Book of the Day: “Libertarians on the Prairie” by Christine Woodside
Since the initial publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books between 1932 and 1943, generations of readers have embraced the portrait of frontier life she drew from her own family’s experience. Wilder scholars have long seen clues pointing to the significant role that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, played in editing her mother’s writing and ferrying it to publication. But Christine Woodside’s illuminating new book, Libertarians on the Prairie, looks closely at the relationship between mother and daughter and solidly supports the conclusion that the younger woman was the primary mastermind behind the literary classics—heavily rewriting most of the books and essentially writing the last two in the series on her own.
Woodside, who admits she has been obsessed with Laura’s life and work since childhood, has, in essence, spent a lifetime doing research for her iconoclastic book. Yet, while Laura’s story may have been the catalyst for Woodside’s interest, it is Rose who takes center stage in this fascinating chronicle. Though largely forgotten today except as her mother’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane was, in her day, a hugely successful writer whose name would have been familiar to anyone who read the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s or many other magazines during that golden age. She was a renegade and freethinker, a woman who divorced young, went to live in Europe on her own and in many ways supported her parents, who were never very successful at the farming life Laura idealized in her books. While Laura had tried her hand at a memoir, Pioneer Girl (which was published long after her death), and wrote columns for a local farm paper, one gets the sense from Libertarians on the Prairie that she was not really much of a writer. It was Rose who seemed to recognize the gold mine that lay dormant in her mother’s raw material, and the Little House stories would never have come to life—certainly not in the form we know them—without her intensive hands-on input.
Writing the Little House books was a way to make much-needed cash during the Depression, and Woodside goes into meticulous detail about the complicated finances of both Wilder women (perhaps a little too meticulous at times). We come to understand that money often drove them and also often drove a wedge between them. Quite simply, they hated paying taxes. It is their shared belief in the need for self-reliance (reflected in the pioneer mythology of the Little House books) and a hatred for government interference that inspire the “Libertarians” label in this book’s title, and Rose would become an early, vocal supporter of that rising political movement.
As Woodside portrays it, the relationship between Laura and Rose was often contentious. Delving into the letters between them and looking closely at the manuscripts they worked on, Woodside attempts to flush out the truth about who wrote what, what was truth and what was fiction. In the end, despite adept detection work, she is left with two questions that can never be fully answered: How did Laura feel about ceding her story to her daughter? And how did her more talented daughter feel about giving up public recognition for her own considerable contribution to the timeless books?
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage.