Book Review: A Wilder Rose

A Wilder Rose

Susan Wittig Albert wrote the book A Wilder Rose. Albert said of the book, “While the story itself is true, A Wilder Rose is a novel. With the diaries, journals, and letters as my guide, I have taken my own imaginative journey through the real events of the creative collaboration that produced the Little House series.”

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Review of the Book

South Dakota author Linda Hasselstrom provides an in-depth review of the book at Story Circle Book Reviews. Hasselstrom’s review is reprinted below:

If you loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books about her pioneer childhood, you should read A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert.

If you are reluctant to believe that Laura’s daughter Rose may have written the books, you must read this novel.

When I was rescued from my existence as the daughter of a divorcee because my mother had married a rancher in western South Dakota, Laura Ingalls Wilder became my guide, my sister and my best friend. I was nine years old when we moved to the ranch and I entered the small-town grade school, a society of rural kids who had known each other since birth and didn’t care for “city kids.” My happiest moments began when the teacher who wrangled five grades in the “lower room” read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her “Little House on the Prairie.”

Suddenly I could imagine myself living happily ever after among the neighborhood ranching and farming families. My parents made my childhood as educational as possible by buying a cow for me to milk and filling the chicken house with egg-laying hens. At home as at school, we spoke of Laura’s family as if they were neighbors, as indeed they had been on the Dakota prairie a couple of hundred miles east of our home.

With my degree in American Literature, I was teaching and writing professionally before I met scholars of prairie literature who raised doubts that Laura had written her books alone. Some said that Laura’s daughter Rose, a best-selling author in the 1920s and 30s, was deeply involved with creation of the books. Various scholars examined the abundant evidence—Laura’s other writings, Rose’s writings, their letters to each other—and concluded that Rose had edited Laura’s work extensively, had rewritten it, or perhaps had written it in the first place.

These opinions met considerable resistance. Neither editors nor readers wanted to believe anything that alters our nostalgic image of the housewife seated at her well-scrubbed kitchen table writing masterpieces with pencil in a yellow tablet after gathering eggs and before starting supper on the wood stove.

A Wilder Rose features Rose Wilder Lane telling her story to a writer friend, Norma Lee Browning, allowing Rose to speak for herself. Rose’s words are drawn directly from her letters and diaries. Each element of the novel is founded upon the historical record, including the writings of Laura, Rose, and various writers and editors who shared their lives.

Rose was a successful journalist, magazine writer and world traveler, author of Henry Ford’s Own Story (1917), Diverging Roads (1919), The Making of Herbert Hoover (1920), and The Peaks of Shala (1923) among other books. In 1928, at her mother’s request, she moved from Albania to her parents’ Missouri farm to help the aging couple. She built them a new home and turned the old farm house into a writers’ retreat, often filled with friends from all over the world. Rose’s magazine writing paid the bills for both households—until the stock market crash of 1929. Suddenly writers could hardly find sales in the formerly lucrative magazine market and both Rose and her parents were nearly destitute.

Then Laura wrote an autobiography she called “Pioneer Girl,” more than 300 tablet pages she intended as a book for adult readers. Naturally, she brought the manuscript to her daughter, assuming Rose’s professional connections would ease publication.

Rose was an experienced and well-paid ghost-writer for, among others, Lowell Thomas, a world traveler and broadcaster. Had she known she was going to ghost-write eight novels for her mother, she might have created her usual contract to do so.

Instead, she spent several months creating a coherent story from her mother’s manuscript. Editing and revising, she drew more memories from her mother, but Albert indicates that, so far as is shown by the available documents, Laura never saw the first five chapters of the book. When the editor asked for 25,000 additional words, Rose rewrote the entire book, drawing on Laura’s written vignettes to create additional scenes. Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, bearing the name of Laura as author. Meanwhile, Rose wrote Let the Hurricane Roar, a novel also based on her family history, published in 1933. She continued to write and publish her own work throughout the time she worked with her mother’s writing. From Laura’s initial outpouring came the material from which Rose produced subsequent books.

