Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Wilder Rose: review, giveway, author interview!

A Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert, is a fictional take on Rose Wilder Lane and her relationship with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Recent scholarship shows that Rose was very involved in the creation of the Little House books—she did more than copy edit her mother’s drafts, she extensively rewrote them, shaped them, and helped her mother fictionalize her own life.  Most scholars agree that without Rose’s work on the books, they would never have been published much less become the icons they are today.

A Wilder Rose was a fascinating look at not only the process involved in bringing a work to publication, but also provided an interesting perspective on the time in which the books were written.   I really enjoyed getting to know Rose better—she was definitely a remarkable woman.  A skilled writer, a traveler, an adventurer, she also is admirable in that she strove to do her duty regardless of how much she wanted to shirk it.  She felt a very honest love but a deep frustration with her complex and complicated mother.  She took her work seriously, and in this I found her a kindred spirit.  

A Wilder Rose is not for the faint of heart.  If you are a bonnet-wearing, Laura devotee who doesn’t want to know the rest of the story, then this is not the book for you.  Laura comes off as narrow-minded, priggish, and naïve.  Rose can be patronizing, dismissive, and flighty.  However, the book feels real to me.  I know that Albert did her homework and based her fictionalized scenes on Rose’s letters and journals, and I’m at the point in my own life where I do want to know “the rest of the story.”

In reading this novel, I finally came to appreciate the craft that went into creating the Little House books, books that shaped me and generations of American children over the past century.  Just as Mark Twain means Samuel Clemens, and George Eliot means Maryann Evans, for me Laura Ingalls Wilder now means Mrs. Wilder and her talented daughter, Rose.

The author has generously offered a giveaway (signed no less!) for my North American readers.  If you would like to be entered in a drawing for this giveaway, leave a comment and include your email address so I know to include you.  Entries accepted until 9 pm MT on Thursday, September 12.  Additional entries can be obtained by tweeting about this blog post--just let me know that you've tweeted.

In reading A Wilder Rose, I had a number of questions, which I posed to the author, who has graciously answered them.  So, for your reading pleasure, here is my interview with Susan Wittig Albert about A Wilder Rose.  BTW, you can also visit her website for more info about the book.

 Jane: I came away knowing a lot more about Rose and understanding her motivations, aspirations, demons, and talents.  Not so with regards to Laura.  She still is a mystery to me.  In writing  A Wilder Rose, you stuck to the facts—Rose’s diaries, journals, and letters.  Would you consider writing a novel from Laura’s point-of-view, knowing that you would have to invent a voice and motivation for her without the benefit of source material to back you up? 

Susan: Laura is still a mystery to me, too, even though I know a great deal about how Rose saw her. In Rose’s diaries, journals, and letters, she is a powerful and ambiguous figure: resourceful, hard-working, courageous, even daring—but parochial, predictable, conventional, even narrow-minded. Troub (Helen Boylston, Rose’s friend) saw her as bossy, even dictatorial, and quick-tempered; some of her neighbors viewed her as “wearing the pants in the family.” In Mansfield, she was seen as “aloof” and “reserved.” No one describes her as “warm” or “affectionate.” But there are no documents that reveal her inner life, and we can only see her from the outside, as others saw her, which (in my view, anyway) makes her problematic as a character in historical fiction.

Even so, I might be willing to tackle her—that is to create a voice for her, motivations, fears, desires, an inner life—if we were talking about anyone else but Laura Ingalls Wilder. She is already an iconic figure, and many readers think they know her, based on their understanding of the fictional child Laura and their projection of that image onto the adult woman. 

Jane: Why did you end the story with the writing of On the Shores of Silver Lake?  In your epilogue, you mention that it seems that by this point Laura was resigned to the need for Rose’s help.  Does this mean that you felt that the last three books were mostly Rose-written, or that they followed the pattern of first, rough draft by Laura followed by extensive rewriting and shaping by Rose?

Susan: I began and ended the frame narrative (Rose telling her story to Norma Lee Browning) in early April, 1939, at the time when Rose is completing Silver Lake. I did this in part because there is no documentation of the collaboration after that book. That is, there are no letters that tell us how the remaining three books were written. Still, I don’t have any reason to believe that Rose and her mother changed their practice: Laura producing the first drafts and Rose rewriting them. Bill Holtz, Rose’s biographer, says that manuscript of The Long Winter (Book 6) shows “mammoth and defining evidence” of Rose’s rewriting. I think it’s likely that the remaining two books followed the same pattern.

