23 September 2013

Mystery of the Little House Books

Susan Wittig Albert
by Susan Wittig Albert

Our guest blogger this week is Susan Wittig Albert, who wants to introduce you to her latest, an intriguing literary deception.
— Jan Grape
Most of the time, I write mysteries. Some of my mysteries are contemporary (the China Bayles books), some historical (the Darling Dahlias 1930 series), and some biographical (the Beatrix Potter Cottage tales and the Robin Paige Victorians that I wrote with my husband). Most of these mysteries involve a crime of some sort, usually a murder, always involving some kind of criminal deception.

Recently, I wrote about a different kind of deception, a literary deception, in In A Wilder Rose, a true story about the writing of the Little House books. If you read those books as a child, you probably remember that they were about the Ingalls family's pioneer treks from Wisconsin to Indian Territory back to Minnesota, and then on to South Dakota. The named author of the eight books– beginning with  House in the Big Woods and ending with These Happy Golden Years– was the child heroine of the series, Laura Ingalls Wilder. By the time the books were published (1933-1943), Laura was in her 60s. While she had written poems for children and contributed paid newspaper articles to a farm journal, she had never written a book in her life. 

When I was a kid, I adored these books. But when I grew up and began to study literature (on my way to becoming a college English professor and an author of young adult and adult fiction), I puzzled over the mystery of how this elderly farm wife could produce eight perfectly-told books. Usually, this was explained by saying that Laura was a literary genius, and leaving it at that. But when I became a fiction writer myself and learned how truly difficult it is to write a book and get it published, I began to wonder how that worked for a 60-ish woman living on a remote Missouri Ozark farm in the 1930s. She rarely left the immediate area and had never been to New York. How in the world did such an isolated writer find an agent? Did she send out query letters with samples chapters? How did she know where to send them?

But the mysteries began to multiply when I discovered that Laura Ingalls Wilders had a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane--and that Rose (married and divorced) was a nationally famous journalist and one of the highest-paid women magazine writers in America. When I learned this single fact, all my mystery-solving instincts came alive at once and I embarked on a research project that led me to learn about Rose's life as a writer and a daughter.

I was helped along the way by William Holtz's 1933 biography of Rose. He argued that Rose was the
ghostwriter behind the Little House books, but he didn't provide much persuasive evidence of that claim. Following some leads from Holtz's book, I visited the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa where Rose's papers are held. In the archive, I found Rose's diaries from the years in which the Little House books were written as well as letters exchanged between Rose and her mother. When I studied the letters along with Laura's original manuscripts, I was able to put dates to the extensive work Rose did on the books and solve the mystery of how the Little House books came to be written and published.

The story in a nutshell: Flush with $10,000 from the sale of a book, Rose came home to the Wilder farm in 1928. She built her parents a "retirement cottage" on the property and she and her friend, Helen Boylston, moved into the old farmhouse. But then the crash came, Rose's magazine markets dried up, and she was stranded at the farm. Hoping to earn some money, Laura settled down to write her memoir, 328 handwritten tablet pages she called "Pioneer Girl."  Rose edited her mother's draft and sent part of it to an author friend in New York. An editor expressed an interest in it. When it was published in 1932, that part of "pioneer Girl" became Little House in the Big Woods.

Over the next ten years, Rose and Laura carved up "Pioneer Girl" into the eight Little House books. Laura would produce a handwritten draft, and Rose– using her experience as a published author– would rewrite it into publishable form. Laura would submit Rose's typescript under her own name, to George Bye, the literary agent who also represented Rose. Bye would send it to the publisher.  When the copy edited text came back, Rose did the work of checking it, and Laura submitted the approved text, again under her name. Each of the eight books in the series was done this way, without neither the agent nor the books' editors knowing that Rose was responsible for the finished submissions.

Why did Rose not insist on being acknowledged as a co-author or ghostwriter of Laura's books?

For one thing, she wanted her mother to be recognized as an author (her mother dreamed of achieving "prestige") and to have whatever royalties the books produced, although no one could have predicted in 1932, that they would produce a large fortune. The Wilders had no income except the few dollars they earned by selling milk and eggs in town, and an annual $500 "subsidy" that Rose sent them (the equivalent of about $6100 today).  Laura's small royalty checks of  $50 and $100 in those first years went a long way toward making the Wilders financially independent.  Finally, in 1938, the books earned enough so that Rose could discontinue her financial support.

But Rose also felt that ghostwriting "juveniles" (in a time when children's literature was not important) would not boost her writing career. In a letter, she wrote that writers of her stature didn't do ghostwriting unless they were desperate for money. She herself was desperate at the time, and ghostwrote five adventure books for the journalist Lowell Thomas, for $1,000 each. But it certainly wasn't something she was going to advertise. Hence the literary deception, which has persisted to this day.

