Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Behind the Books We’ve Loved: A Wilder Rose

Grow­ing up, I loved to read mys­ter­ies, biogra­phies, but espe­cial­ly series books. I did­n’t read Nan­cy Drew or Anne of Green Gables (not until I was an adult), but I fol­lowed most every oth­er series char­ac­ter. I read Cher­ry Ames, Sue Bar­ton, Trix­ie Belden, Beany Mal­one, Janet Lennon, but espe­cial­ly Louisa May Alcot­t’s books, the Lit­tle House books, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Maud Hart Lovelace’s Bet­sy-Tacy books.

As an only child, I adopt­ed the fam­i­lies in these books. As long as the series last­ed, the char­ac­ters were my con­stant com­pan­ions. I can remem­ber char­ac­ters, details, set­tings, and strange­ly, I can often remem­ber where I first read the books and how they made me feel. There’s a con­nec­tion that I don’t often have for the many books I’ve read lat­er in my life. What is the dis­tinc­tion of these child­hood favorites that keeps them in the mem­o­ries of so many read­ers?

This past sum­mer, I read a num­ber of books that had clear ties to each oth­er, even though each one is quite dif­fer­ent. In the next three weeks, I will share an inter­view with each of the authors. These are authors who were affect­ed by the books you’ve loved as well. The sto­ries they’ve writ­ten will intrigue and delight you.

First up, Susan Wit­tig Albert, well-known as an adult mys­tery writer with sev­er­al suc­cess­ful series, talks about her series fea­tur­ing Beat­rix Pot­ter and her fic­tion­al account of Rose Wilder Lane, the true author of the Lit­tle House on the Prairie books … which is firm­ly root­ed in the facts, based on Rose’s jour­nals. What does it feel like to write books like these? I encour­age you to read A Wilder Rose, Susan’s most recent book. I believe you’ll find it as hard to put down as I did.

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A Wilder RoseA Wilder Rose
Susan Wit­tig Albert
Per­se­vero Press, Bertram, TX: 2013
avail­able in print or e‑book

A. I delight­ed in Beatrix’s “lit­tle books” (her famil­iar name for her work) as a child and as a mother—and I took as much plea­sure in my children’s delight as lis­ten­ers as I did in read­ing them myself, for the first time. I had the same expe­ri­ence, as the chil­dren grew old­er, in read­ing the Lit­tle House books. I read those books for myself in the 1940s and 50s, read them aloud to the chil­dren in the 1960s—and read them aloud again in the 1990s, to my own moth­er and oth­er seniors in our local nurs­ing home. Shar­ing books is a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence. Shar­ing with fam­i­ly is a way of shar­ing and con­firm­ing our val­ues.

Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wit­tig Albert

Q:  Do you remem­ber what kept you read­ing each book in the Lit­tle House series? 

A.  Each of the Lit­tle House books leads nat­u­ral­ly to the next, as Lau­ra grows old­er and her fam­i­ly moves on to yet anoth­er lit­tle house and a new series of pio­neer chal­lenges. As a young read­er, that struc­ture pulled me into each book and pro­pelled me to the fol­low­ing book. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that I sim­ply had to know what hap­pened to Lau­ra next. What’s more, that mag­ic was repeat­able: I went back to the begin­ning of the series and read all eight of the books all over again.

Q:  Do you recall the moment (or path) of intrigue that led you to delve into the life of Rose Wilder Lane?

A.  Oh, yes—it was an impor­tant turn­ing point for me! In the ear­ly 1970s, I read Laura’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished ninth book, The First Four Years. By that time, I was in grad­u­ate school, study­ing lit­er­a­ture and read­ing more crit­i­cal­ly than I had as a child. I was huge­ly dis­ap­point­ed in The First Four Years, which is not orga­nized, devel­oped, or writ­ten (styl­is­ti­cal­ly, I mean) with the same con­sum­mate skill as the oth­er eight books. In the intro­duc­tion (by Roger Lea MacBride, Rose’s pro­tégée and lit­er­ary heir and execu­tor), I read that the Wilders had a daugh­ter who was a “world-famous author.” Just that one bit of infor­ma­tion prod­ded me to begin the research that—decades later—led to the writ­ing of A Wilder Rose.

