Monday, May 25, 2015

A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert

A Wilder Rose is the story of the
Little House books and the possible literary
deception behind them
This extremely readable novel tells the story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House books (Little House on the Prairie and others in the series). Or was Laura really the sole and accomplished author of the books?

Lane was already a successful popular writer when she returned to her parents’ Ozark farm in Rocky Ridge in 1928. Divorced from a husband, she had also lived abroad and had rich experiences behind her. She had a plump portfolio of investments behind her. There she imagined she would both add to her portfolio as well as build her parents a modern farmhouse wired with electricity and indoor plumbing. She was making money with her writing – and her income was going through the stock market roof. Life was good. She was accompanied by her friend Troub, with whom she had a relationship – although this is somewhat opaquely referred to in this novel.

Writer Albert re-imagines the events of these years. With a foreboding known to us through history only we read as Lane and her companion experience the horrors of the stock market crash of 1929. Lane finds herself stuck through circumstance and desperation on the farm; finds her relationship with Troub withering away bewilderingly: “We had prided ourselves on enjoying each other, without obligation. And now that we reached the end, neither of us gave way to tears – not then, anyway.” Troub would later go on to write children’s novels penning the Sue Barton and Carol Page series.

And into this chasm her mother, a pioneer girl, comes to her with a scrap of a story of her early years. It’s poorly written, hardly publishable, hardly even a book, but Lane sets out to fix the writing, and it’s eventually published with more books promised. The literary deception, begun so innocuously and innocently, is in full force. Her mother will be known as the author of the children’s books – even though the truth is, it’s more of a collaboration between mother and daughter. Or is it? 

This is a novel of that collaboration, although there is still some doubt as to the veracity of that claim, as well as of the complicated knot of the mother/daughter relationship between Laura and her only child, a tie that Lane sometimes felt like a stranglehold, and of how Lane shaped her mother’s story into publishable books.

The world of 1930s small-town America is also intricately recreated in this book – a time when modern conveniences such as electricity and plumbing were still luxuries in rural areas; and pioneer women could still remember the wagons and wildness that permeated their youth.  But it’s a bleak time in history with the country decimated by the disaster and the great dust storms. When Lane travels the country, writing a book on it, the harshness edges through: “Dust, dirt, wind. ‘We know where the dust comes from by its colours,’ one farmer’s wife told me, holding her apron across her face.”

But it is also a story of Lane herself – little known now beyond the history books – and it’s a fascinating story. A woman who lived by her own rules in a time when most women married and subsumed themselves in that bond; a woman who took up her pen and wrote her way to fortune and kept on writing even when that pile disappeared. A woman who had been born in poverty, who managed to move beyond her life’s circumstances.  Lane is an spirited woman and one of the treasures of this novel is how enormously likeable she is; with Wittig creating an empathy that leads you through the book.  Lane’s life is at times unrelentingly hard in those years: trapped, failing dental health, growing older, her life moving away from her. But I found myself compulsively reading to the end, drawn on, entranced by this woman’s strength and vigour.

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