. That they were the work of an elderly woman, living on a Missouri farm, and writing true stories about her childhood (I imagined) by candlelight—why, this made them all the more interesting. One of my teachers called Laura an “untaught literary genius.” I had to agree. And since I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I was heartened to discover that someone who hadn’t graduated high school and who had lived all her life on a farm could pick up her pen and write such beautiful books—and get them published! If she could do it, so could I. I pinned her picture on my wall—a little white-haired lady signing her book—and vowed to grow up and write just the way she did.

It was a great shock, then, to pick up what the publisher called the “ninth book” in the Little House series, The First Four Years, the story of Laura’s and Almanzo’s early years on their homestead and tree claim on the South Dakota prairie. But this couldn’t be the work of the Laura whose books I had read so often that I could recite whole passages from memory! Not to put too fine a point on it, the writing was stiff and awkward, the narrative clumsy, the characters unbelievable. This must have been written, I thought, by somebody else, using Laura’s name!

By that time—the early 1970s—I was studying literature in graduate school, so I had acquired some research skills that I was eager to apply to this new literary mystery. I was going to find out who wrote The First Four Years and why she (or he) had been allowed to put my Laura’s name on this . . . this inferior work.

Luckily, there was a brief introduction to the book, and I started there. I learned that, after Laura’s death, the manuscript of The First Four Years was given by Rose Wilder Lane to Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer and literary agent. Rose—yes, I knew about Rose, Laura’s only child. But the introduction told me things about her that I didn’t know: that she had traveled widely, that she was the bestselling author of many books and magazine articles, and that she had gone to Vietnam as a war correspondent at the age of 78. She seemed to be quite a remarkable woman.

And then something occurred to me. What if Rose had written The First Four Years, and not Laura? What if the publisher had put Laura’s name on the book so it would sell better? That would account for the differences, wouldn’t it?

But the introduction declared that the manuscript was in Laura’s handwriting, so that couldn’t the answer. And when I finally managed to find a copy of The Peaks of Shala, Rose’s 1923 book about her travels in Albania, I could see that Laura’s daughter was a highly skilled storyteller with a remarkable eye for description and a strong narrative line. The Peaks of Shala, in its own way, was every bit as accomplished as the Little House books.

And that discovery led me to consider another, even more startling possibility. What if Rose had secretly written—or at least worked extensively on—her mother’s stories, turning them into the Little House books and transforming her mother into a famous author. What if Laura indeed had written The First Four Years but without Rose’s help?

It was those two huge what ifs that pulled me into the research—a long, long learning trail, both in distance and time—that led to the writing of the biographical novel, A Wilder Rose. In my next post, I’ll tell you about that research.

Reading note. This brief sample will give you a sense of Rose’s lyrical writing style. It comes from her letter to Clarence Day (the author of Life With Father), June 10, 1926, about a moment on a remote mountain in Albania after WWI.

It was like being quite alone on the roof of the world. I felt that if I were to go to the edge and look over … I would see below all that I had ever known; all the crowded cities and seas covered with ships, and the clamor of harbors and traffic of rivers, and farmlands being worked, and herds of cattle driven in dust across interminable plains. All the clamor and clatter, confusion of voices, tumults, and conflicts, must still be going on, down there—over the edge, and below—but here there was only the sky, and a stillness made audible by the brittle grass. Emptiness was so perfect all around me that I felt a part of it, empty myself.







19 comments on “Writing a Woman’s Life: Rose Wilder Lane, Part 1

  1. I’m a big Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy fan. In Betsy and the Great World, Betsy meets the famous author
    Mrs. Main-Whittaker who encourages Betsy with her writing. It’s been suggested that Rose Wilder Lane was the model for Mrs. Main-Whittaker.

    • Rose met the Lovelaces in December 1929, at a party in Manhattan. On her next trip to the city (October 1930, when she was trying unsuccessfully to sell her mother’s first project), she had dinner at their apartment; a week later, the Lovelaces came to dinner at the apartment where Rose was staying. (We know this because Rose notes the dinners in her journal.) There was some later correspondence, not saved. I haven’t read the Betsy-Tacy books, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rose didn’t figure in there somehow. 🙂 Did you know that Maud Lovelace’s husband Delos wrote the novelization of the film, King Kong? Rose may have known him through their work as journalists in the 1920s.