Q. When research­ing a once-liv­ing per­son deeply enough to write from their point of view, do you find your­self adopt­ing his or her inter­ests and beliefs, based on what you’re read­ing?

A. Such a good ques­tion. The answer: in one sense, yes—in anoth­er no.

Tale of Briar BankIn order to write con­vinc­ing­ly from the point of view of a char­ac­ter (real or imag­ined), my writer self has to live inside that person’s skin and see the world as she sees it. I need to dis­cov­er all I can about her past, her cur­rent life, and even her future (beyond the scope of the book). I need to under­stand her fears, her desires, her rela­tion­ships. I also need to know as much as I can about her his­tor­i­cal con­text: social, geo­graph­i­cal, polit­i­cal. In the case of Rose, I even had to learn about the cli­mate, for she was writ­ing dur­ing the Dust Bowl years and that expe­ri­ence shaped her. I have to live inside her the per­son. I lived inside Rose, doing research, for 20 years; inten­sive­ly, as I was writ­ing, for two years. I lived inside Beat­rix Pot­ter, doing the research for nine years; inten­sive­ly, about four months as I wrote each of the eight books.

But I have anoth­er Self that con­tains my writer self. I have my own inter­ests and beliefs that don’t coin­cide with my subject’s. For exam­ple, while my writer self felt Beatrix’s need to stay loy­al to her par­ents, my Self (liv­ing 100 years lat­er) couldn’t under­stand it—I still don’t! And polit­i­cal­ly, I’m a Pro­gres­sive Lib­er­al. While my writer self felt Rose’s Anti-New-Deal and Lib­er­tar­i­an beliefs, my per­son­al Self feels that they are short-sight­ed and even self­ish. How in the world could she have reject­ed the ideas of Social Secu­ri­ty, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, and wel­fare?

Q. Do you have a for­mal­ized set of para­me­ters for writ­ing dia­logue for a Rose Lane or Beat­rix Pot­ter?

A. Yes, I do. For both of these women, I stud­ied jour­nals, diaries, let­ters, and pub­lished writ­ings, and used what I could of their per­son­al styles (vocab­u­lar­ies, habits of speech, lev­els of formality/informality). Beat­rix was a Vic­to­ri­an woman liv­ing in Lon­don and the Lake District—her time and place shaped her speech and writ­ing styles, and I had to con­fine myself to her style. Rose, on the oth­er hand, was a huge­ly pro­lif­ic writer who pos­sessed many dif­fer­ent styles: for exam­ple, the oral sto­ry­telling style she uses in the Lit­tle House books; the jour­nal­is­tic style of her news­pa­per work; the mag­a­zine-fic­tion style of her 1930s sto­ries. But still, I had to con­fine myself, in writ­ing the dia­logue, to her beliefs and inter­ests. I couldn’t let her say some­thing “out of char­ac­ter.”

Both of these women, at dif­fer­ent times of their lives, kept jour­nals. Beatrix’s jour­nals are pub­lished; Rose’s diaries and jour­nals are not. I was able to obtain Rose’s unpub­lished per­son­al writ­ings from the Her­bert Hoover Pres­i­den­tial Library and tran­scribed them for eas­i­er read­ing. Her diaries alone are about the size of a nov­el: about 85,000 words. They were the source of much of her dia­logue in A Wilder Rose.

Q. School­rooms across the land are fol­low­ing the Com­mon Core’s man­date to dis­tin­guish between fic­tion and non­fic­tion. In itself, that’s a fas­ci­nat­ing top­ic. This fic­tion­al account has done more to con­vince me that Rose Wilder Lane wrote the Lit­tle House books based on her mother’s rec­ol­lec­tions and sto­ries than any oth­er non­fic­tion book or arti­cle I’ve read on this top­ic. What do you believe works that mag­ic? 

A. Thank you. Thank you very much. For years, I had been fol­low­ing the who-wrote-what debate and feel­ing that gen­er­al read­ers found it dif­fi­cult to judge the strength of the argu­ments because of the off-putting aca­d­e­m­ic lan­guage and schol­ar­ly bag­gage (foot­notes and ref­er­ences). A Wilder Rose makes much the same argu­ment as the work of John E. Miller, William Holtz, Ani­ta Fell­man, and oth­ers. Those non­fic­tion books are told from the point of view of an author (an “expert”) and a read­er stand­ing out­side the expe­ri­ence, look­ing on: it’s an outside/in per­spec­tive. We’re being lec­tured at by a pro­fes­sor, and how­ev­er kind­ly, it is still a lec­ture.

