Tuesday, February 19, 2013


As a child, I read and re-read the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series repeatedly (and read and re-read them on into adulthood).  I do remember a time or two wondering why, if the books were about Wilder's life as a child, were they then catalogued as fiction?  But somewhere along the way, a librarian or an article or something satisfied that curiosity by explaining that the books were loosely based on her life - a big difference than being true biographies  That settled my childhood curiosity in a way that made sense.

On an adult level rather than a child's, Pamela Smith Hill's book, Laura Ingalls Wilder - A Writer's Life, attempts to tackle the bridge between the true life story and the novels that evolved from it.  Hill introduces Wilder's memoir, Pioneer Girl (Wilder's first work), and then spends the first few chapters of her book pointing out all the differences between the memoir and the novels.  Frankly, I found her attitude toward the differences to be off-putting.  I thought she described the differences with a "gotcha" tone - "Here's another one!" - and almost quit reading the book.

But then Hill gets into the Almanzo and Laura's lives, the move to Mansfield, and Wilder's early experiences as a writer.  Then she moves into Wilder's early attempts to transform her memoir into the novels.  Here is where the book really gets interesting.  Wilder had zero experience with agents, publishing houses, or editors.  It is true that without her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and Lane's editorial skills, the books probably would never have been published.  However, Lane was also like a steamroller in her attitude toward her mother's literary work.  She was condescending and she did not recognize her mother's great talent.

The irony is that Lane badly wanted to write great and lasting works. and thought her mother incapable of doing such.  Yet in the end her mother's simple works became far greater than the daughter's ever did.  Lane, although acclaimed, never received the long-lasting success of her mother, perhaps poetically, because the source of Rose's successful novel, Let the Hurricane Roar, was her mother's memoir Pioneer Girl - but was used without her mother's knowledge or permission.

Page 152 - "Let the Hurricane Roar was an instant success. . . Critics raved. . . . Wilder, on the other hand, was dismayed by the book's success.  Lane had raided her manuscript, lifted its most memorable and dramatic elements, and used them to create a bestseller.  And she had done it, apparently, without Wilder's knowledge or permission.  This amounts to plagiarism.  If Wilder and Lane had not been mother and daughter, the case could have ended up in court, and there were those who thought it came close to doing so.

"Wilder must have also worried that Lane had robbed her of a literary future. . . Lane, in whom Wilder had entrusted her literary career, had dealt her a major and unexpected blow."

It was years before the breach between the two women healed.  And although Lane's editing skills are what shaped the books into what they were, as the series continued to be churned out over the years, Wilder's own skills, both in writing and in dealing with the publishing world, revealed a growing sophistication.

The book concludes with these statements: "And while Wilder was indebted to Lane for her editorial expertise, Lane was indebted to her mother for the material she used in her most widely read novels. . . Their artistic relationship was as deeply entwined as their familial one.  Wilder, however, was the stronger novelist, Lane the stronger editor."

This book was an interesting look into a very complicated relationship.  I thought at first that my sympathies lay with Wilder simply because I've loved her work for so many years; however, even a disinterested party could easily side with Wilder because of the actions of Lane.  Hill does an excellent job of writing about this, and the book is well documented.  If a reader can get past the first few chapters of comparison between the memoir and the novels, he or she will find a fascinating read and new insight into the beginnings of the LITTLE HOUSE series.


MLK said...

Ann, how well I remember the family treks to the Houston Library
to check out books. You would return several Laura Ingalls Wilder
books and check out several more. This happened over and over and I wonder how many times you checked out the same titles! Then when we finally purchased the books, you were almost too old to enjoy them--or you had memorized them.

Ann said...

I still have them and still pull them out from time to time. They are classics and are still some of the best works I've ever read.

Barbara H. said...

Interesting. I'll have to put this on my list for next time.

How does the author document Lane's and Wilder's responses to Let the Hurricane Roar? Were there letters between them, or from them to others, or interviews? I'm just curious because I've read differing views of this but have never seen any documentation either way.

Susan said...

Very interesting, and from your review I'm thinking I've read this in the past because it sounds familiar. I was dismayed by the rocky relationship between Laura and Rose. They seem like two such different personalities. I suppose, since she was Laura's only child, Rose SHOULD have gotten along better with her mom, ya know? And yes, the irony of "writer Rose"'s books being nearly forgotten now, while Laura's thrive.