The character Rose, speaking to her friend Norma, considers how this deception evolved. “Would I have felt differently if I had known that this book was only the first of an eight-book series? Would I have asked for recognition and a share of the royalties if I had known that each book would take two or three months away from my writing projects and sap whatever meager store of energy I might have for my own work? Perhaps.”

Because the author draws on Rose’s own words throughout the novel, the conclusion is inescapable.

Susan Wittig Albert’s introductory note to A Wilder Rose clarifies her position on the writing relationship between Laura and Rose:

“I have treated the real people as fictional characters and the real events as fictional events. I have chosen some storylines to expand and dramatize and omitted others. I have put words into people’s mouths and listened in on their internal dialogue. I have invented incidents and imagined settings. In all this, I am exactly as true to the real events, settings, and people of A Wilder Rose as Rose and Laura were to the real events, settings, and people of the Ingalls family’s pioneer wanderings across the American plains. The books they wrote are fictional representations of Laura’s life as a child growing into young womanhood.”

Therefore, the novel’s central question becomes: how will each reader react to realizing that our concept of Laura writing her novels alone is impossible? How will readers who have loved Laura’s stories accept that these two admirable women told lies of commission as well as omission? What justification might exist for the fiction they maintained all their lives?

Albert’s novel is so moving and so convincing in part because her development of the characters of Laura and Rose echoes details true to the character of the prairie people where I grew up and where I live today.

Our relationships with our parents are complex and convoluted. Rose was burdened because, she wrote, she had burned the house down. Her story was that while her mother was ill after the birth and death of Rose’s baby brother, Rose stuffed too much hay into the wood stove and caused a destructive fire. If the story was true, Rose, little more than a baby herself, was already doing the hard work necessary for a prairie life. She knew that actions have consequences and we have to live with them.

I can identify with Rose’s guilt. Growing up on the prairie with parents much like hers, I learned the same lessons early. Even accidents have repercussions and a responsible person acknowledges them and accepts blame if necessary. Guilt is a burden that moves many of us in many directions today, and Rose thrived on it through much of her life. Could she have assumed responsibility for that fire to avert blame from her mother? We will probably never know, but the idea is not impossible.

Rose wonders if her mother thought “that affection somehow ‘spoiled’ a child. That life was real, life was earnest, and too much coddling insulated us from that essential truth, which would shortly be visited upon us by cruel experience.” Similarly, my father often quoted the “life is real” saying while my mother frequently assured me that it was her job to make sure I was not spoiled so I’d be ready for the horrors of real life.

Laura deplored fiction, including the best-selling novels her daughter wrote, but she insisted that her own writing was the truth. Even though I have always written nonfiction, my mother, until she died at 92, never stopped urging me to “get a real job.”

As Rose ponders her mother’s disregard for the life of a professional writer, she wonders, “Do any of us ever outgrow those old childhood hurts, or do they grow and fester in our spirits the whole length of our lives?”

The question might apply to any of us; as Albert has remarked, “the family censor sits on our shoulders, editing our pasts.” I could believe that Rose was so anxious to create a better relationship with her mother that the deception became immaterial. When I found myself publishing a book that contained truths I knew my mother could not accept, I presented her with her own special manuscript copy—from which I had removed anything that would disturb her rosy view of our lives. She loved showing her personal copy to nursing home visitors. “My daughter wrote this,” she would say.

Perhaps as Rose took the written drafts and rewrote them, her mother became immersed in planning the next book. When Rose brought or sent Laura the finished drafts, she might simply have mailed them. Perhaps she convinced herself that the published version was what she had written. Even when my co-editors and I heavily edited manuscripts for our three anthologies of autobiographical writing by Western women (Leaning into the WindWoven on the Wind andCrazy Woman Creek), novice writers often told us how pleased they were that we had not changed their words!

