Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wilder women on the Prairie

from the Tuesday, November 12, 2013 edition of the Boerne Star
It was President Ronald Reagan’s favorite TV show and Sarah Palin’s most beloved childhood book. Just like Reagan and Palin, the “Little House on the Prairie” stories are uniquely American. How they came to be written is the subject of  Susan Wittig Albert’s new book, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses.
From the time that they were first published in the 1930’s, the “Little House on the Prairie” books have captured the hearts of both children and adults. These endearing stories of  life on the American prairie chronicled a much simpler time in history, a nineteenth century lifestyle filled with stories of a close-knit family overcoming obstacles as they built their homestead and helped settle this country.
            While Albert’s book is fiction, it is based on fact. She used Wilder’s and Lane’s diaries, journals,  letters, and scholarly research materials as her guide. Just as Wilder and Lane were true to real life events in the “Little House” fictionalized stories, Albert is just as true to history in A Wilder Rose.
            Rose Wilder was the only child of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder. Born in 1886, she grew up under austere conditions. She and her parents lived a hard-scrabble life working long hours to eke out a living from the unforgiving South Dakota prairie. Because Laura’s attention was focused upon physically demanding manual work, she did not have a surplus of time to spend with her daughter. Rose often felt neglected.
            Not only did Rose feel that she was deprived the mothering she so desperately wanted and needed, she suffered from the absence of childhood friends. Her classmates poked fun at her bare feet, shabby clothes, and odd ways. Rose was envious of the other girls’ fancy store-bought dresses and she longed for even the plainest pair of shoes. She was an outsider, not only because of her clothes, but also because her behavior was bizarre—she even spoke her own language that she called “Fispooko.” Rose learned at a tender age to conceal her true feelings behind a fictional fa├žade and she carried that trait with her throughout her life.
            There was not enough money for Rose to attend college, so she taught herself to write and learned several languages on her own. She worked as a journalist, some would say a “hack,” for publications such as the “San Francisco Bulletin,” the “Call,” and the Red Cross. Many of her stories were filed from distant locations—Paris, Russia, Albania—and she lived a rather wild, bohemian lifestyle. Rose made enough money to travel to exotic places and to flit in celebrity circles. She subsidized her parents’ income so that they could have some comfort in their advanced years.
            It was largely because of Rose’s generous financial assistance that Laura gained the freedom to establish her credibility in her community. She joined ladies’ circles and began writing for the “Missouri Ruralist” and other farming publications. Throughout Rose’s life, she and her mother had a contentious relationship—sometimes openly, sometimes passively, but always grating just under the skin with only a word or slight causing an eruption.
            The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out Rose’s and her parents’ savings. Rose began ghost writing books for Lowell Thomas, Frederick O’Brien, and pulp biographies of Hollywood celebrities. Publishing houses took a beating during the great depression, but Rose was a prolific writer and managed to stay afloat. Laura had toyed with the idea of writing accounts of her childhood on the prairie and she sought Rose’s advice about the possibilities of publishing these stories. Rose saw a possible market for fictionalized versions of Laura’s life and, through her own agents and publishers, she made sure that her mother’s books were given an opportunity to succeed in the marketplace.
            Rose dutifully typed up the stories that Laura wrote by hand on orange tablets, sprucing them up and adding her own editorial flourishes and she was able to secure good publishing deals for Laura.
            “A Wilder Rose” is a fascinating story of a complex mother-daughter relationship and is a departure from Albert’s serialized fiction. On the surface, the “Little House” books are uncomplicated, simplistic stories of life on the American prairie but Albert does a masterful job of carrying the reader through the complexities of the evolution of Rose and her mother.
            For “Little House” fans this book is essential reading. For Susan Wittig Albert fans, it is pure pleasure.

 “A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses,“ by Susan Wittig Albert,  ISBN-13: 978-0989203500, Persevero Press, September 2013.

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