It goes without saying that Laura Ingalls Wilder grew into a wise and loving mother. Readers of the Little House series would expect nothing less from their heroine, the daughter of Charles and Caroline Ingalls. In fact, Laura and husband Almanzo raised but a single child, Rose, who grew up and honored them with these words in 1918:
“My mother loves courage and beauty and books; my father loves nature, birds and trees and curious stones, and both of them love the land, the stubborn, grudging, beautiful earth that wears out human lives year by year. They gave me something of all these loves, and whenever I do something that I really can’t help sitting down and admiring, I always come plump up against the fact that I never would have done it if I hadn’t been wise enough to pick out these particular parents.”
Higher praise would be hard to find. Especially coming from Rose. More often, she griped about her mother whom she thought manipulative, stingy with her affection, and not above playing the martyr.
From the perspective of middle age, Rose reflected on her mother, Mama Bess, as she always called her: “Something in her knows exactly how to put the screws on me. She made me so miserable when I was a child that I’ve never got over it.” Rose did her best to escape her mother’s clutches at an early age. Even before she turned eighteen, she was out of the house, a “bachelor girl,” supporting herself as a telegrapher. Still, every few years, homesickness drew her back to the family homestead in the Ozarks. The warm feeling of home never lasted long. Within a week, Rose would feel stifled and long to break free.
During one visit, in the mid-1920s, Rose complained to her journal: “She still thinks of me as a child. She even hesitates to let me have the responsibility of bringing up the butter from the spring, for fear I won’t quite do it right!” Her friend, Helen Boylston, made a similar observation, after spending two years living with the Wilders at Rocky Ridge: “Rose was very much her mama’s slave.”
The “slavery” was at least partly self-imposed. In 1919, as a freelance author and ghostwriter, Rose committed herself to supporting her parents in their retirement. Every year, regardless of financial ups and downs, she kept her promise of sending her parents five hundred dollars. As her stock portfolio took off in the booming twenties, Rose doubled her contribution to one thousand dollars. Economic depression in the thirties forced her to cut back again.
Why the compulsion to support her mother? She had never asked for the help. Accepting the money may well have made her uncomfortable. Rose’s unpredictable finances could only have given Laura worry. Indeed, even as Rose sent her an annual stipend, she would often ask her mother for a loan. “It was a tangle indeed,” wrote Laura’s biographer, Caroline Fraser.
In 1939, the seventy-two-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder had attained her dream of telling her family’s story to millions. She had become a nationally recognized author of five children’s books and the recipient of the distinguished Newbery Honor. (Four more Honors would follow.) She was earning about two thousand dollars a year in royalties. She had earned the right to feel satisfied, yet one shortcoming still nagged: her role as mother. “Somehow the bond with her daughter had proved the most difficult trial of all, despite Wilder’s storied closeness with her own parents.” (Fraser)
She sat down at her desk and wrote the words she thought might heal the wounds from three decades of what might be called “collaborative struggle.” The words come as an eerie echo of Rose’s own from two decades earlier:
I thought again who we had to thank for all our good luck. But for you we would not have the rent money. You are responsible for my having dividend checks. Without your help I would not have the royalties from my books in the bank to draw on. It is always that way. When I go to count up our comfortableness and the luck of the world we have, it all leads back to you. And so, snuggled under my down quilt, I went to sleep thinking what a wise woman I am to have a daughter like you. …Oh Rose my dear, we do thank you so much for being so good to us.
Fraser, Caroline. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017.
Holtz, William. The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.