And what about some of the editors who had seen Laura’s writing before Rose worked it over? Did they suspect the truth? Perhaps they ignored their suspicious, afraid to lose such popular books.

Still, the Rose of the novel believes that her mother is deeply uneasy. “That was her mother’s way; the more troubled she was about something, the less likely she was to say anything about it to anyone.” Precisely so do the people in my Dakota neighborhood behave today: the more unpleasant the topic, the less likely they are to talk about it. Rose and Laura never discussed their collaboration in public. Likely they never discussed it in private.

I’ve met many writers like Laura, people who enjoy writing as a pastime but cannot take it seriously as a profession. Laura says to her daughter in A Wilder Rose “The more I see of the hours you have to put in, the better satisfied I am to raise chickens… I could never let myself be driven the way you are, Rose.” Albert says the statement is almost a direct quote from a letter Laura wrote to her husband Almanzo from San Francisco in 1915, when she was visiting Rose.

Casual writers are not driven, but real writers must write and they may not be patient with anyone less serious about writing. Wanting to help her mother make an income as Almanzo aged and the farm income dwindled, Rose could have done the familiar work of editing and rewriting as a labor of love or duty without considering the job any different than dozens of others. However, in working for her mother, she didn’t get the payment she so desperately needed.

What would you have done? Or perhaps more directly—since I am a writer whose mother wrote journals and poetry when she was young—what would I have done if my mother had brought me a manuscript to edit for publication?

I would have been flattered; I’d have worked hard to make it publishable. And because she was my mother, I would never have asked credit or payment, assuming that she would treat me fairly.

Albert presents another justification for Rose’s work with her mother’s memories, one I find particularly attractive. Rose’s childhood was lonely and poverty-stricken. Writing her mother’s pioneer childhood as beautiful, abundant and generous might have been a way for Rose to do several things at once. Perhaps she wanted to imagine her parents’ lives as more satisfying; perhaps she wanted to erase her mother’s hardships by writing stories that made it brighter. The novels invent for Rose a mother who loved her as well as provided generously for her well-being. Did she create a happier childhood for herself, as well as for her mother? Did she enjoy creating a marriage partnership unlike her unsatisfactory union?

Every writing is a new challenge, one of the factors that keeps us working at the profession. Rose thinks that “from the day she’d begun professional writing—almost thirty years now—she had always felt that way. Whatever else she was writing—it just wasn’t good enough. It didn’t meet her expectations of what it should have, could have been.” Moreover, she felt each piece of writing completed was her last, that she’d never be able to find another worthy idea. I know no serious writer, including me, who hasn’t wondered the same.

Moreover, many successful writers have had a fallback profession like teaching or selling insurance. Rose was writing furiously in the deepest darkness of the Depression of the 1930s, trying to survive on almost nothing while she helped her aging parents make enough money to live on. She had no insurance against failure, no spouse to support her. So she wrote constantly for money—magazine articles, novels, nonfiction works—anything to create an income.

Albert’s scholarship has convinced me; the novel’s structure allows the reader to understand and empathize with the way Rose was drawn into a collaboration that became a deception. Despite Rose’s fame, she never received credit or financial benefit for the books. Laura got the pride of authorship; Laura got the royalties.

More importantly, Rose convinced me.

I don’t care who wrote the books. Laura’s voice, as Rose interpreted or created it, is still that of my guide and friend. Perhaps Laura’s daughter made the storyteller a better person, helping her say what she could not express herself.

I was also delighted to learn what a very good writer Rose Wilder Lane was; she has much to say to our current political situation. Since her own writings were so much different than those of her mother, she proved her writing skill by creating the voice of the kindly storyteller for her mother’s stories. Few writers are so skilled. Her benevolence created books loved by millions.

Interviewer Lynn Goodwin asked Susan Wittig Albert what advice Rose and Laura might give to aspiring writers. The differences, as Albert sees them, are intriguing.

Rose, says Albert, might say “Write, write write… And be sure to keep a day-to-day diary of your various writing projects… to satisfy the curiosity of the researchers who may come along and want to know what you were doing on a particular day.” Such a diary became part of the background for this book.

And Laura? She’d say, “Tell the story you have to tell, as well as you can tell it… And… it’s very good to have a daughter who is a professional writer.”

Need some summer reading?

If you are interested in reading the book for yourself, you can purchase a copy from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society gift shop.

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20 comments on “Book Review: A Wilder Rose

  1. Melanie S. says:

    Wow. The reviewer conveniently ignores…or perhaps is entirely unaware of…several well-documented facts, such as Laura’s writing career beginning with her first Missouri Ruralist column, published on 18 February 1911. Laura “deplored fiction?” Says who? How does she explain Laura’s love for Zane Gray and other western novelists? And it is very convenient to rely upon Rose’s diaries as a sole source of “facts,” but that is very problematic. Laura was earning an income from her writing for more than 20 years before Little House in the Big Woods was published. Anyone who has studied the reams of extant evidence knows that most of the correspondence and journals which remain are Rose’s, not Laura’s, so we get very little of Laura’s side of the entire collaborative process. However, we DO have long passages of manuscript in Laura’s handwriting which are virtually unchanged in the published versions of the novels. And we know that mother and daughter discussed and even ARGUED about plot points and the direction of the stories. We also know that Laura did research; she wrote to historical societies in Kansas and Oklahoma, she asked her sisters and their Aunt Martha about details which she could not be certain she recalled correctly. There is no doubt that the two collaborated. But if Rose was truly a ghost writer of all the books, someone will have to produce better evidence than has been discovered so far. I am not convinced. And, not for nothing, as much as I sympathize with Rose, she always struck me as a bitter and unforgiving soul who never really grew up and always needed to place blame for things which were beyond everyone’s control…such as her impoverished childhood. Yet, not for one moment does she ever seem to have her parents share the blame. Rather, she places blame squarely on her mother’s shoulders. That just doesn’t sit well. I don’t think either parent could do much but keep trying; they faced extremely difficult situations for years. Yet Rose only blames Mama Bess, never her Papa. Hmmmm.

  2. and was all this discovered after Rose Wilder’s death?

  3. Melanie S. says:

    Reblogged this on Just As I Am…Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder and commented:
    Sometimes, I just can’t resist commenting. And as far as I am concerned, it is just as dangerous to assume that a novel is to be relied upon as fact as it is to assume that one person’s private journals and correspondence are not somehow biased. My comments below are geared toward the reviewer, NOT toward the author of the recent novel, A Wilder Rose. I am in full support of everyone coming to their own conclusions; however, I feel it is imperative to point out logical fallacies and lack of substantive evidence when appropriate. I don’t think there is any way to ever know with 100% certainty exactly what happened in the collaborative process between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. But leaving out facts to make an argument only serves to undermine that argument.

    • susanwalbert says:

      Melanie, for the facts on which my fiction is based, you might read the Reader’s Companion to A WILDER ROSE, available as a Kindle book.

      Re: those handwritten manuscripts of the later books. Did you know that Rose advised Laura to COPY the print books? She was trying to get her mother to develop a sense of the way Rose herself had added details to paragraphs, incorporated dialogue into narrative, and fleshed the raw materials of the drafts into publishable fiction. There’s no way to tell for sure, of course, but it seems to me that those later yellow tablets could very well be the product of Laura’s following Rose’s instructions.

      • Melanie S. says:

        Susan, my point here is that we will never have the entire story of the process between LIW and RWL. And, I am always concerned at the number of times I see /hear fans confusing fact and fiction, or insisting that what is written (whether in published novels, unpublished manuscripts, or private journals and correspondence) is absolutely true. Every person wants to present themselves in a particular way depending upon the intended audience. Correspondence between friends is just as likely to have misrepresentations as is a carefully-edited manuscript or even a private journal. People believe their own truths. Laura didn’t leave much behind…that we know of. But it is quite possible that either she, or Rose, destroyed other correspondence, manuscripts, diaries, etc. it is also possible that someone long deceased but who had access to Laura’s belongings may have done so, as well. The publisher may have intentionally “lost” some or all of the “evidence” which would settle the question once and for all. But, I am of the opinion that if Rose really did all the work, why did she disparage it so? And, furthermore, why is so much of the work published with her own name so dry and stunted? The dialogue in Free Land and several other of her works simply doesn’t flow as real conversation, and I struggled to get through the tedium of her longer-form work. Even Home Over Saturday is just a strange reworking of family strories, and doesn’t ring true. While the style is typical of many early-20th century American writers, the “juveniles,” no matter who wrote and or edited them, are much more palatable. And I’m saying this as an avid reader of academic publications. I’m used to a slower pace and difficult language, so it can’t just be that the novels are a quick read.
        Please don’t misunderstand me, Susan. I’m really not criticizing your work. But I do criticize readers and reviewers who continuously conflate the storyline of the books with history, and those who cannot accept the possibility that we may never know what actually happened in the process of creating the Little House Books.
        I am open to any and ALL evidence. I’m always curious to know the rest of the story when it comes to any of my interests!

  4. Linda Carr says:

    I have not read the book the reviewer is speaking of, although I am curious enough to do so. It doesn’t matter to me who wrote the Little House books. They are still good books. If, IF, Rose were the actual author and if, IF, Laura just pretended to be, what of it? But if the stories were told by Laura, and Rose just happened to be the one to put it on paper, then they are still Laura’s stories, not Rose’s. Much like when a secretary writes a letter for their boss, it’s still the bosses letter. Maybe there are some aspects of the relationship between Laura and Rose that is none of our business. Every family has its own way of ‘getting along’. I will always enjoy the Little House books. I can ‘read between the lines’. There was more to their real life than what is depicted in the stories (as would be true for all of us).But I will always believe that love was behind it all.

    • Melanie S. says:

      Linda, I feel much the same as you do. Coming from a long line of people who feel the need to keep the skeletons in the closet, as it were, I allow for the possibility that we don’t have all the evidence and may never know the truth. I also am more concerned with the overall implications of the stories and how they shape a modern reader’s perception of American culture and history. Too many people rely upon them as fact, when they are, indeed, fiction. As to who really wrote them? Well, does it really matter?

  5. Audrey says:

    Melanie is right. The book by Albert is filled with inferences and flaws. She seems to be out to give Rose credit and to slight Laura. However she does not totally tell the truth about Rose. You see Rose according to many people who knew her and passed down the stories in Mansfield; didn’t like her. Rose was ashamed of her family until the name was famous on the heels of her mother’s books. Yes Rose probably proof read the books, and yes Laura cetainly removed any of life’s true bitterness from the stories and added alot of sugar, no doubt about that but after all she was writing for children, and it would not have been appropriate during that era to air the dirty laundry of your family; which is understandable from Laura’s poing of view. I would not buy the book referenced in this article because Albert sets out to prove Laura was to simple, isolated, and not world wise enough to write the LH books, and they must have been written by Rose because Rose could write, that is very presumptious of Albert. I don’t believe it at all. I too have researched them, and not to destroy any images but Rose was a cruel person in many respects and selfish. She eventually became jealous of her mother which is apparent in many of her diary’s too. She came back from travelling long enough to kick her parents out of their custom built by themselves house and put them up in the Rock House that she had constructed for them; however if you read much of what is available per research the Wilder’s were not happy with that, the minute she left with her girlfriend again, they hurriedly moved back in. Yes I said girlfriend and I only bring that up because I think the ghost was actually the truth that lived in Rose, she was gay. She was gay during a time when she was not going to be able to be that in public, and I think it make her hard and cruel. She was also snooty and very radical in terms of politics, and if you ask me she plagarized her mother in “Let The Hurricanes Roar”. It is obviously stolen from Laura’s ideas yet even though it is intended for a different audience it does not have any of the charm or detailed writing of Laura’s books, because Rose did not write Laura’s books, if she had she would have taken credit that is the way she was built. She was not a giving, kind person as Mcbride would have you believe after all he greatly benefited by befriending Rose. There is many Mansfield people who have retold the stories passed down to them about Rose and her treatment of her mother. Read some of the forward’s and letters contained in “West From Home”, and “On the Way Home” she is not always kind to her mother, read between the lines. I do not know why people continue to credit Rose who was of questionable behavior and I dont mean about her being gay, she was a rude, sullen, cruel woman who could not get out of her mother’s shadow and she hated that. Laura wrote for many years and was published before she wrote the LH books and beleive me if you read some of her articles from the Ruralist you will see that her writing is very akin to the LH style of writing, Rose’s is not even when she is trying to mimic it. Many people questioned Rose’s books and the fact that she was pretty cruel to some of the people of Mansfield in the book “Old Home Town” this was not the composite typke character he mother used with Nellie, Rose seemingly gets even with people in her books. Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a smart and multifaceted woman and she wrote the books, and she put up with her on again off again mixed up daughter. If anything Rose bled off of Laura not the other way around. Do not buy this referenced book by Albert it is just not truthfully or thoughtfully written.

