The “Little House books,” as they have come to be known, have endeared themselves to countless readers since the time of the Great Depression. At the heart of the series is Laura, a plucky character based on the childhood experiences of its author, Laura Ingalls Wilder.
So the opportunity to peer into the author’s adult life has long drawn the curiosity of her fans. Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill is an insightful visit with the woman who first captured what it meant to be an early young American.
While a handful of biographical books have already explored the “real” story of the pioneering Ingalls, and Hill does spend some time comparing fact with storytelling, what stands out in this book is Wilder’s relationship with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Without plainly stating so, Hill explores claims of earlier biographers that Lane (most readers will remember her as Almanzo’s and Laura’s tiny tot) was the key to her mother’s writing success.
Wilder’s declarations amid her rising fame that she was simply an old farm woman setting down on paper her childhood stories wasn’t the full picture. By all accounts, Wilder labored extensively with her writing. In her struggle to find her voice and audience she wrote continuously for newspapers and magazines. And it took her daughter’s keen ear to help Wilder shape her novels. (For example, it was Lane who convinced Wilder to move away from storytelling in first person.)
Only 19 years between them, Lane and Wilder at times seemed as close as competitive sisters. Both were serious and accomplished writers. But Hill presents Wilder as the better storyteller and Lane as the broad-thinking editor. Their lifestyles reflected this. Where Wilder stayed close to the family’s final homestead in the Missouri Ozarks, Lane cut her journalistic teeth in San Francisco and traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. It was with this same vigor that Lane took up editing and rewriting her mother’s manuscripts for “the big market.”
But these heavy rewriting sessions bothered Wilder and the frankness in the letters between mother and daughter reflect this.
“It really wasn’t my work,” writes Lane after one of Wilder’s essays was published in a magazine. “Please don’t run off with that idea. Dearest Mama Bess, in some ways you are like a frolicsome dog that won’t stand still to listen.... All I did on your story was an ordinary rewrite job.”
Periodically, Lane took up residence with her parents. Even then, creative tension threatened to overwhelm their relationship. With Lane’s financial success (which waxed and waned) she orchestrated the building of an English-style cottage on the Ozarks farm. Lane insisted her parents move into the new house while she lived in the original farmhouse. The arrangement didn’t last. When Lane eventually moved away, the Wilders resettled in the farmhouse.
Perhaps this kind of entitlement explains what only can be described as an act of plagiarism by Lane. After the unexpected success of “Little House in the Big Woods,” and as Wilder settled in to write “Farmer Boy,” Lane used characters and plots from her mother’s unpublished manuscript, “Pioneer Girl,” to create the bestselling “Let the Hurricane Roar,” an adult novel based on two pioneering characters, Charles and Caroline.
“For the first time,” writes Hill, “Wilder was deeply distressed by her daughter’s success. And she felt betrayed.”
Lane had grand ambitions for her own writing and it can be said that without her savvy and connections in the publishing world the “Little House books” never would have achieved the wide acclaim that they did.
But Hill remains sympathetic to Wilder as the genius behind the warm characters that have long won the young at heart. Truly, the near misses and trials of Wilder’s writing life reflect the simple pleasures and sturdy discipline learned on the American frontier.
Overall, this biography is less about the efforts of one woman than it is about a family learning to forge creative ground together. And when familiar scenes from that long-ago prairie sparkle through Hill’s historic review readers will undoubtedly grin as if catching a glimpse of an old friend.