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Inside 'The Little House' : THE GHOST IN THE LITTLE HOUSE : A Life of Rose Wilder Lane by William Holtz (University of Missouri Press: $29.95; 416 pp.)

August 15, 1993|Katharine Andres | Andres' first children's book, "Fish Story," has just been published by Simon & Schuster.

Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) was a journalist and novelist. She wrote about Charlie Chaplin and Jack London and corresponded with Herbert Hoover. She chronicled her travels in Europe, the Middle East and Vietnam, wrote about her Libertarian political views, as well as an extraordinary number of stories serialized in magazines. Yet most people today, if they pick up this biography, will do so only because she is the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the perennial children's favorites, the Little House books.

William Holtz's new biography sets out to change this.

Holtz became interested in Lane when he read the Little House books to his own children, and tracked down her family letters and manuscripts in Missouri and South Dakota. Wilder, whom Lane called Mama Bess, is not the woman you want to imagine as writing those stories of a secure, loving pioneer family. As a mother Wilder was exacting and unaffectionate, and Lane at an early age was made to feel guilt for her parents' poverty and general run of misfortune. Lane spent her adult life making sure that her parents were comfortably taken care of. She built and remodeled houses for them and signed an agreement to give Mama Bess money each year. Even after the success of the Little House books, when her parents had more money than she had herself, Lane kept on scraping together money to give to them, and Mama Bess kept on accepting it as her due.

Born in De Smet, S.D., while her parents, Mama Bess and Almanzo (the hero of Wilder's "Farmer Boy"), struggled to farm during years of drought and hardship, Lane later wrote: "I hated everything and everybody in my childhood." This discontent, born of poverty and intelligence, remained with her throughout her life. She left home as early as she could and became a telegraph operator. This job eventually took her to San Francisco, where she married and began writing for small newspapers.

The marriage didn't last, and for the rest of her life her most sustaining relationships were with her many friends. She supported a young Albanian boy through his education and adopted two teen-age brothers in Missouri, giving them as much care and attention as any mother would give her sons. Always she gave more than she got in return, and in excerpts from Lane's letters and diaries, we see a passionate, lonely woman, traveling around the world yet always drawn back to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, where her parents were. All of this is interesting enough, but there is the nagging sense that the crux of the biography is a long time coming. The book contains an enormous amount of information about Lane's early works, her finances and many excerpts from her letters to friends on a variety of subjects. Though her writing is particularly lively, there is a sense of having to wade through too much in order to get to the book's raison d ' etre : Lane's place in the writing of the Little House books.

Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't write "Little House in the Big Woods," the first of her series, until 1932, when she was 65 and her daughter 45. It is Holtz's argument that the Little House series is as much Lane's work as her mother's, and this is really the center of his book. "Laura Ingalls Wilder remained a determined but amateurish writer until the end," he writes, and explains how she passed on each of her manuscripts to her daughter. It was Lane who turned the flat, undramatic prose (of which an appendix contains several examples) into the lively, convincing children's classics that made Wilder famous.

What is strangest about this association between mother and daughter is the elaborate pretense they both kept up that Lane was only doing the simplest editing. "(T)he changes I made, as you will see, are so slight that they could not even properly be called editing," she wrote to her mother. Yet from the manuscripts it is clear that Lane went through them line by line, rewriting, adding scenes and dialogue, improving the stories both technically and thematically. "This kind of work is called 'ghosting,' and no writer of my reputation ever does it," she wrote to a friend.

It is clear that working for her mother stole time from Lane's work. "Have to finish my mother's goddam juvenile, which has stopped me flat," she wrote in her diary. Although Lane's novel, "Free Land," which also used material from her family's history, was a bestseller in 1938, and she wrote steadily for her entire adult life, she never became known the way her mother was. She dreamed of writing a series of books that told the story of the American pioneer spirit--its history and politics--for adults, much in the same way the Little House books told the story for children. But plagued by self-doubt, financial worries and her responsibility to her parents, she wrote hundreds of smaller stories and articles instead.

Eventually she stopped writing fiction altogether and turned toward political writings, describing her vision of a United States free of the New Deal, which she hated. Holtz gives many pages to Lane's political ideas about man's individual freedom and the way governments impede it.

If Lane's own work does not entirely command the reader's interest, still Holtz's book makes clear for the first time that she achieved something important and lasting in her writing with the Little House books. His argument about the collaboration between the two women is entirely convincing, and the next time I see the Little House series on the shelf at the bookstore, I'll imagine Rose Wilder Lane's name next to her mother's on their covers.

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