*Another Late Bloomer

Mama Bess picked up her pen in her sixties and wrote the first book of what would become a classic children’s series. That initial volume has sold sixty million copies and been translated into over thirty languages. That was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, later to be made into a highly successful and syrupy tv show “Little House on the Prairie,” named after the best known of the books.

The reality of how the books came to be is more complex and far less syrupy than the tv show. Laura’s daughter Rose Lane was a collaborator. It’s clear that the detailed knowledge of pioneer life came from Wilder, but how much of the writing was Rose’s is a matter of dispute.

Both mother and daughter had had hard lives and their relationship was difficult, the ways that they had dealt with, survived, and emerged from that hardness different. When the first book was written, Rose was a middle-aged woman who suffered from bad teeth and depression. While her mother was stoic and self-denying, stern and ungiving, Rose was a spitfire with little regard for the borderline between fact and fabrication.

For more than a decade, she had earned a good living with what she considered literary hack work for the San Francisco Bulletin, its rival, the Call, various magazines, and the Red Cross Publicity Bureau. She had published commercial fiction, travelogues, ghostwritten memoirs, and several celebrity biographies. Charles Ingalls’s granddaughter had inherited his wanderlust, and her career had given her a chance to indulge it. Much of her reporting had been filed from exotic places. She had lived among bohemians in Paris and Greenwich Village, Soviet peasants and revolutionaries, intellectuals in Weimar Berlin, survivors of the massacres in Armenia, Albanian rebels, and camel-drivers on the road to Baghdad.

There was also a political subtext to the books, the Wilders’ conservatism, and Rose Lane’s libertarianism, which has made the series, among others’, a favourite of Ronald Reagan’s and the only book that Sarah Palin could claim to have read when asked.

I loved these books as a kid, oblivious to the politics, or to the historical context. The first homestead was illegally set up on Native land and Laura Wilder, in her manuscript, described the area as devoid of people (presumably the Osaga didn’t qualify as people), later amended at her daughter’s insistence to “settlers.”

So I was fascinated to read this New Yorker piece on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Lane. Go over there and read the rest. I recommend it.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Rose Wilder Lane, click on photo to enlarge
Rose Wilder Lane, click on photo to enlarge

h/t Bookninja

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10 thoughts on “*Another Late Bloomer

  1. What a great story! I do adore the biographies of pioneering (in all senses of the term) women. And it’s intriguing to think that maybe the lasting books have a deep undercurrent of conflict in them – in this case one that derives from two different authors.

  2. I have never known much about the writing of the Little House books, which were favorites for me as a child. I look forward to the New Yorker piece (which will hopefully reach my mailbox in a few days!) Thanks.

  3. What fascinating tidbits about one of my favorite childhood authors. I’ve always been interested in women’s lives during those pioneering days, an interest that was sparked by the Little House books which were just being published for the first time when I was young.

    I’m off now to read the New Yorker piece. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. I had no idea there was so much drama or politics behind the Little House series. Now I’m interested to read more of the background the Wilder women.

    Also, I incorrectly assumed the books were being published in the 1950’s, just before I started reading them. The egocentricity of children…

  5. In 1961 my 4th grade teacher read all of the Little House books to our class. Miss Buckles was responsible for waking me up to the wonderful world of literature. I loved those books and have read them several times over the years. I plan to start reading them to my 6 year old Grandaughter next week. I was always fascinated with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Miss Buckles recieved a letter from Rose sometime prior to my year in her class and read it to us. In it Rose caught us up on her parent’s and Aunts lives. I wish I could thank Miss Buckles today.

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