I also chose 1939 as the time for the frame narrative because of the shift in the focus of Rose’s writing at that time. After Free Land (1938), she wrote no more fiction under her own name. She  wrote a number of articles from an isolationist viewpoint, arguing against American involvement in the European war. She would soon (December, 1941, right after Pearl Harbor) begin writing The Discovery of Freedom. It was a pivotal time in her development as a political philosopher, which would be her work for the rest of her life.

Jane: How did Almanzo feel about Laura taking sole authorship of the Little House series, when clearly he would have known how big a part Rose played in their creation?

Susan: I doubt that Almanzo had much idea of what was going on as far as the writing of the books was concerned. Farmer Boy was the only one of the Little House books that Almanzo participated in, by answering Laura’s questions about life on the Wilder farm in upper New York State. He also knew that Rose visited the farm to do some on-site research. Other than that, there’s no evidence that Almanzo was aware of the extent of Rose’s rewrites, and no reason to believe that Laura would have told him anything about it, other than Rose’s typing of the manuscript. We need to remember that Rose and Laura were living apart during all this time. The first three books were written while Rose lived in the farmhouse and Laura and Almanzo lived in the Rock House. Rose revised Plum Creek when she was living in Columbia, MO, and the remaining three books while she was living in New York. Nobody, let alone her father, was looking over her shoulder. 

Jane: How did Rose react to the awards received by her mother for the Little House books?  Was she present for any of the award ceremonies? 

Susan: The Newbery Awards were made in 1938 (Plum Creek), 1940 (Silver Lake), 1942 (Little Town), and 1944 (Years). But they weren't Honor Books then—they were “runners-up.” (In 1971 that term was changed to "honor books” and made retroactive, to include all previous books.) So far as I know, there was no ceremony for the runners-up; if there was, Laura didn’t attend the ALA meetings where that would have happened. 

The only major book event Laura ever attended was the Book Week Fair, held in Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit, October, 1937. She sent Rose a copy of the talk she gave; Rose replied “…It is fine. No wonder you made a great hit.” Rose was always her mother’s cheerleader. 

Jane: When did Garth Williams come on the scene, and did he work exclusively with Laura or also Rose in the creation of the iconic images most of us associate with the books? 

Susan: Harper planned a new edition of the books (which were originally illustrated by Helen Sewell) in 1947, and asked Garth Williams to do the illustrations. Williams began by meeting Laura at Rocky Ridge, then traveled to all the house sites he could locate. The plan envisioned eight oil paintings for each book, but that proved to be too expensive, so Williams produced drawings in pencil, charcoal, and ink. He did most of the work while he was living in Italy. He had no reason to meet with Rose; at that point, Laura was considered the sole author. 

By the way, I grew up with the Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle illustrations—that dates me, doesn’t it? I confess to loving them best of all, especially those wonderful dresses in Little Town on the Prairie. And oh how I wish I still had those first editions! 

Jane: Was Rose ultimately proud of the work she did on the Little House books, especially considering that the works that were attributed to her faded from public memory while the LH books live on from generation to generation? 

Susan: This is a complicated question, and I’d like to unpack it a bit. Rose never laid claim in public to her contributions to the books—for the same reason that she didn’t lay claim to the ghostwriting she did for Lowell Thomas. It would have been unprofessional. She worked behind the scenes; she kept her lip zipped. What’s more (as she told her adopted son, Rexh Meta), a writer of her reputation never accepted ghostwriting assignments—unless, of course, she was broke and had to pay the bills, on her own and her parents’ households. Or she wanted to help her mother. 

Now, about the disparity between Rose’s reputation and Laura’s. Rose worked hard to build up her mother’s reputation, and she was no doubt pleased when the books were well reviewed—and relieved when they sold well enough to support her parents, so she could stop sending them money. However, Rose died in 1968, before her legatee, Roger MacBride, arranged for the TV production of Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder became an icon.