    • You’ve brought up some interesting points. I too have often wondered if in fact Rose was gay, it would have been something that would definitely have been kept hidden. But Rose, in her own writings and other things, was surrounded only by women and there’s not a whole lot that I have found that even mentions her husband.

  6. Audrey says:

    Rose Wilder proofread her mother’s books she would have loved that she was given credit for them though given her personality or lack there of. When Rose tried to copy her mother’s writings by penning “Let the Hurricane’s Roar” she failed miserably. If she wrote the books or even mostly wrote them why is there not more of Rose’s style in them? Rose was a bitter, bitter woman. Who not only spread untruths and resentment about her mother but was so convinced that she was wronged that she herself beleived her lies. She was not a good person. There is enough research and evidence to indicate that and that she was jealous of her mother’s success, which Rose lived long enough to see that her modest successes could not compete. There was no ghost in the LH books, just a bitter woman who could not live up to the wonderful achievements of her mother both in life and in literary works.

  7. when reading all of laura ingalls wilder books i also think rose was a lesbian, the new house was described as two joining bedrooms for rose and her nurse friend,who lived with them. in those days being anything other than straight, know one would ever except it. it was written well!

    • audey says:

      My biggest annoyance with books like this and it is certainly not the first nor will it be the last; is that some people simply cannot believe that Laura could have done the LH books on her own and I think that is false. Laura’s true self leaks out in all of her writing and she was a strong strong and highly intelligent woman look where she came from, what she lived through and what she accomplished in many venues not simply writing. I think Rose probably advised Laura but I also think Laura was her own person and took the advice she wanted and ignored the rest!

  8. Lisa Wells says:

    I am enjoying reading every post and article here. I have no one else to share my love of all that is Laura. Thank you!

  9. Julia says:

    Finally someone said what I had thought of for years. Might be why she was so unhappy. Had to keep her lifestyle hush , hush. Might be Laura disapproved, said so, and that caused the friction. Almanzo, probably said nothing and escaped the wrath.

  10. Bonnie says:

    Just some late thoughts to ponder. Free Land & Young Pioneers could they have been something Rose wanted to prove, that Pioneer Girl material could have been successfully published for adults to read? If so she was successful in that area. She made big $$$$ on those two books. The depression era was a time of lack of money, employment, could that have driven her to use the Pioneer Girl material. None of us have ever lived through the depression era & off the fat of the land like we do now. Rose wrote somewhere she heard voices but then as she got older those voices left. I would say she was mentally ill & used her diaries to express how she felt & it helped her deal with the ups & downs in her life. She had boy friends too, lots of them. If she was gay who cares? I think there are still a lot of ghosts in the LH closet waiting to come out.

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