Rose Wilder Lane lived through some devastating times. Granted, it was not the Little House on the Prairie that her mother knew, but, it was not always that much better. Susan Wittig Albert tells the story of her life, in a novel based on the many diaries, letters, and stories she left behind.
As a huge fan of the original series of books and the television show, it does not really bother me to learn that perhaps Half-Pint did not pen those stories we remember so well. If we are to believe the story here, she did not have a writer’s gifts, but she had the stubbornness she learned on the prairie, and fought primarily to keep her story from being fictionalized. Albert convinced me – we wanted a tale of hardship and woe, and we wanted it to come from a 60-something woman whose education did not really jibe with the tale she told so well. So her daughter wrote it, big deal. Why all the mystery?
As a wannabe writer, the behind the scenes feel of this book kept me in thrall. For anyone else reading this, I’m not so sure. For fiction, it is heavily laden with details. I am almost surprised that copies of her contracts were not included in the back matter. But I will admit that I am jealous of a woman who, for the most part, kept herself (and many others) in food and shelter completely on the earnings of her writing, during the depression! For example, at the time of the stock market crash, Rose Wilder Lane lost $50,000 from an investment account. This seemed like a tremendous amount of money for her to even have, especially when she writes later that she paid someone $60 to rebuild a burned down garage. Do the numbers really make sense here? I have no idea. According to the book, Rose earned between $750 - $1200 for stories she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines; stories that she says took her a couple of weeks each to write. I am thinking the rates have not changed all that much in the eighty or so years since. She consistently repeats her mantra, “cash, cash, cash”, which, I have to admit, did not endear her to me. While I admire her fortitude and her gift, she did not seem very grateful for what I would consider her tremendous success. She is rarely without cash, a comfortable home, travel plans, and company.
I am guessing that Albert stuck pretty close to the original diaries, since she repeatedly offers an out for Lane’s whining — saying, that sometimes the diaries were more gloomy than the reality. I would have to agree, since for a large part of the book, in the context of what was going on in the rest of the country, she has a pretty good life. But maybe that’s just me, cause I was jealous.
Rose repeatedly disparages her mother’s overbearing nature, and her wish to control everything. In her own life, Rose’s generous gifts and guidance almost always came with strings attached. It was almost painful to read about her many relationships, and how most of them, at one point or another, relied on her financial backing. The apple doesn’t fall far… She felt the Little House books were beneath her, but consistently wrote stories for the adult market that were based on the tales her parents told. When she had the chance to tell the truth about the farmers’ troubles with the New Deal, she chose instead to write the happy ending story that would bring her a paycheck.
So no, Rose Wilder Lane will not be my new hero. But she led an amazing, interesting, even astonishing life. And if you’re like me, that’s something you want to read about.