For me, biographical fiction—novels built on the lives and times of real people—is the most interesting and challenging of all fictional genres. I read all I can find, from Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck to Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife to the superb Watergate: A Novel, by Thomas Mallon, and many more. And over the decades I’ve been writing fiction, a great many of my books have involved real people. Each of the Robin Paige mysteries that Bill and I wrote together is based on someone who lived during the Victorian/Edwardian period (Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Lily Langtry, more). The eight Cottage Tales are based on eight years in the life of Beatrix Potter. I’ve also written about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok and about Kay Summersby and her general, Dwight Eisenhower. A Wilder Rose tells the true story of Rose Wilder Lane and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and their collaboration on the Little House books.
In the earlier posts in this series, I told you how I became interested in Rose’s life and how I began doing the research—creating a timeline of her life, reading as much of her work as I could find, visiting the farm where she lived when she and Laura were working on the first three books, and—happily, in 1993, reading William Holtz’s outstanding biography, A Ghost in the Little House. That book, which Holtz had spent nearly a decade researching, introduced me to the rich treasury of primary sources in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, where Roger MacBride, Rose’s literary executor, had deposited her work. McBride chose that site because Rose wrote the earliest (1919) biography of President Hoover.
I first visited the library to work on Rose’s papers in 1993. I knew exactly what I wanted: the diary Rose kept during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. It turned out to be a bound Line-A-Day five-year diary, and Rose had been diligent about keeping a record of her work. An archivist photocopied the diary and letters I requested. Over the coming years, I obtained additional photocopies, thanks to the help and support of the library’s archivists.
Reading Rose’s diary closely, I could begin to see the amount of work she put into her mother’s books. But it was only after I transcribed all 83,000 words of it (!) into a searchable computer file that I could begin understood how Rose lived and worked at Rocky Ridge Farm during the difficult days of the Depression. Many of her entries were urgent, even desperate, and I began to get a sense of her constant worry about making enough money to support two households (her own and her parents’); the need to sandwich her rewrites of Laura’s manuscripts into an already full writing schedule; her challenging relationship with her friend Troub (Helen Boylston); the debilitating summertime heat and the winter ice storms that left both Rocky Ridge and the Rock House without electricity for days at a stretch; the depressing economic and political news; the health concerns, her own and her mother’s; and the continuous stream of guests and visitors. Even more, I gained a sense of her vexed relationship with her mother–and the difficulties that created it, on both sides.
When I sat down to write the novel, it was Rose’s diary that was my guide and constant companion. I used it to create the story’s timeline and anchoring themes, establish the characters, develop Rose’s voice, show the family relationships, and solve (at least to my own satisfaction) the long-kept mystery of Rose’s participation in the writing of the Little House books.
In 1935, Rose was finally able to escape from the farm and her diary-keeping became more spasmodic. After that time, she and her mother corresponded frequently, so their letters during this period (1936-1939) were also useful to me, especially those that were written about their collaboration on On the Banks of Plum Creek and On the Shores of Silver Lake. From the letters, it became clear that they had come up with a way of working together through the mails. Laura would send her draft manuscript (those yellow tablets) to Rose. Rose would send a letter asking for additional information or suggesting a different way of approaching the work. Laura would respond, sometimes argumentatively, sometimes apologetically, sometimes with additional details (clothing, landscape, theme). Rose would rewrite the entire thing, using Laura’s manuscript as the starting point and incorporating some of Laura’s responses and additional material. When she was finished, she typed a clean copy and sent it to her mother, who then forwarded it (without changes or corrections) to Rose’s (and now Laura’s) literary agent, George Bye. Rose would also send a cover letter addressed to Bye that Laura recopied in her own hand. Bye would forward Rose’s typescript to the Harper editor—under Laura’s name. Rose’s polished, publishable text led Ursula Nordstrom, a Harper editor, to remark, “None of the manuscripts ever needed any editing. Not any. They were read and then copy-edited and sent to the printer” (quoted in Rosa Ann Moore, “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Orange Notebooks and the Art of the Little House Books,” p. 118).
My understanding of the compositional process was strengthened by my comparison of Laura’s manuscripts of Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek (held by the State Historical Society of Missouri) to the published versions. When you place Laura’s manuscript next to Rose’s published rewrite (which was untouched by their Harper editors), the differences are immediately and easily apparent.
What led them to conceal Rose’s part in this decade-long process and beyond? The complicated reasons have their root in a troubled mother-daughter relationship, the Wilder’s desperate need for money, and the challenges of publishing fiction during the era of the Great Depression. For a full answer to that question, you’ll just have to read A Wilder Rose.
All this background work took quite a few years—in the cracks and crannies of my other writing work (the mysteries you’ve been reading). I began the actual writing in 2011 (as a narrative nonfiction), decided to rework the book as a novel and did rewrites in 2012 and 2013. I published the book under my imprint (Persevero Press) and then sold second edition rights to Lake Union Publishing. The book was optioned for film/television in 2015 and currently remains under option.
In recent years, the myth of Laura-as-sole-author-and-untaught-literary-genius has been (mostly) dispelled, replaced by a grudging acknowledgement that well, yes, after all, it seems that her daughter might have done some editing of the books. I’m glad to see that this much progress has been made. But I’m waiting for the time when Rose’s essential, indispensable role in the planning, the writing, the marketing, and the publishing of the Little House books is fully acknowledged.
Your comments are always welcome.