Sunday, February 26, 2017

728 (2017 #26). A Wilder Rose

by Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert mostly writes mysteries, and this was her first foray into historical fiction.  A Wilder Rose is based on the true story of Rose Wilder Lane and her much more famous mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series.

Unpublished letters written by Rose and Laura, as well as Rose's unpublished diaries, reveal that Rose was an uncredited ghostwriter/editor in the first eight books in the Little House series.  Albert used this source information (as well as William Holtz's biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House) to craft her novel.

This book focuses on the years 1928-1939.  Rose (born 1886), a successful journalist and freelance writer, returns in 1928 from Albania to her parents' home and farm in Missouri when they (Laura was then 61, her husband and Rose's father Almanzo was 71) are ill.  Flush with funds, Rose spends extravagantly to build them a new house on their Rocky Ridge farm, with all the modern conveniences.  Then the stock market crashes in 1929, Rose's investments (and those of her parents, made with Rose's advice) are wiped out, the freelance market dries up, and Rose is stuck at Rocky Ridge, feeling guilty and obligated toward her parents.

Rose encourages her mother to write down her stories of her pioneer girlhood, but the resulting first manuscript needed a LOT of work.  Rose did this, but did not claim any co-authorship.  Her goal was to create an income stream for her parents through book royalties, relieving the financial burden on herself.  The book, Little House in the Big Woods, was so successful that publishers wanted more - and Rose was further stuck, longing to escape Rocky Ridge but unable to work much on her own writing while editing her mother's.

But this book isn't just the story of this uncomfortable collaboration. Rose Wilder Lane is a fascinating person in her own right, and Albert covers most of her interesting life by including an epilogue.  The book also has a four-plus page bibliography, and Albert has a reader's companion with more details about the book's writing on a resources page on the book's website (along with a bibliography-in-progress of Rose's works, and a link to a Pinterest board).

I read the original 2013 self-published version of the book (the cover pictured at the beginning of this post).  In February 2015, the book was republished under an Amazon imprint, and Albert said in August 2014 that the book would get "a do-over....minor touchups and a few major revisions, using my own notes and some suggestions from Lake Union's editor, who gave the book a careful going-over."

I'd like to see this revised version, pictured above.  My problem with the original book was the inclusion of a little too much repetitive and extraneous details and tedious anecdotes that slowed the story down.  I'm curious to see if those were edited out in the reprint.

I do know that the third-person sections of the book, set in Rose's home in Danbury, Connecticut, in April 1939, remain in the revised version.  I found these sections somewhat distracting, as they pulled me out of the more-compelling first-person narrative in Rose's voice.  According to a Q&A, Albert used the (real) Norma Lee Browning as "an 'interlocutor' to get Rose to tell her story and an audience to hear her and react" and "a way to show some of Rose’s controlling behavior."  Given this explanation, the diversions from the first-person story line makes sense.

Albert originally wrote the book as creative or narrative nonfiction, according to an interview, but her agent found no one willing to publish it in that genre, either because they felt it would have a niche audience, or because they felt it didn't adhere to "the legend of Missouri housewife Wilder as the primary author of the books."  That's when Albert decided to recast the book as fiction and self-publish.  Given her previous success as an author and familiarity with publishing, she knew how to do this successfully.  I'm looking forward to more historical fiction by this author.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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