A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert. Persevero Press, 2013.
Let the Hurricane Roar, the “first serious piece of writing” by Rose Wilder Lane—the only daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder—takes its title from the well-known refrain of a traditional hymn:
Then let the hurricane roar,
It will the sooner be o’er
We will weather the blast and will land at last
Safe on the evergreen shore.
Published in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, reprinted in the 1970s as Young Pioneers, and used as the basis for a TV series and two made-for-TV movies, Let the Hurricane Roar tells the story of Lane’s grandparents, Carl and Caroline Ingalls, and their solitary struggle through a devastating winter—after the grasshoppers had eaten their entire wheat crop—on the Dakota prairie in the 1870s. Another version of the events appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek. Lane was especially proud of her novel, certain it expressed her deepest conviction: “Whatever the storm, we can remain invincible.”
A prolific and successful writer of popular fiction and nonfiction since the early 1920s, in 1932 Lane had just begun the long, problematic collaboration with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, which led to the publication of Wilder’s influential “Little House” series. In Let the Hurricane Roar, Lane, while drawing on her mother’s material, used her own voice—something she found extraordinarily difficult to do, as Susan Wittig Albert makes plain in her absorbing new novel, A Wilder Rose.
Treating “real people as fictional characters” and “real events as fictional events,” A Wilder Rose brings to life Lane’s fascinating, disturbing story. It is the story of a rebellious, adventurous, and unconventional woman with “improbable” dreams who chose to “content herself with the possible”; a woman who forcefully articulated and campaigned for what she called the “fundamentalist American” values of independence and self-reliance (in explicit, virulent opposition to FDR’s New Deal) even while enmeshed in a debilitating interdependence with her mother; a woman who helped fashion the enduring myth of pioneer life—a myth that oscillates between a vision of idealized domesticity in a “little house” and an equally idealized notion of untrammeled freedom in the “big woods” or on the wild prairie.
I was, at first, skeptical about Albert’s project. Fictionalizing a true story? Why this one? Offering her own “imaginative explanation for the real events of those years”? What would be the value of such an exercise? How could it succeed? But Albert, herself an accomplished and experienced writer much like Lane, has used the voluminous primary sources available to her—manuscripts, letters, and journals—along with scholarly studies, including William Holtz’s 1993 biography of Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House, to craft a compelling, original novel. A Wilder Rose may well succeed in “getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth,” to quote Tim O’Brien, as Albert does in her opening explanatory note. Indeed, there were moments while I was avidly reading A Wilder Rose that I had to remind myself that I wasn’t actually hearing Lane’s voice, so fully has Albert embodied this complex, compelling woman writer.
The question of the relationship between truth and fiction, and of the nature of the writer’s craft, is at the heart of the struggle between Rose Wilder Lane and her paradoxically much more famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder, who came from a “family of writing women,” had kept journals and written inspiring columns about farm life for the Missouri Ruralist, but she had never written for a national market as had her daughter, who made a living—sometimes precarious, but a living nonetheless—as a globe trotting journalist and writer of magazine fiction, regularly publishing articles in such venues as the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Monthly, Country Gentleman, and McCall’s. The younger woman encourages her mother to pen her autobiography, what she called the “story of my life thing,” believing it might well be marketable as a serial. Called “Pioneer Girl,” Wilder’s160 page manuscript (typed by Lane) is “raw story, real story, the bedrock truth of what happened, unmediated by any effort to make it pretty.” It is immediately rejected after Lane sends it to her New York agent for a look and he prematurely sends it to out to several magazines.
Although Wilder is crushed by the rejection, she accepts her daughter’s offer for rewriting help: Lane thinks some of the narrative might work as a children’s picture book and she proposes sending it to an editor she knows. As Albert tells it in Lane’s voice:
Recasting my mother’s material for children took ten full writing days. I pulled out the section that was set in the Big Woods and rewrote it from the original first-person narrative into a third-person story for children that I was calling “When Grandma Was a Little Girl.”
Some six months after Lane submits the short manuscript on her mother’s behalf, another editor decides she likes it, but as a narrative for young readers rather than children. The brief section needs expansion, and Lane advises her mother on how to develop the tale. Once again, though, Lane finds herself substantially and painstakingly rewriting the manuscript, caught in a “battle of wills” about how to recount the Ingalls family’s pioneer experience. Again, as Albert presents it: “‘I want to tell the true story,’” the older woman insists. “‘Nobody’s suggesting that you tell lies,’” her daughter responds. “‘But sometimes we need to use fiction to tell the truth. Sometimes fiction tells a truer story than facts.’” Lane succeeds in persuading her mother to accept her revisions, though at the expense of her own wellbeing.
Little House in the Big Woods was accepted for publication in 1931; Laura Ingalls Wilder received a contract for two additional books; and Little House was chosen as the April selection for the Junior Literary Guild. The publication and contracts brought great relief to both mother and daughter, who had begun to feel the financial pressures of the Depression. The books would bring the mother a steady income and perhaps relieve the daughter of the need to help her parents both financially and emotionally. Instead Lane found herself drawn into the need to help her mother as a writer: even while resenting her involvement, she fostered the fiction that her mother was the sole author of the Little House series—ultimately eight books published in eleven years. Lane’s “sense of guilty obligation” to her mother caused her to neglect her own writing projects and eventually made her ill.
The fiction that Susan Wittig Albert uses to shape her novel is that Lane is telling her story to a young acolyte, the aspiring journalist Norma Lee Browning, who is spending the month of April 1939 with Lane in her newly purchased farmhouse near Danbury, Connecticut. While the two women garden, cook, and do needlework, Lane answers the eager young woman’s questions about her writing and her life, focusing especially on the years 1928 to 1934 when she had returned—responding to her mother’s urgent summons—to her parents’ Missouri farm, Rocky Ridge. Before returning to Rocky Ridge, Lane had been happily sharing a home in Albania living with Helen Boylston, who would become the author of the Sue Barton and Carol Page books. Albert skirts the question of the precise nature of Lane’s ten-year relationship with Boylston, a woman “who looked good in trousers,” though she makes it plain that the two women “needed each other . . . in all ways.” Boylston returns with Lane to Rocky Ridge, though she leaves after a few years, partly because of the isolation she experiences on the Ingalls family farm, unable to intervene in the struggle between mother and daughter.
Lane tells her story to Norma Lee in order, she says, to explain to herself how she has come to be who she is in 1939, an apparently domesticated woman with “no more stories of her own to tell.” But of course this is the gift that Susan Wittig Albert—the founder and active proponent of the Story Circle Network, “dedicated to helping women share the stories of their lives and to raising public awareness of the importance of women's personal histories”—gives us. She has unearthed the facts of Rose Lane’s story and turned them into a compelling, emotional narrative that grips us just as the Little House books once did. Only this time the story is of an adult woman struggling to reconcile the competing claims of her own needs for independence and affiliation, creativity and connection, freedom and love. Rose Wilder Lane does have a story of her own, and it is a story well worth hearing. As Albert tells it, and as the evidence shows, Lane ultimately opted for independence at the political and personal levels, working for Libertarian values and rejecting marriage with a man she passionately loved. For those of us who have heard several hurricanes roar, Lane’s choices may not be ours; still, we can learn much from this pioneering woman who brought to vivid life the stories of her mother and grandmother, even while venturing outward into a successful life as a “new woman.” Thanks to Albert, Rose Wilder Lane becomes now a grandmother of our own.
Reviewed by Joyce Zonana
Joyce Zonana is a Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She has published numerous academic and personal essays in a variety of journals and is a regular book reviewer for Lilith Magazine. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an exile's journey, was published by The Feminist Press.