“You will just have to take my word for it,” Rose Wilder Lane advised her now much more famous mother. There was “historical truth” and “fictional truth,” and she must learn to put her trust in the latter. Rose must have touched a nerve, for Laura snapped back in her next letter, “Change the beginning of the story if you want. Do anything you please with the damn stuff if you will fix it up.” Touchy, touchy!
Laura needed Rose. Her daughter had more experience as a writer. She held important contacts with the publishing world. Rose would be the ticket to getting her childhood prairie stories published.
Rose needed Laura. Her mother had the memories. She had something to say. Her mother would be the inspiration for her only books that mattered, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land, even if they are long forgotten today.
Theirs was a bit of a love-hate relationship. Or, perhaps, a collaboration-competition relationship. They possessed complementary styles and strengths. According to her biographer, Caroline Fraser, Laura employed a “plain, unadorned, fact-based approach;” Rose a “polished, dramatic, and fictionalized one.”
Fictionalized and dramatic. Rose might have put too much faith in so-called “fictional truth.” Fifteen years before her mother began writing the Little House books, Rose cut her authorial teeth penning an “autobiography” of Charlie Chaplin and a loose “biography” of Jack London. Both works “straddled a line between fact and fiction” and displayed a preference for “felt experience” over “objective reality.” Rose admitted she was more concerned with getting at “the truth rather than at the facts.”
Laura’s early drafts, which she mailed to Rose, read in places like a diary. Rose pushed her to allow her imagination free rein. The only book that Rose had no hand in editing, The First Four Years, is a slim a hundred and thirty-four pages to cover, yes, four years. To say it is breezy, compared to the other books might be an understatement. Still, the emotion is there. And the moving naturalistic descriptions. And the sharp memories that were surely filled out by imagination. But it reads very differently from the preceding seven volumes.
Laura benefited from her competitive collaboration with her daughter. How many of her five Newbery Honors would she have received without it? Rose benefited from the same fraught relationship. Her literary well would have run dry long before it did without the timely infusion of inspiration from her mother. That’s why Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires is more than a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is also a biography of Rose Wilder Lane. And, perhaps most of all, it is a biography of the Little House books themselves, with the contributions of Ma and Pa, and to a lesser extent, of Mary, Baby Carrie, and Grace, too.
- Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
- Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons except book cover