Fic­tion, on the oth­er hand, works its pow­er­ful mag­ic by bring­ing the read­er inside the expe­ri­ence, invit­ing her to live with the char­ac­ters, their doings, and their beliefs—to under­stand and feel from the inside out. There’s no pro­fes­so­r­i­al dis­tance between the author, the char­ac­ters, or the read­er.

But I faced a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge in A Wilder Rose, because if I fic­tion­al­ized too much, I might be thought to be invent­ing, in order to bol­ster the premise that Rose was large­ly respon­si­ble for the books as we have them. So I had to stay clos­er to nonfiction—closer to the facts—than I did with, say, Beat­rix Pot­ter, or any of the oth­er real peo­ple I’ve used in fic­tion. In a sense, the fic­tion in A Wilder Rose (invent­ed scenes, dia­logue, set­tings, some minor char­ac­ter­i­za­tions) is in the ser­vice of the facts. That is both a strength and a weak­ness of the book, I think. I might have had a “bet­ter” nov­el if I had fic­tion­al­ized more of the facts, but I might have run the risk of being “untrue” to the facts them­selves.

Q. Your Reader’s Com­pan­ion is cer­tain­ly as absorb­ing to read and digest as A Wilder Rose. At what point in your process did it occur to you to pre­pare this don’t‑miss man­u­script? 

A.  With all my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, I have includ­ed an author’s note that details and lists sources for the facts behind the fic­tion. But for Rose, I felt I need­ed more. The idea for a Com­pan­ion came after I had fin­ished the nov­el and was reshelv­ing the many books, arti­cles, and pieces of source mate­r­i­al I had used in the writ­ing. I spent a month on the Com­pan­ion while all that stuff was still fresh in my mind, before I went on to oth­er work. I hope that read­ers will want to use it to guide their own fur­ther read­ing and explo­ration.

Q. You appear to have an affin­i­ty for the 1930s. Why do you find that era intrigu­ing? 

Darling Dahlias and the Texas StarA. I was born in 1940. My par­ents and grand­par­ents had lived through the chal­leng­ing decades of the 1930s and that expe­ri­ence was still with them—and with me, although of course I didn’t know it. For instance, my mother’s fru­gal­i­ty and mak­ing-do (which so annoyed me as a child!) was a direct result of liv­ing through a time when she had almost no mon­ey. Explor­ing 19 30s Amer­i­ca (as I do in the Dar­ling Dahlias mys­ter­ies, as well as in A Wilder Rose) is in some ways an explo­ration of my own per­son­al past.

And in the case of Rose and Lau­ra, I had a geo­graph­i­cal con­nec­tion, as well. I spent my child­hood sum­mers on my grand­par­ents’ small Mis­souri farm just 125 miles from Rocky Ridge, the Wilders’ farm. In those years (although I didn’t know it) Lau­ra was still alive and liv­ing on the farm. Oh, how I wish I could have vis­it­ed her then, espe­cial­ly when Rose was also vis­it­ing.

Q. Women writ­ers such as Willa Cather and Edna Fer­ber and Dorothy Park­er are still read and remem­bered in this cen­tu­ry. Why did our aware­ness of Rose Wilder Lane dis­ap­pear? 

A. Willa Cather won a Pulitzer in 1922 and was a mem­ber of the lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ty. Her works were “can­on­ized” fair­ly ear­ly and appear on col­lege read­ing lists. Dorothy Parker’s screen plays won Acad­e­my Awards and she is remem­bered for her asso­ci­a­tion with writ­ers like Fitzger­ald and Hem­ing­way. Fer­ber, while not a mem­ber of the literati, also won a Pulitzer (1925). Her books became musi­cals (Show­boat) and movies (Cimar­ron and Giant), ensur­ing her con­tin­ued pres­ence in the pop­u­lar cul­ture.

