Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Susan Wittig Albert's A Wilder Rose: A mother, a daughter, and a hidden literary collaboration

Like many a young girl, I treasured the classic historical novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I used to read the books over and over, captivated by the descriptions of American frontier life, the optimistic themes of family togetherness and survival amid challenging circumstances, and the appealing character of spunky Laura, the author’s younger self.

And, like many other children, I had read the final book, The First Four Years, with a sense of puzzlement. It lacked the sparkle of the others. The heroine had turned bitter and unsympathetic, and the storyline, which recounted the hardships and less frequent joys of the first years of Laura Ingalls’ and Almanzo Wilder’s marriage and the birth of their daughter, Rose, felt dreary and depressing. I chalked it up to the subject matter, not being old enough to note the stylistic dissimilarities from the earlier books.

The reasons behind the differences are complex and, as has been revealed, involve a carefully concealed literary partnership. Susan Wittig Albert is best known for her mystery novels, but A Wilder Rose is riveting biographical fiction based upon research positing that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, was the ghostwriter for most of the Little House books. Unlike the others, The First Four Years, a posthumous release, didn't benefit from Lane’s talent.

Series fans may find this news about a beloved literary figure unwelcome, but the novel isn’t an unsubstantiated interpretation designed to stir up controversy. Rather, Albert has followed where the evidence led and fictionalized the scenarios documented in sources such as Rose’s unpublished journals, Laura’s letters, and scholarly secondary works, most prominently William Holtz’s groundbreaking The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1993).

The result is a credible and convincing account of the middle years of Rose’s life, her tense relationship with her “Mama Bess” (her name for Laura), and the powerful forces of duty and ambition that fueled their separate and intertwined journeys as writers. It also tells a much larger story about the changes affecting America as it sank from the buoyant optimism of the Roaring ‘20s into the depths of the Great Depression.

The majority of A Wilder Rose is written as if Rose is speaking directly to the reader, and her voice brims with energy, keen intelligence, and honest directness. Framed by sections in which she interacts with one of the up-and-coming writers she mentors, Rose relates her story over an eleven-year period, from 1928 through 1939. Since the novel reads like a memoir, Rose often tells as much as she shows but it doesn’t matter one bit. Great writers know when and how they can break the rules.

A prolific and astonishingly successful author of magazine fiction and quasi-sensational biographies, Rose is a fortyish divorcĂ©e and avid world traveler with strong connections in America’s literary community when she’s called home from Albania to care for her aging parents at their farm at Rocky Ridge in Mansfield, Missouri, population 870.

The two women are very different personality-wise. “My mother is a mystery in many ways, at least to me,” says Rose, knowing that the opposite is true as well. Having grown up with very little, “Mama Bess” is self-reliant and proud, yet bossy, overly critical, and very conscious about what others think. Cosmopolitan, adventurous, and overly generous to others she spends money as fast as it comes in Rose tries her mother’s patience when her bohemian New York friends come to stay and meet up against Mansfield’s small-town narrow-mindedness.

Then the stock market crash of ’29 hits, causing both women to lose their life savings and prompting Mama Bess, who had previously written only columns for a rural newspaper, to try her hand at an autobiography. A Wilder Rose details the dire economic circumstances that drew Rose into assisting with, editing, and finally rewriting her mother’s words in fictional form, and the literary deception that ensued.

Rose’s gift for penning realistic scene-setting details are evoked through Albert’s bountiful descriptions of the Missouri farmlands, richly abundant as the novel begins:  "... in an impetuous rush, the wild flume of wild plums and the pinks of peach blossom spill across the hillsides." These same lands turn heartbreakingly desolate during the Dust Bowl years.

She also provides brilliant insight into the mindset and methods of a talented commercial fiction writer something ordinary readers rarely get to see and New York’s vibrant publishing scene, as children’s literature establishes itself as an important, lucrative genre.

Along the way, Albert examines Rose’s personal relationships and her growth as a political activist and libertarian, provoked by her observations on how Roosevelt’s New Deal policies on agriculture affected local farmers, with decisions on their livelihood being taken out of their expert hands.

My favorite parts, though, are her wise observations on stories, truth, and life.

Although well known in her day, Rose Wilder Lane is an obscure author now, and A Wilder Rose makes a compelling case why this label is unfair. It certainly inspired me to seek out her published work. Beyond that, though, Albert’s sensitive approach acknowledges the faults in each woman’s character while highlighting their gifts and strengths: Laura/Mama Bess’s extraordinary personal history and oral storytelling abilities, and Rose’s skills at transforming her mother’s life into dramatic, page-turning fiction.

Their collaboration was fraught with difficulties, but Albert explains how in many ways it was necessary and how the Little House books, cherished by several generations of both children and adults, wouldn't have existed without it.

About the Novel's Author:  Susan Wittig Albert is the bestselling author of more than a hundred books for adults and young readers. Her work includes four mystery series—China Bayles, Darling Dahlias, The Cottage Tales, and (with her husband, Bill Albert), the Robin Paige Victorians—as well as short stories, memoirs, nonfiction, and edited anthologies. A former English professor, Susan lives in the Texas Hill Country. For more information, please visit www.susanalbert.com and www.AWilderRoseTheNovel.com.

A Wilder Rose was published by Persevero Press in October ($24.99 hb / $14.99 pb / $9.99 ebook, 308pp).  Thanks to the author for providing me with an e-galley via NetGalley.  This review forms part of the A Wilder Rose virtual book tour.


  1. This sounds very intriguing, indeed, and the basis for the novel, quite plausible. I have known great oral storytellers whose marvelous stories would have died out if not for a skilled and creative writer who could capture the spirit of the stories but make them readable as well.

    1. I had known earlier that Rose had had some involvement in the Little House books, but until I read this novel, I didn't realize how much. (I've browsed through Holtz's book, too, and mean to read it in more depth soon.) It's true, not everyone who's a talented storyteller is equally capable of crafting fiction and developing appealing characters.

  2. As a writer, I'm thinking of your word "treasured." I can see treasuring a book; I can't see treasuring a Kindle.

    1. I've been reading more and more on my Kindle, actually. Including this book! I didn't think I'd enjoy reading on it as much as I do.

  3. I, too, grew up on the Little House books and love them. In fact, I love all things Ingalls and Wilder. I had not even heard about this book, but your post is so wonderful. I can't wait to find a copy and dig in.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I first came across it on Goodreads and knew I had to read it, and the tour invite came through not long after. It was self-published, and it baffles me that a larger publisher didn't pick it up. It's deserving of a wide audience.