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.