In 1928, Rose Wilder Lane—world traveler, journalist, highly-paid magazine writer—returned from an Albanian sojourn to her parents’ Ozark farm. Almanzo Wilder was 71 and Laura 61, and Rose felt obligated to stay and help. Then came the Crash. Rose’s investments vanished and the magazine market dried up. That’s when Laura wrote “Pioneer Girl,” her story of growing up in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, on the Kansas prairie, and by the shores of Silver Lake. The rest is literary history. But it isn’t the history we thought we knew. Based on the unpublished diaries of Rose Wilder Lane and other documentary evidence, A Wilder Rose tells the surprising true story of the often strained collaboration that produced the Little House books—a collaboration that Rose and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, concealed from their agent, editors, reviewers, and readers. Acclaimed author Susan Wittig Albert follows the clues that take us straight to the heart of this fascinating literary mystery.
I have extremely complicated thoughts about this book. I am a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, which then led me to a lifetime of research into Laura the person. I knew the basics about Rose – more than the average LIW fan, but still not a lot – and so I was very curious to read this book. However, knowing that she not only agreed with William Holz’s biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, but used it in her research, made me more than a little wary.
For those who don’t know, Holz’s book puts forward the theory that Rose was really the author of the Little House books, or at the very least a co-author. The book caused a huge uproar among LIW fans, for obvious reasons. I still don’t know what I think, and someday I hope to have a chance to examine Laura’s original manuscripts, or at least copies of them, to get a feel for what really went on.
But back to A Wilder Rose: first off, as I started reading, I didn’t want to stop. As much as it upset me to read a lot of it, it was also fascinating to learn more about Rose. But reading about her relationship with Laura – which was undoubtedly complicated, at best – was incredibly painful for me. Rose was the only child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder to live past infancy, and her parents – moreso her mother – had a very hard time letting go of her. Yet in some ways, Rose and Laura were almost too much alike, only Rose got the freedom and unconventional life that Laura had imagined for herself.
About 2/3 of the way through the book I sort of lost momentum. It seemed to be just repeating the same ideas over and over again: Rose was stuck living at Rocky Ridge, feeling the pressure to look after everyone, even as she took on responsibility for more and more people. She thought that the royalties from Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, and Little House on the Prairie (LIW’s contract was originally for three books) would allow her parents to support themselves without financial dependence on her, but she didn’t expect there to be eight books that she would spend months rewriting. The theme of Rose’s “prison” became very dragging on the book, and I just wanted to tell her to get over herself! Either help or not, but shut up about it! I probably should have been feeling sympathy, but I just got tired of her excuses for why she couldn’t possibly change her situation.
I also wish that it had felt a little less like: “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” Despite the interludes where 53-year-old Rose talks about the past decade of her life with a young writer friend (which I actually found distracting) eventually the litany of depression (granted, it takes place during the Great Depression) becomes almost suffocating. She talks about loving John Turner (one of her informally “adopted” sons) but as a reader, I never really saw WHY she did, and I wasn’t really sure I saw the expression of that love, either.
In fact many of the characters in the book seem to be underdeveloped. Outside of Rose and Laura, you rarely get a sense of the other characters. We don’t understand what they saw in Rose, or what Rose saw in them. One example is Rose’s friend “Troub” (AKA Helen Boylston): the author hints at a romantic relationship between the two, but I wish it had been stated conclusively one way or the other. As it is written, it just felt like the author didn’t want to make a decision one way or the other.
However, overall, I’d recommend this book to those interested in Laura and Rose. While I can’t say it is historical fact (the reader has to keep in mind that it is a novel, although I wish that she’d taken a cue from Rose herself and allowed herself more literary freedom to shape the story) it is factual enough to be interesting, and to make me want to explore more about Rose.
Rating: 3/5 stars
I received a copy of this book as an ARC from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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