Rose made her living first as a journalist, then as a magazine fiction writer. We call writing in those two fields “ephemeral” for a reason. It typically doesn’t stick around (or at least it didn't before the Internet). Rose was good enough to command high prices in a competitive market, but almost all of the magazine fiction writers of that era—even the best ones—have been forgotten. 

Rose’s novels, however, remain available to those who want to read them. Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) was reprinted in 1961, 1968, and 1985 and is currently in print. Free Land (1938) was reprinted in 1984 and is currently in print. The Discovery of Freedom (1942) was reprinted in 1972 and 1993. “Credo” (1936) has been reprinted several times as Give Me Liberty, as is considered an important document in libertarian political philosophy. 

It has to be said, however, that Rose’s reputation as a writer rests on her mother’s reputation as a writer, which Rose herself created. I hope you find that as delightfully ironic as I do.

Jane: Did Rose (and/or Laura) have a conscious political agenda when writing the LH books?  While their political stance was anti-FDR during the 1930’s, was the depiction of the Ingalls family as completely self-reliant and anti-government deliberate or unconscious? 

Susan: The books were written between 1930 (when Laura was working on “Pioneer Girl”) and 1942 (These Happy Golden Years). FDR was inaugurated in 1933 and began creating New Deal programs that Rose and her parents (and most rural Midwesterners) opposed. Some scholars have pointed out the political subtext in Little House on the Prairie (1935) and in Little Town on the Prairie (1941). Rose’s political stance is even clearer in her novel, Free Land, and of course in her political writing, beginning with “Credo” (1936). 

I don’t think there’s anything explicitly political in the depiction of the Ingalls family. It’s consistent with the way American pioneers and their descendants liked to think of themselves: as independent, self-reliant, self-made people who got along better in this world when government left them alone. As a cultural myth, this one is pervasive and persistent, going back to the Revolutionary War. The Depression and WW2 called that myth into question in a starkly challenging way, but there were many (including Rose and Laura) who continued to believe it and defend it. 

Jane: Did Laura’s sisters know of Rose’s involvement in Laura’s writing?  How did they react to Laura’s eventual fame?

Susan: Carrie and Grace (both of whom wrote for the De Smet News) knew of Rose’s success as a published author, as did others in De Smet. I know of no evidence that they were aware of Rose’s participation. Grace died in 1941; Carrie died in 1946. The books had attained a modest popularity by that time, but they weren't yet “famous.” (That happened in the early 1970s, after the television series began to appear.) We do know that Carrie read Little House in the Big Woods aloud to Grace when Grace was in the hospital—they both must have enjoyed it. 

Jane: One of the saddest things I ever read was that Almanzo felt his life was a series of failures.  Would Laura say the same about her life? Would Rose? 

Susan: Actually, what Almanzo said (he wrote it in a 1937 letter to Rose) was that his life had been “mostly disappointments.” Given the loss of his Dakota homestead, his illness and lifelong disability, the death of his only son, the grueling labor at Rocky Ridge, and the grinding years of the Great Depression, it’s not hard to see why he felt that way. He lived through tough times.

In 1930, at the beginning of their collaboration, Laura told Rose that she wanted “prestige” more than money. She got more of both than she could possibly have imagined, and if those were her criteria, she may have been satisfied with her life. But since we don’t have access to Laura’s thoughts and feelings, we simply don’t know. 

Rose had a successful early career that ran into difficulties during the Depression, as did most writing careers during that time. It was a rough period, but nevertheless, she did her best to continue to work and to support her parents. After she left the farm in 1935, she was actively and energetically engaged with ideas, philosophy, friends, correspondents, books, travel, needlework, her garden, her home in Danbury CT, and her home in Harlingen TX. When she died in 1968, she was about to leave on a long-planned trip abroad. She lived a fascinating life. She had every reason to be satisfied with her achievements. 

Jane: Thank-you, Susan, for this marvelous interview.  Your book made me think more deeply about authorship, fiction, biography, mothers and daughters, and the creative process.  Congratulations on the launch of A Wilder Rose, and my very best wishes to you.


  1. Thanks, Jane, for letting me carry on at such length. And I appreciate your review of the book. Writing realistically (not sentimentally) about real people is a challenge--especially when one of those people (Laura) has been so completely idealized.

