Anyone interested in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder should read this pretty good New Yorker article which summarizes what information is available about how they came to be, drawn mostly from two biographies, one of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the other of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. I’ve read the Wilder biography, Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, and have ordered the one of Lane, Ghost in the Little House.
The controversy, which isn’t really all that important, is how large a role Rose played in the writing of the books; one camp says a very great role, the other says not so much. For most readers, the books are what matter. And the good news is that nobody really disputes their integrity; at times they take liberties with the actual historical details, but always for the sake of the narrative.
I’m a little more interested than most in the level of Rose’s involvement, because I think that the Little House books are astonishing accomplishments of style, ones that ought to be studied by anyone who wants to write simply and directly. If the praise is due to Laura, then one can focus on the Little House books because that’s all she wrote. But if the praise is due to Rose, then there is much more to look at, since she was a prolific journalist who also wrote several bestselling novels under her own name.
While I was thinking about this, I read Rose’s book Free Land, and that pretty much settled the question for me. Even though it was a very successful book at the time, it is badly written. Very badly written. And given that it is based on her father Almanzo’s experiences with homesteading, there are many portions that cover the same ground that the Little House books cover; in those cases, there is simply no comparison between Laura’s spare prose and the boilerplate junk that Rose cranked out.
The other thing that persuaded me that Laura is mostly responsible for the style of the Little House books is the ninth book, The First Four Years, which is actually an abandoned manuscript of a book for adults that never saw revision. The article mentions it:
At some point soon afterward, Laura did set down the story of her experience as a bride and a young mother, but she abandoned it. That was the manuscript that was found after her death; in 1971 MacBride published it, without revisions, as “The First Four Years,” and it is now marketed as volume nine in the Little House series.
But Laura’s instincts were right. The writing is prissy and amateurish; the heroine is bigoted and obsessed with money. It is too simplistic for an adult reader, and too mature for a child. In slightly more than a hundred pages, there isn’t even a glimmer of the radiant simplicity that draws one to the Little House books.
I think this description is only partly right. The first section of the book is as described, badly written. But the problem is that it is overwritten, and given that it is a first draft aimed at an audience that Laura had not previously written for, it isn’t surprising that the result would be florid and amateurish. Careful, extended experimentation, rewriting, and editing would probably have yielded a very different result.
Halfway through the manuscript, though, the approach takes a very dramatic turn, becoming more a series of sketches that will be fleshed out later. And the style becomes spare and unadorned, taking on some of the important qualities found in the Little House books. Whether Laura’s writing naturally had those qualities, or whether it came from many years of careful, thoughtful reduction of the Little House texts, she was clearly able to write with “radiant simplicity” when she wanted to.