Arts and Leisure

Rose Wilder Lane, the Secret Behind the Little House Books

In 1931, 44-year-old Rose Wilder Lane saw a manuscript of a book called Pioneer Girl. It told the story of a homesteader during the great westward expansion, from Wisconsin across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, the Dakota Territory and back again to Missouri.

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose had been flying high as one of the best paid journalists of her time and a world traveler who lived for a time in Albania. It had all come crashing down in 1929 with the stock market collapse.

Not only did the crash wipe her out financially, it wiped out her elderly parents’ savings. Worse, the market for her writing dried up in the Great Depression.

So Rose Wilder Land moved back to her parents’ farm in Mansfield, Mo., and tried to start over. Her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, gave her the chance. Pioneer Girl was the genesis of the children’s classic, Little House in the Big Woods, and the seven Little House books that followed.

The name Rose Wilder Lane did not appear as co-author on the books. She always downplayed her role in writing them. By doing so, she sparked a debate about her contribution to some of the most popular children’s books of the 20th century.

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane was the only surviving child of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was born Dec. 5, 1886 in De Smet, the Dakota Territory — the prairie where Little House on the Prairie took place. A bright student, she completed three years of Latin in one. Her parents’ financial struggles, however, prevented her from going to college.

She married a traveling salesman, and they traveled around the United States. She eventually divorced him. By 1910 Rose Wilder Lane began freelance writing, and in 1915 she got a job as editorial assistant on the San Francisco Bulletin. Her talents were quickly recognized, and she began churning out biographies of famous people and romantic fiction serials.

Rose Wilder Lane quit her job after three years and went back to freelancing. This time, she found tremendous success. She wrote short stories for leading magazines that were nominated for O’Henry prizes. Her novels made best seller lists.

Money gave her freedom, and she traveled widely in Europe. For long periods she lived in Albania with her friend Helen Dore Boylston, who wrote the Sue Barton children’s books.

After her money disappeared in 1929 and her career tanked, she moved back to Missouri with her elderly parents. Until 1935, Rose Wilder Lane lived in the farmhouse Almanzo had built just a few hundred yards from her parents’ newer cottage.

Little House

Rose had no luck finding a publisher for Pioneer Girl. One editor suggested she turn the first part into a children’s book. Mother and daughter liked the idea and wrote Little House in the Big Woods. Harper and Row agreed to publish it in 1931.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Laura Ingalls Wilder achieved literary success. Critics considered her a naïve genius along the lines of Grandma Moses.

Rose never publicly acknowledged her role in writing her mother’s books, giving critics plenty of grist for debate.

Did she take a rough manuscript and substantially rewrite it? Or did she simply encourage her mother and help her get the book published through her literary connections? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Rose was likely a true collaborator at most or an aggressive editor at the least. Her mother had written for local newspapers for two decades, and Rose had a track record as a novelist and editor.

Goddam Juvenile

Rose may have revealed why she hid her part in writing the Little House books. “Have to finish my mother’s goddam juvenile,’ she wrote in her diary on May 10, 1936.

While working on the first few of her mother’s books, she hated living in Missouri and felt stifled on her parents’ farm. But she rebuilt her writing career, enough to buy a farmhouse in Danbury, Conn., in 1938. There she could be near the New York literary scene, and she lived there for 25 years.

Rose Wilder Lane had ambitions other than writing (or editing) children’s literature. She went on to found the American Libertarian Party. She continued to express her views on individualism in books and columns for The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper.

In 1965, Rose Wilder Lane reported on the Vietnam War for Women’s Day magazine at the age of 78.

Rose Wilder Lane died in her sleep at age 81, on October 30, 1968, just as she was about to embark on a trip around the world.

This story was updated in 2020.

 

 

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