Book explores how Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter influenced the 'Little House' book series
Christine Woodside discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder's books at her local library while growing up in Princeton, N.J., and her parents eventually bought her a full set, from “Little House in the Big Woods” to “These Happy Golden Years.”
The hardbound copies, with illustrations by Garth Williams, were the inspiration for Woodside's book, “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books.” Published last September by Arcade Books, it tells the story of how daughter Rose embellished her mother's stories with her own conservative politics.
Woodside, a resident of Deep River, is not the first to suggest that Laura Ingalls Wilder's only child had a hand in her writing. In his 1995 biography, “The Ghost in the Little House,” William Holtz described Rose's work as a “line by line rewriting of labored and underdeveloped narratives.”
But she has gone beyond Holtz's work with an in-depth analysis of how Rose influenced the famous children's series, which has sold about 60 million copies since the first volume was released in 1932. The books, drawn largely from Laura's experiences, tell the story of the Ingalls family's moves from Wisconsin to Indian Territory (now Kansas), Minnesota and the Dakotas. The books spawned a TV series in the 1970s starring Michael Landon as Pa Ingalls, as well as many spinoff books for younger children based on the originals.
A longtime “Little House” fan, Woodside struggled with the idea of Rose's involvement.
“Initially, I really admired Laura and thought Rose was a liar,” she said. “Rose was a habitual liar. She liked to stretch the truth.”
But gradually, through research that stretched over 15 years, Woodside had to acknowledge she had fallen victim to a myth. “I realized Laura herself was a different person for a lot of people.”
Woodside began this project in earnest in 2000, after leaving The Day, where she had worked for 13 years as a copy editor, assistant city editor and reporter. She traveled twice to the Ingalls Wilder home in Mansfield, Missouri, which is now a museum. She also did research at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa (which ended up with some of the novel drafts because Rose wrote the president's biography), as well as Columbia University, which holds the papers of Rose's literary agent.
Throughout her quest, Woodside was chasing a relationship that even the books' publisher did not understand. The series had its genesis in a memoir Ingalls Wilder wrote called “Pioneer Girl,” which Rose had attempted to sell to a magazine. Ingalls Wilder mined this material for each of the volumes in what would become a seven-book series. (An additional book, “Farmer Boy,” written in 1933, is about Laura's husband's childhood.)
From the beginning, the mother sought the daughter's help. Laura would write a draft in pencil and deliver it to Rose, who would return a typed copy. But Woodside found that Rose was far more than a stenographer. She rewrote entire passages of her mother's prose, adding a more optimistic tone to fit her ideal of manifest destiny.
“In order to make the writing vivid, (Rose) would demand that Laura add detail,” Woodside said.
Mindful of their juvenile audience, Rose also tempered the truth. In one example, Laura falls into a creek and almost drowns in “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” In fact, young Laura was on her way to fetch a doctor for her “gravely ill” mother, Woodside said. Rose instead has Laura disobeying her parents by playing near the creek.
In one extreme, Rose wanted to eliminate a key episode in the series, when Laura's older sister Mary is blinded by scarlet fever. Laura stood fast. The two did, however, agree to write out a brother of Laura's who died in infancy.
The collaboration was often fractious, Woodside notes. Lane already had mined some of her mother's life in her own books, including “Let the Hurricane Roar,” and at times the two seem to be in a tug of war over who would get to use which anecdote first.
“I think they loved each other very much,” Woodside said, “but their relationship was fraught, and they had trouble being together.”
While Lane's most important contribution might have been the detail she demanded of her mother, she also wove in a libertarian point of view. Writing during the Great Depression, the two women despised President Franklin D. Roosevelt and believed that people on relief were weak. For Rose in particular, the series was a chance to celebrate the power of the individual.
“Originally, I just wanted to tell the true story of who the women were, and it didn't dawn on me how important the politics were,” Woodside said.
One surprising fact she uncovered is how much of the prairie stories were written in Connecticut. Rose bought a house in Danbury in 1938, and beginning with “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” the manuscript drafts traveled by mail between here and Missouri.
Woodside has been busy this summer promoting the book. She recently delivered the keynote address at LauraPalooza, a conference in Springfield, Mo., celebrating the 150th anniversary of the author's birth. It attracts both fans in prairie dress and academics, and Woodside focused her address on the arcane details of her research. “I projected about 40 images of documents for them,” she said.
Since leaving The Day, Woodside has made a living as a freelance environmental writer and editor. She has been editor-in-chief of the journal Appalachia for 11 years and holds workshops on nature and writing.
She also edited “New Wilderness Voices: Collected Essays from the Waterman Fund Contest,” a compilation from the pages of Appalachia that was published this summer by the University Press of New England. So she is in the interesting position of promoting two books at once.
Woodside spoke on July 23 at Authors on Main in Wakefield, R.I., after appearing in Hanover, N.H., two days prior at an event for “New Wilderness Voices.”
During her Rhode Island talk, she noted that not only have the “Little House” books stood the test of time, they were written with increasing difficulty as their readers aged. “It was a triumph, what they were able to do together,” she said.
Does Woodside have a favorite in the series?
She hesitated, finally settling on “The Long Winter,” which tells the story of a snowbound town in 1880-81, when the Ingalls family was living in the Dakota Territory. “I think it's pretty masterfully done,” she noted, with a classic narrative arc and a clear problem to be solved.
For her next project, Woodside is looking into the history of industrial farming in southern New Jersey, where her grandfather sold out his holdings in 1915. She also is considering enrolling in a graduate program in history, because of the historical research book-length projects require.
She still keeps her set of “Little House” books close at hand while she enjoys the culmination of years of work.
“I believe pretty much any work of fiction, there's a story behind it,” Woodside told the Wakefield audience. "I find it interesting and vital to understand how literature is made."
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