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 Parts Two and Three over the next few days. I’ll look forward to your comments.
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.