Rose did­n’t belong to the lit­er­ary community—in fact, she reject­ed the val­ues of the lit­er­ary cul­ture. She wrote genre fic­tion for mass mar­ket mag­a­zines, and while two of her nov­els (Let the Hur­ri­cane Roar and Free Land ) became best­sellers, they would have been con­sid­ered (con­temp­tu­ous­ly, by the lit­er­ary crowd) as “mid­dle-brow” fiction—not a can­di­date for a col­lege read­ing list. There are many very good women writ­ers in this same gen­er­al group: Zona Gale, Dorothy Can­field Fish­er, Fan­nie Hurst, Ani­ta Loos, and oth­ers. They are not remem­bered, either.

And one more note: Rose’s last pub­lished fic­tion, Free Land, appeared in 1938. Then came the war, the cold war, tele­vi­sion, and huge changes in Amer­i­can cul­ture and taste. Rose’s ephemer­al mag­a­zine fic­tion fad­ed from view. Except, of course, for her Lit­tle House books—and aren’t we glad!

It’s worth adding, too, that Rose is regard­ed by many as one of the three fore­moth­ers (with Ayn Rand and Isabelle Pater­son) of the Lib­er­tar­i­an par­ty. Her influ­en­tial 1943 book, The Dis­cov­ery of Free­dom: Man’s Strug­gle Against Author­i­ty, is avail­able now as a free down­load.

Q. I was intrigued to learn that Rose Wilder Lane had been the ghost writer for Low­ell Thomas for a series of books about male adven­tur­ers of the day. Her writ­ing reflect­ed deep inter­ests in pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics, his­to­ry, archi­tec­ture, and needle­work, defy­ing how we often char­ac­ter­ize women of her day. Does her writ­ing bear up under today’s cul­ture? 

A. The five books that Rose ghost­wrote for Thomas were pos­si­ble because she her­self was an adven­tur­er. She had trav­eled through the wild Balka­ns and the haz­ardous Mid­dle East in the 1920s, trav­el­ing with native men, rough­ing it, and liv­ing dan­ger­ous­ly. She could eas­i­ly ghost­write for oth­er adven­tur­ers. No won­der Thomas found her so use­ful!

The most endur­ing of Rose’s work, of course, is the Lit­tle House series, which is time­less in its oral-sto­ry­telling appeal and in the rich­ness of Laura’s pio­neer expe­ri­ences. Besides that, Rose’s book, The Peaks of Sha­la (1923) is an excel­lent and read­able descrip­tion of life in the Balka­ns before mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion encroached. Her col­lec­tion of sto­ries, Old Home Town (1935) is a nuanced, sen­si­tive, and crit­i­cal depic­tion of small-town val­ues at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

But Rose (apart from the Lit­tle House books) was large­ly suc­cess­ful because she wrote for the tastes of her time and place in mag­a­zines that no longer exist. Mod­ern read­ers of pop­u­lar fic­tion, who have very dif­fer­ent tastes, are not very like­ly to be sat­is­fied by her writ­ing.

Q. When your read­ers close the cov­ers on A Wilder Rose, how do you hope they’ve been changed? 

A. Too often, we read and inter­pret books as if they were writ­ten yes­ter­day. When read­ers fin­ish A Wilder Rose, I hope they will have begun to under­stand the var­i­ous con­texts in which the Lit­tle House books were writ­ten: as a fam­i­ly fic­tion project, under­tak­en by Rose and her moth­er pri­mar­i­ly as a way of earn­ing des­per­ate­ly need­ed income dur­ing the very dark years of the Depres­sion and the Dust Bowl. Books, like peo­ple, don’t exist in the abstract: they are the prod­uct of the writer’s expe­ri­ence, needs, ambi­tions, and skills. (And in the case of the Lit­tle House books, there are two writ­ers!) I hope that read­ers have a greater aware­ness and appre­ci­a­tion of this truth when they fin­ish A Wilder Rose—and that they take that aware­ness to the next piece of fic­tion they read.

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My thanks to Susan Wit­tig Albert for pro­vid­ing answers that make we want to go back and read A Wilder Rose all over again! Do take time to vis­it her Wilder Rose web­site. It’s chock full of infor­ma­tion that you’ll find fas­ci­nat­ing.

Next Thurs­day, I’ll post my inter­view with Mar­sha Qua­ley, author of the brand new Ven­om and the Riv­er.

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