    I'll be glad to drop in from time to time, if your readers have questions.

  2. Now I really have to find the time to read A Wilder Rose. Fascinating info!

  3. I still idolize Laura - finding out about her insecurities and weaknesses make her even more of a pioneer woman; AND I have grown to love Rose, and appreciate her frustrations and concerns about her mother.

    1. ReaderWoman, my grandparents lived about 120 miles from Laura & Almanzo, on a small subsistence farm. They faced the same problems in their later years: no income (no Social Security!) and had to rely on their children (my mother & her siblings). I hope this story helps us to better appreciate the struggles of farm families & rural communities in the Depression years.

  4. I cannot wait to read this book. Susan's work has always been first rate and I look forward to her candid portrayal of Laura.

  5. I read all the Little House books when I was younger. I look forward to reading this.

  6. I loved the Little House books when I was little, and I've been fascinated by the collaboration between Laura and Rose for years. There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago about their collaboration and about Rose's political influence on the series. I'm curious about whether Susan saw the piece and what she thought. I tend to agree with Susan's comment in your interview that any politics in the series is subtextual, but the omissions are interesting to consider.

    I'll also tweet about this interview (which I would do even without the giveaway, because a lot of my followers love Little House and will enjoy reading Susan's thoughts).

  7. Teresa, thanks for bringing up the Globe piece. I thought Woodside (the author) heavily overstated the politics of the books. I considered writing a rebuttal, but Megan McArdle beat me to it with an excellent article:

    IMO, the philosophical underpinnings of the LH series are Jeffersonian, rather than the "Libertarianism" we see today. That philosophy is pervasive, but only rarely is it in any sense of the word political.

    Thanks for sharing the interview!

  8. If you're interested, there's more about the political nature of the LH books in my Readers Companion to A Wilder Rose (the facts behind the fiction). For a while, I've made it a free download from the website: Click on Readers/BookClubs/Libraries.

  9. Whatever the real story behind the Little House books, they will always be remembered fondly as one of the best series I read in childhood. ~Terry

  10. I have read all of Susan's books and look forward to this one since I always loved the Little House books as a child. Mary Beth

  11. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've re-read my "Little House" books and they are in my permanent children's library collection. I also read "The Wilder Life" by Wendy McClure a couple of years ago and I look forward to reading this book.

    1. I really enjoyed The Wilder Life too. All of my LH books were ruined when I had a flood in my basement years ago, so I had to replace all my wonderful hardbound copies, but I happily did so!

  12. Great interview. I became a fan of Susan's mysteries while working on them at Berkley years ago but was not aware of this book. My family and I will enjoy it.

  13. My mother gave me the LH series in the early 70's and I read them in a constant loop all through my childhood. It seemed to me, as a child, that when Laura became engaged, she seemed to take on an "edge" of coldness and I never liked "These Happy Golden Years" and rarely read it for that reason. I guess I always wanted a warm, cozy Laura! But now I am truly intrigued by the process of writing the books between mother and daughter. I don't think I would have been ready to read the truth about Laura--that she was merely human--at an earlier point in my life. Isn't it odd how we idolize others?
    Thanks for the wonderful interview!

    1. CarIinUtah, I think we often project our own needs on our favorite literary characters. When I was a child, I wanted to live Laura's pioneer life--and grow up to be the writer I thought she was. For a long time, it was hard to see past (or see through?) my projections. Multiply me by tens of millions, and you can see why this series has been so hugely successful--and you can see the power of this particular literary myth. So glad you're intrigued!

  14. I really enjoyed the interview, ladies. I am a huge Little House fan and this new book sounds very interesting. I've always heard different things about Laura and Rose's relationship and I'm excited to read this! Thanks for the giveaway!

  15. I cannot wait to read this book. Susan is one of my favorite authors. This is so totally different from the China Bayles mysteries and the Darling Dahlias. I know it will be a great read.

  16. I loved watching Little House on the Prairie when I was growing up, and of course Laura was always my favorite character. I'm looking forward to reading this book to learn more about her real life.

    Please include me in the giveway drawing. My email is Thanks!

  17. Thanks for the giveaway!
    mestith at gmail dot com