  2. Watching the American Masters program with my husband, who has not read A Wilder Rose, was revealing. He read some parts of the books with our daughters years ago, and was mildly interested in learning more about Laura. I feared they wouldn’t even mention Rose, so I was relieved with the more accurate accounting than there was a few years ago. But nonetheless… All the information about Rose was new to my husband, and he accepted her role in the Little House books completely. He seemed satisfied with the program. But I was complaining that Rose’s books deserved more attention, and her amazing life. When he heard them say that her work was the base for current Libertarians, he was quite surprised. So I agree with others, Rose deserves her own program. But I was especially disappointed that they didn’t come to you, Susan, for another voice on the topic. They missed their chance!

    • Thanks, SCN–but don’t you think it would have been better if they had included Bill Holtz? His 1993 biography of Rose was what we all look to as the turning point for the scholarship on the Little House books. Chris Woodside did a very good job with Rose’s politics–but I didn’t hear a mention of Roger McBride, did you? If it weren’t for him, the TV series would not have happened, since both Laura and Rose were so opposed to the movie idea. Instead, the producers of AM paid a great deal of attention to what is already widely known . . .

  3. I never read The Little House Series (too old!). My introduction to Laura was through the TV series of which I was a big fan (and still am). My next introduction came when, by chance. I had the opportunity to visit her home in Missouri. Then, Susan, I read your book and thoroughly enjoyed getting the back story. I have to confess that I watched the PBS special just to discover how it would present Rose. I was pleased that they did include her contribution to the Little House series; but I was disappointed that they didn’t expand more on her accomplishments. I agree that there could possibly be a special devoted to her.

    • Penny, one of the things that deserved a sentence or two: Rose’s friend Troub, Helen Dore Boylston. Troub lived with Rose in Albania and later at the farm; she who went on to write the Sue Barton, Nurse series for girls. (Rose had many writer friends, although she wasn’t very good at keeping them.) Rose’s journal of the farm years (1929-1935) provides a fascinating glimpse into what it took to survive the Great Depression.

  4. I felt that the program covered Rose competently. Let’s face it, the newspaper writing of the kind of ghost writing of stories of sensational figures, esp. criminals, was kind of the desperation of the Great Depression, and I doubt that Rose was proud of that.

    • Whether she was proud of it or not isn’t really the point, Janet. It was part of her incredibly prolific writing life, and that work–in all of its crazy dimensions–influenced what she did with her mother’s drafts. And it wasn’t just the newspaper writing, of course.

  5. I’ve read many of your herbal mysteries, Susan, and have enjoyed them all. Now I plan to read your A Wilder Rose. I was not disappointed with the PBS documentary for, not knowing much about Wilder’s life (other than having read voraciously all the Little House books as a child), I learned a lot. I can’t help but think that perhaps the downplay was out of regard for Laura and Rose’s little secret (or big secret!), Rose not wishing to be connected to children’s books and Laura quite wanting complete control over her own writing, which is perhaps every writer’s wish…

    • I’m not sure that respect for the secret mother-daughter arrangement entered into it, Nancy. American Masters has never shied from rummaging in their subjects’ closets. I think it was a matter of not digging deep enough, or listening closely enough to their contributors–especially to Bill Anderson, who understands the extent of the collaboration and the motives behind it.

  6. I remember reading some (not all) of the Little House books as a child. I was curious, and I admit, a little dubious when I picked up A Wilder Rose. I found Rose’s story and your telling of it fascinating and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I found it entirely believable that Rose’s writing and editing transformed her mother’s life experiences into great books that are still enjoyed today. One of my co-workers is on a board that plans a bi-annual event called Laurapaloosa, so her reach is still being felt! I hope that you continue to seek out and tell women’s stories….The General’s Women is in my listening stack on Audible. With gratitude,

  7. I read and enjoyed your book, A Wilder Rose, but I felt the PBS show adequately covered Rose’s extensive contribution to the Little House series. The program admitted the Little House books probably wouldn’t exist without Rose and that Laura was a good writer who could not structure her stories. Some of the arguments between them were justly won by Laura, for example including Mary’s blindness. Rose had a very interesting life and I agree with you that we need more on her. She deserves her own PBS documentary.

    • If Rose’s birth was mentioned,Judy, I missed it. Her career as a newspaper writer was dismissed as inconsequential, even disparaged. Her magazine work was barely mentioned. Her credentials as a widely-read author were not established, which diminshes the significance of her contribution. And her work on Farmer Boy (she saved that book from rejection) wasn’t represented accurately. And there’s lots more that could have been at least mentioned, so that we know the show’s producers have done their research. That’s my view, after months of work with Rose’s diary/work log, her mother’s drafts, and Rose’s other writings.

  8. I look forward to your emails always. You have drawn me into each and every story you write. Thank you for having a conversation with all of us and letting us communicate to you. God bless you and please keep writing.

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