A Wilder Rose review contains affiliate links; thanks to author Susan Albert for a review copy. All opinions my own.
Ah, Little House of the Prairie! Yeah, the TV show, although really I’m talking about the books. They were some of my childhood favorites, and then when I studied to be a teacher in college, I did a literature project on the Little House books, and each school year I’d read some of the books aloud to my class. I always had a hard time getting through some parts, like when the good dog Jack died.
Of course, the Little House books are written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, seen here with her sisters Carrie and Mary.
Well … maybe that’s not quite the full story. That’s what A Wilder Rose explores — it’s a fictional tale (but based on much research) of what the relationship was like between Laura and her only daughter, Rose, during the years when Laura was writing the Little House books.
I was interested in the book right away when I learned about it, because I’ve read quite a lot about Laura and about Rose (although this has been several years ago), and I remember being surprised that their relationship was pretty– errr, rocky (in case you’ve forgotten, “Rocky Ridge” is the name of the homestead in Missouri where Laura and Almanzo lived out their golden years).
“Your mother may seem like a sweet little old lady, with her white hair and blue eyes,” a friend tells Rose in the book. “But she is the most overbearing woman I have ever known. She bosses your sweet, long-suffering father, the dog, the cat, the cows, you.” Yes, your view of Laura will change when reading this book. Perhaps it’s no surprise though that the adult Laura could be a bit of a handful — she was clearly the “spunkiest” of her sisters in her books.
Rose was a well-known writer during her day, on the level of an F. Scott Fitzgerald. She wrote full-time, selling stories to magazines for $1000 or more (I was surprised to read that writers were paid so highly back in the ’20s). But when the Depression hit, she found it harder to sell stories at a rate that would support her and help support her parents as well. She moved to her parents’ home in Missouri, and built them a house to live in while she lived in their farmhouse. She was depressed there, with the small-town gossip and conservatism. Rose had lived in big cities and overseas, and that was what she craved. But a strong theme in the book is how dutiful and guilt-ridden she felt. She had suggested her parents invest someplace where she had invested her own money, but the investment went bad during those years. “My mother had lost all the money she had invested on my recommendation. I would never be free from the debt.”
Apparently, Laura was hard on Rose from childhood (dedicated Little House readers will remember Rose’s angst when her parents lost their $100 bill on the trip to Missouri, and Laura suspected Rose was behind its disappearance. Also, Rose always felt she was at fault for her childhood home burning down). “My sense of guilty obligation was born of those terrible days when I could never do what she asked fast enough or well enough to meet her expectations or her demands, yet I had to try and try again. Here I was at midlife, still trying — and the trying was making me sick.”
Meanwhile, Laura had learned she enjoyed writing. She wrote a column with farm tips for the local paper, and had written her childhood memories, which Rose, as a seasoned writer, suggested she submit for possible publication. But Rose looked over what Laura had written and knew that it needed some polishing. She “edited” the stories rather heavily, moving around events, changing some, giving the stories a theme and a plot. Laura was not happy with this. She always disdained “fiction” and wanted her stories to be “true.” Frustrated, Rose let her submit one of her stories without the editing and it was promptly rejected. So from then on, she grudgingly let Rose work her magic on them.
Now, it seems ironic that Rose is pretty much an unknown name (her pioneer tales Free Land and Let the Hurricane Roar were quite popular in their day, and she was one of the early leaders of the libertarian political party), while Laura Ingalls Wilder is known by children everywhere. Yet, after reading this book (and others on Laura and Rose as well), there’s little doubt in my mind that Rose pretty much ghost-wrote the Little House books. Laura supplied the memories, but Rose wove them into the heart-warming, sweet stories we love. Ironically, I have read Rose’s two best-known pioneer books, and I found them much more harsh and depressing than the ones she “wrote” in her mother’s name.
Another interesting, although sad, fact: Laura’s mother, Caroline Ingalls, had a single baby boy among her 4 girls, and he lived only briefly. Laura, too, had a son who died as a baby, and Rose’s only child, born during her brief marriage, was again a baby boy who died. Rose “adopted” several boys during their teen years who served as a type of children for her.
A Wilder Rose is a well-written and enjoyable read. If you love the Little House books and are curious about the history behind them, or about life in the United States in the 1930s, I predict you’ll enjoy it.