The mother-daughter collaboration was an uncomfortable one, beset by the challenging issues of control and manipulation that troubled the relationship throughout both their lives. As Rose's journals demonstrate, the first three books were produced with difficulty. The two women managed best when they were apart, and in 1935 Rose left the farm. The remaining five books were written by mail: Laura mailed Rose her draft, Rose mailed Laura her rewrite, and Laura submitted the book to their agent.

As a reader of the Little House books, I am grateful to Rose for reworking her mother's stories and using her literary connections in New York to get them published. And I'm very grateful for her leaving a trail in her diary and letters, so that this puzzle could finally be solved, and I could write
A Wilder Rose, the story of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Little House books they built together.

A Wilder Rose is now available in print and ebook from Amazon and B & N. Check out the website aWilderRoseTheNovel.com if you click on the "Readers/Book Clubs/Libraries" link, you will find additional free 'backgrounders'.


  1. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Ms. Albert! I enjoyed the post and wish you the best with A WILDER ROSE, which sounds interesting and has an absolutely GREAT title.

  2. Susan, as you could probably tell from yesterday's post and articles about Ernest Hemingway and Tom Dooley, I love these literary mysteries. What earns my admiration is you left your armchair for the real world and dug into research. Well done, Susan.

  3. Interesting. I am always amazed that literary collaborations work at all.

    A good piece!

  4. Thanks, Fran & Leigh--the story itself is amazing. The challenge was finding the best way to tell it. Leigh, I've been digging into research for all of my mysteries, for the past 2+ decades. Victorian England, the 1930s Depression era, and herbs/gardening. All my books have been research-heavy.

  5. Janice, my husband Bill and I collaborated on 12 Victorian/Edwardian mysteries--and before that, on 60+ YA novels, including Nancy Drews & Hardy Boys books. But collaboration isn't for everybody, definitely!

  6. Great post, Susan--and welcome to SleuthSayers.

    This books sounds fascinating. I'm headed over to Amazon now to buy it.

  7. Dale Andrews and I discussed collaborating on a YA mystery thriller and both of us would like to do it. But we need several months on a quiet beach whist someone feeds us tropical cocktails and flying fish salad.

  8. Very interesting. I was fascinated to hear that Rose's papers are at the Hoover Library. I never read the books until my daughter was the right age. Then my wife and I were amazed to realize that some of the books seemed to be anti-New Deal propaganda, all about how those rugged people in the wilderness didn't need any help from anyone...

  9. Robert, it's true that Rose (and Laura, too!) were anti-New Deal, like most rural Midwesterners at the time. It's also true that Rose is often named as one of the "foremothers" of the Libertarian movement. But the books aren't propaganda so much as a reflection of a Jeffersonian philosophy, a belief in the value of self-reliance and personal independence. Read them as an expression of that philosophy, and you'll see why they have been perennially popular.

  10. I'm baffled at how this could be called a "mystery." None of this is new information to any of the thousands of Wilder and Lane fans who have read John E. Miller's biography, Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend...nor to any fan of either Wilder or Lane who has researched the women themselves. There are thousands upon thousands of us who knew Rose acted as Laura's editor and was her means of finding a publisher. But to claim Rose ghostewrote the series is ignorant. Have you compared the multiple handwritten manuscript versions of Pioneer Girl and the NINE novels to the finished, published series? Vast chunks of text in published versions match the early drafts almost to the letter. Rose helped with sequencing events, changing some details for drama and added scenes here & there with her very political spin, but the majority of the work is Laura's with little more than basic editing. Laura was a master of description and dialogue. And twenty years of writing regular columns for a respected farm journal, The Missouri Ruralist, as well as contributions to numerous other publications is nothing to sniff at. Rose was a technical editor of incredible skill, but she also lifted a great deal of material from Pioneer Girl to write her "own" novels Free Land and Let the Hurricane Roar. Though hugely successful, Free Land in particular is dry and unemotional, with stilted dialogue and oppressive politicking. So let's not get too excited about this. Holtz's book did all this 20 years ago, and, you're right, he wasn't convincing, either.

  11. I started to write how impressed I was until I saw the comment above. But I'm still impressed. Even if you duplicated previous research, it was new and news to many of us. And for that I appreciate knowing more about the books history!

  12. There is a mystery regarding the creative process of a collaboration. Two authors produce a work that is not quite like either one of them. here I can cite Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore as well as L. Sprague DeCamp (his real name, by the way!)and his various co-writers, including Fletcher Pratt and Catherine DeCamp. I agree, great post Ms Albert!

  13. In defense of Ms. Albert, whom I have never met nor read before, I would point out that she specifically mentioned that other books had been written on the subject, but also alluded to why she feels her book is different.

    Reading, and building on, the work of others is a very common and acceptable practice in literary research writing, and nothing that vilifies anyone.

