Writing a Woman’s Life, Part 1


The First Four Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At Story Circle, we spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about the importance of writing our own stories: documenting our lives, our passions, our hopes, our achievements—in journals, memoirs, poetry, drama, song, and autobiographical fiction. I’ve done my share of this personal work. Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place is my story about twenty-plus years of life in the Texas Hill Country. And An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days is the journal of one year of that life.

But I’m also interested in writing the lives of other women, and I’ve done my share of that, too. Some of these are fictional, but some are real, like my eight-book series of mysteries following Beatrix Potter’s life in the years 1905-1913. And if you’ve enjoyed reading such currently popular novels as The Paris Wife (Paula McLain), Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Potter’s (Therese Ann Fowler), or Loving Frank (Nancy Horan), you’ve been reading the lives of real women—interesting and thought-provoking lives they are, indeed.

Writing a woman’s life is a fascinating project, for many women’s experiences are rich in unexpected secrets, unexplored depths, and unrecognized achievements. I’ve been “working on” one particular woman for the past two decades, and since my novel about her is coming out in October, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this process, illustrated by what I’ve learned about my subject. This is the first of what I expect will be four posts on the topic.

I’m writing about Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968), the daughter of Laura and Almanzo Wilder. She was born in Dakota Territory, grew up in Mansfield MO, and left home at 18 to become a telegrapher, then a reporter and feature writer, a freelance journalist, a world traveler, a magazine fiction writer, a best-selling novelist, and a political philosopher. You can read her full biography here, and a charming short autobiography here, written in 1938 or 1939 for the Works Progress Association (WPA) Folklore Project.

I was compelled to learn more about Rose because, as a girl, I loved the eight Little House books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, I didn’t just love them, I adored them. I remember reading them aloud to myself, perched in the catalpa tree outside my bedroom window, loving the sound of the words, the flow of the sentences, the craft of the story, so simple and yet so real and compelling. That they were the work of an elderly woman, living on a Missouri farm, and writing true stories about her childhood (I imagined) by candlelight—why, this made them all the more interesting. One of my teachers called Laura an “untaught literary genius,” and I had to agree. And since I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I was heartened to discover that someone who hadn’t graduated high school and who had lived all her life on a farm could pick up her pen and write such beautiful books—and get them published! If she could do it, so could I. I pinned her picture on my wall—a little white-haired lady signing her book—and vowed to grow up and write just the way she did.

It was a great shock, then, in 1972 or so, to pick up what the publisher called the “ninth book” in the Little House series, The First Four Years, the story of Laura’s and Almanzo’s early years on their homestead and tree claim on the South Dakota prairie. But this couldn’t be the work of the Laura whose books I had read so often that I could recite whole passages from memory! Not to put too fine a point on it, the writing was stiff and awkward, the narrative clumsy, the characters unbelievable. This must have been written by . . . by an imposter, using Laura’s name!

By that time—the early seventies—I was studying literature in graduate school, so I had acquired some research skills that I was eager to apply to this new literary mystery. I was going to find out who wrote The First Four Years and why she (or he) had been allowed to put my Laura’s name on this . . . this inferior work!

Luckily, there was a brief introduction to the book, and I started there. I learned that, after Laura’s death, the manuscript of The First Four Years was given by Rose Wilder Lane to Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer and literary agent. Rose—yes, I knew about Rose, Laura’s only child. But the introduction told me things about her that I didn’t know: that she had traveled widely, that she was the bestselling author of many books and magazine articles, and that she had gone to Vietnam as a war correspondent at the age of 78. She seemed to be quite a remarkable woman.

And then something occurred to me. What if Rose had written The First Four Years, and not Laura? What if the publisher had put Laura’s name on the book so it would sell better? That would account for the differences, wouldn’t it?

But Roger MacBride’s introduction said that the manuscript was in Laura’s handwriting, so that couldn’t the answer. And when I finally managed to find a copy of The Peaks of Shala, Rose’s 1923 book about her travels in Albania, I could see that Laura’s daughter was a highly skilled storyteller with a remarkable eye for description and a strong narrative sense. The Peaks of Shala, in its own way, was every bit as accomplished as the Little House books.

And that discovery led me to consider another, even more startling possibility. What if Rose had secretly written—or at least worked extensively on—her mother’s stories, turning them into the Little House books and transforming her mother into a famous author. What if Laura indeed had written The First Four Years but without Rose’s help?

A Wilder Rose

It was those two what ifs that pulled me into the research—a long, long learning trail, both in distance and time—that led to the writing of my novel, A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses. In my next post here at HerStories (July 8), I’ll tell you about that research.

But in the meantime, you might think about a woman who has intrigued you—a relative or a friend, perhaps, or someone you’ve read about and admire. What questions are raised by what you already know about her? What more would you like to learn about her story? What what ifs make you wonder about things she did or might have done? What learning trail would you have to follow if you wanted to discover and write about her life?

———————————————

Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website: www.susanalbert.com

Read part 2 and part 3 of this series.

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