Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Truth Is Messier Than Fiction

My only experience with the “Little House on the Prairie” books is the treacly, long-running television series from the 1970s. I know that the boob tube version of  the lives of Charles and Caroline Ingalls; their children, including daughter Laura Ingalls (later Ingalls Wilder); and Laura’s husband Almanzo and daughter Rose bears only a passing resemblance to the books. But the books are also fictionalized versions of reality — and as Judith Thurman makes clear in her very long but fascinating New Yorker article about the book series and the two women behind the series, the real-life reality of the Ingalls family, and in particular of the real persons, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, is considerably more complicated — and often startlingly different — than that of the Ingalls Wilder family of fondly remembered fiction.

The heart of Thurman’s account, for me, is the relationship between mother and daughter — Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose. Rose’s personality was pretty much a total mismatch with her mother’s, and they had a difficult — at times, even dysfunctional — relationship:

By the time that Laura published her first book, Rose was a frumpish, middle-aged divorcée, who was tormented by rotten teeth and suffered from bouts of suicidal depression, which she diagnosed in her journal, with more insight than many doctors of the era, as a mental illness. For more than a decade, she had earned a good living with what she considered literary hack work for the San Francisco Bulletin, its rival, the Call, various magazines, and the Red Cross Publicity Bureau. She had published commercial fiction, travelogues, ghostwritten memoirs, and several celebrity biographies. Charles Ingalls’s granddaughter had inherited his wanderlust, and her career had given her a chance to indulge it. Much of her reporting had been filed from exotic places. She had lived among bohemians in Paris and Greenwich Village, Soviet peasants and revolutionaries, intellectuals in Weimar Berlin, survivors of the massacres in Armenia, Albanian rebels, and camel-drivers on the road to Baghdad.


Rose was, in essence, the child of refugees. The girls in Mansfield laughed at her for her patched clothes and bare feet. The family sometimes went hungry, and Rose blamed the condition of her teeth on early malnutrition. She later recalled her parents’ outward show of courage and gaiety and her own sullen pride in defying her humiliations. But she confided them to her journal, where she also complained bitterly about her mother. “No affection” heads the litany of her privations. “She made me so miserable as a child that I never got over it.” Even as a grown woman, Laura belittled her, Rose said: she “hesitates to let me have the responsibility of bringing up the butter from the spring, for fear I won’t do it quite right!”

William Holtz points out that Laura had been so harried by poverty and hardship—doing some of the man’s work that Almanzo couldn’t manage, in addition to her own—that she might not have had much left to give, except the example of self-denial. Rose herself could be grandiose and domineering. There is nothing explicit in their letters (few of Laura’s survive, one a belated paean of gratitude) to suggest that Wilder merited the accusations, even though she accepted Rose’s extravagant gifts and literary labors on her behalf with a sense of entitlement that was more like a child’s than like a mother’s. Rose, in her less aggrieved moments, could admit that Mama Bess, through no fault of her own, had the wrong daughter. Whatever their disappointments, they kept them from each other.

After high school, Rose left home to work as a telegraph operator, and in 1908 she took a job in San Francisco. Holtz isn’t sure whether or not she had already met her future husband, Claire Gillette Lane, a newspaper reporter her own age—twenty-two—but they married a year later. She became pregnant only once, and lost the infant, a boy. (Later in life, she informally adopted a series of protégés whom she considered foster children; she could be a needy and controlling benefactor, but she lavished upon her wards the gifts of maternal warmth and of faith in their potential of which she herself had felt cheated.)

The article will probably be even more pleasurable to read if one has read the L.H. series — but even I, although I have not read even one book in the series, greatly enjoyed it.


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This entry was posted on August 4, 2009 by in Eclectic, Literary.
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