Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life by Pamela Smith Hill

Some people think that Laura Ingalls Wilder was not a skilled enough writer to have written the brilliant set of novels now known as The Little House Books by herself. There is a pervasive theory (popularized by the book The Ghost in the Little House) that her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a successful journalist at the time, basically wrote them for her. After all, Laura was just a farmer's wife, good at setting hens to lay eggs, but what did she know about writing?

I have always thought this was bunk, and happily, Ms. Hill agrees. I have a copy of Little House in the Ozarks, which is a collection of the articles Laura wrote for decades as a farmer's wife. They cover everyday things like cooking and cleaning and farming, but then that's a lot of the same material she covers in the Little House books. I also always thought that her terrific descriptions must have come from the years when she had to be "Mary's eyes," after her older sister went blind. Laura had to paint pictures for Mary with words. Mary didn't always appreciate Laura's creative metaphors but they do a masterful job of conveying the tone she means.

Ms. Hill examines both Laura's actual life events, and also her unpublished (until this coming fall!) original memoir, Pioneer Girl, and looks at what she left in, what she left out, what she embroidered, and also how much editing Rose did and where and of what. She concludes that Rose's edits, while heavy-handed at times (as she came from the newspaper world where editorial changes were made without the writer's permission), were only appropriate and no more, that Laura was already a good writer who improved with practice, and Rose was only a middling writer anyway. (I have read her novel Young Pioneers, the material for which she stole from Laura's Pioneer Girl, and it's only so-so.) Personally, I have always preferred the later books in the series, which were written when Rose did less editing, and Laura pushed back on her edits more. So the books with more of Rose's influence as lesser in my opinion.

I appreciated Ms. Hill's analysis of the editing process between Laura and Rose. Rose obviously did know what she was doing, as the books needed little editing by Harper & Row's editors after the manuscripts were turned in. But a good editor is by no means a co-writer. They are completely different skill sets. Most editors are not great writers (passable, sure, but not great), just as most writers aren't good at editing. Just because Rose edited the books and was also a writer on her own, does not mean she wrote or co-wrote the Little House books. And I am glad Ms. Hill has the academic authority to say so definitively, based on extensive research and analysis.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.


Caroline Starr Rose said...

Just started reading for the free online class. Are you taking it, too?

Carin Siegfried said...

Yes I am!