    For my part, I found the post fascinating. Further, I was led to suspect — from the way she wrote her post — that her book is presented in more of a “mystery” format, which may lend a certain entertainment value to the work. And, I intend to purchase the book — once I’ve made my way through the stack of reading already on my desk.


  14. Yep. Laura's friends will find things not to like here, as well as in the scholarly books and articles I list in the bibliography and refer to in the extensive Readers Companion. Melanie Stringer, it might be a good idea to read the novel before you flame out. And re: the comparisons, yes, yes, and yes.

    For me, the central mystery is the deception--the how and the why, especially the why.

  15. Susan, What an interesting post and story about Rose and Laura and the Little House Books. I've seen some of your posts on Women Writing the West, and so enjoyed reading how you learned about this collaboration.

  16. I've read all the Little House books, as well as most of Rose Wilder Lane's novels, and many of Laura's articles and the various biographies. Yes, they definitely collaborated. But it appears that while Rose polished the style to a fare-thee-well ("The First Four Years", if unadorned Laura, is pretty rough), Laura had the memories and the ideas. Rose's novels "Free Land", "Old Home Town", and "Let the Hurricane Roar", the short story ("Innocence") that won (2nd place) an O. Henry prize in 1922, and "Old Maid" that got an honorable mention in the 30's, and other Lane short stories were all directly taken from her mother's life, not her own. I think that fueled some of the resentment and control issues I've read about between the two women. It seems to me that Laura was more balanced than Rose, and this might be why.

  17. I adore those books! I've got to read this. Jaime Tanda

  18. When reading for research, I sample everything I can find. Even when articles and books seem to say the same thing, they often have different emphases or at least I take away something different from each.

    In one of my courses on Dante's Inferno, our professor required us to buy both the John Ciardi and the Dorothy Sayers translations. We used the Sayers version for accuracy. We read the Ciari version for the poetry. So each in their own way was right.

  19. Eve Fisher, to say that Rose's materials were "directly taken" from her mother's life raises the question: who "owns" family stories? The stories in the early LH books are repetitions of Ingalls' family stories, yet nobody suggests that Laura "lifted" them, or that they "belonged" to somebody else before Laura appropriated them.

    Wilder (in "Pioneer Girl" and in her MS drafts) has given us some interesting retellings and reshapings of family lore. Rose, in her novels and some of her stories (but not OLD HOME TOWN) has given us other reshapings of Ingalls lore. I find their differences fascinating--and revealing. But I couldn't begin to judge which of the women was more "balanced" or why that matters.

  20. Leigh Lundin, that's a helpful observation. Our problem with the Wilder/Lane materials is that everything that is published (except for THE FIRST FOUR YEARS) came through Rose's typewriter. So it's very hard to see Laura's work until you go back to the manuscripts themselves. (It's as if Ciardi ran Sayers' translations through his typewriter and that's what got published.)

  21. Oh, I agree that family stories are family stories, and belong to all. But at the same time, I believe there is a difference between "lore" - like my Great Aunt who supposedly buried her dogs in the basement in roasting pans (enough time passed between then and now to make it questionable as to the truth, because that Great Aunt was pretty crazy and almost anything was believable of her) - and my mother's life before me, such as the time she walked the railroad tracks back home from her first, disastrous marriage. Now I feel free to use both in my writing (and used the GA in "The Four Roasters"), but I also feel that, if and when I use my mother's history, then I need to somehow acknowledge this was her story. Anything, of course, that I directly shared in is mine as well as hers, and no problem in telling it. It's a subtle distinction, and it's just mine. I'm not trying to impose it on anyone else.

    I said that about balance, because - and I plan to read your book - from what I have read before, including her own writings, Rose strikes me as always looking for a place of rest and content, which can only be found within. Whereas (and yes, she was ambitious, yes, she would have liked recognition for her writing) Laura seemed to have found that inner content.

  22. Eve, Rose & Laura divide up the material by audience. The LH books with Laura's name on them were for kids. Rose's work--novels and magazine fiction--was for adults. When Laura wrote The First Four Years, she wrote it for adults and Rose declined to do her usual rewrite. (Which is why it's not as satisfying as the LH books.)

  23. I don't believe this article. I know that there was some loose sentences written by Rose in her diary's but to say they are solid evidence is grappling. Also to say Laura or infer; that she was to ignorant, old, or isolated to write the books is cruel. I think Rose has a little involvement,after all she was very jealous of her mother. Rose was stuck up, and she had many questionable dealings and relationships. Why if Rose did so much of the writing on the LHOTP books did she rip off the idea for "Let The Hurricane Roar"? Laura's life is easily and simply tracable. Rose was cruel. She was manipulative she through her parents out of their home and gussied it up by saying she built them a new house, yet the minute she takes off from the boring Ozarks, so she thougt; the Wilders hastily move back into their home. I think the truth about Rose is the thing nobody has covered yet, just lame attempts. Many of those attempts have diminished Laura's abilities.


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