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. 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.
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.
In 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?
A. 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.