Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 7, 2009

Truth in Fiction: Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane

What’s the truth in a work of fiction? In a recent piece for Teen Reads, Jo Knowles jbknowles covers the origins of her novels in lived experience, and the ways her struggle to understand people she’s known, including herself, shapes the lives she creates in novels. There’s truth and imagination, which is so much composed of compassion. Jo says it all brilliantly. When readers ask novelists – is this, or any of this true? – some bristle, taking the question as an assault upon their creativity, Kind Jo puts front and center the question that’s so often behind the question: am I alone? So many of us read to feel we aren’t, and are comforted when we read of someone who seems to understand us. We may come to an author hoping that is not an illusion. While honoring the complexity of the creative process, Jo assures us that we’re not forever bound to be misfits.

Relating to truth but from a different angle, I just read a New Yorker article by Judith Thurman, who often and deftly profiles remarkable women for this magazine. This one is about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Judith Thurman’s focus is on their relationship, particularly their collaboration as writers, which seems to be mainly Laura providing the material of stories from her hard, brave life, while Rose, who’d already had a long career as a writer, shaped them into the books that would become beloved. Upon hearing of the daughter’s hand in the stories, some feel betrayed. They thought they were all truth. There are still debates about whether the books should be shelved with fiction or nonfiction. Because of the heavy reliance on dialogue and scenes which Laura surely could not remember looking back over fifty years, even before looking at early manuscripts, I considered them fiction based on fact. It’s a twist on the James Frey fiasco: he wrote a novel that his publisher apparently decided would sell better as memoir; it sold fantastically well, at which point much of what he wrote was revealed as not just wild conjecture but lies. I haven’t followed this well, but I believe the book is now being published as fiction.

It’s a long way from tales of addiction and jail stays to the Little Houses, but there’s the same cry in the heart to believe we’re not alone. And also, that ancient perhaps not as pretty cry to feel somebody’s got it worse. Hey I’m not THAT addicted and I may have done a foolish thing or two but I never landed in jail. OR, hey, a job was lost in the family and the weather’s bad, but that winter storm didn’t drop snow seventeen feet high, and we didn’t almost starve because the train didn’t get through. We’ve got problems, but no blights of locusts, hail, drought, or bears lurking outside thin walls.

Stories in the media often pose the moment of revelation, when you find something you thought was true was not, as moments of drama, anger, sheer and cold betrayal. But often I’ve found those moments to be gentle and hushed; the truth falls, and it brings people quietly closer, perhaps after some anguish. In Borrowed Names, my book of poems coming out next spring, I wrote of Laura and Rose and how they worked together; not scheming to keep secrets, but a mother and daughter collaborating at last as best they knew how with pencils, five cent notebooks, and a typewriter, trying to tell a story of hope.


  1. “the truth falls, and it brings people quietly closer . . .”
    What a beautiful post, Jeannine. I just read Thurman’s article yesterday. Rose and Laura had a pretty complex relationship. I didn’t realize Rose felt so unloved by her mother. That puts a different spin on how she might have gone about editing Laura’s stories.
    So anxious to read what you’ve written about them in your new book!

  2. I’ve only ever seen the Ingalls books in fiction (when I was a child and now as an adult), so it never dawned on me that they were memoir. That said, just because they’re fiction doesn’t make them untrue. I stick with Mr. King on this one – fiction is the lie that tells the truth. (That’s close to his saying, anyhow.)

  3. This is a lovely post. Much to think about here. I especially loved “I wrote of Laura and Rose and how they worked together; not scheming to keep secrets, but a mother and daughter collaborating at last as best they knew how with pencils, five cent notebooks, and a typewriter, trying to tell a story of hope.” It makes me want to read your book of poems!!

  4. What a great post, Jeannine! I didn’t know of the Little House conflict. This theme of truth has been following me around for quite a long time now. There’s so much to talk about, isn’t there?
    And thanks for the kinds words.

  5. Fascinating, Jeannine. I’m looking forward to reading Borrowed Names.

  6. Lovely post. I remember reading Zochert’s biography of Laura when I was nine, and being very confused. I wanted so much for the books to be The Truth, mostly because the Ingalls’ real story was even harder and more distressing. It took a while for me to take it on board — nine is awfully young! — but it was ultimately a good thing that both the books and the biography had a place in my life.
    Can’t wait to read Borrowed Names…

  7. Thanks, Jama. Laura gave birth to Rose when she was still a teenager, and then had to contend with so many disasters on farms that it’s kind of easy to see how Rose felt she didn’t receive the kind of love she craved: Laura was loving, but very practical by nature. I think writing the books did help them both feel more warmth and respect; but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.

  8. Yay for Mr. King or for your adaptation. I think most librarians saw them as fiction and put them where they belonged, but this made not only Laura, but Rose who did the heavy editing, bristle.

  9. Thanks, Tracy. I will be very excited when you can read this!

  10. I appreciated the compassionate way you approached truth, Jo. You are the best!

  11. Thank you, Lorraine. And I’m looking forward to having you read the poems! Good luck with your August writing.

  12. I wish I’d known you when you were nine, Amy! It is interesting how many times children have to patch together their versions of truth, not just in fiction/biography but what they see vs what they’re told.

  13. I read that article about Laura & Rose. I have such strong feelings about the claims that Rose was the writer–not all of them rational, I’m sure. 🙂 What I read, though, about Rose and about her writing style just doesn’t feel like she’s the one behind the words in the LH books. Not as much as Laura. My sense of Rose was that she was a more hurried, rather chaotic person, while I think Laura had–always–studied life, including the people around her and the way they interact/their dynamics. One of my most amazing re-read experiences is having read the blizzard scene in The Long Winter, after I was a mother. Laura (I think!) did the most brilliant job of showing–for her young readers–what it felt like to be a child who’s father was lost, maybe stuck in town, but maybe dead in the snow. What I didn’t see until I read it later was how wonderfully she weaves in Caroline’s part of that story–her worry, while she kept the children busy, her fears and her strength. I think Laura mixed her memories of the events with her own sense of what it was like for her, as a mother, and brought forth what HER mother must have experienced that day. From what I’ve read about Rose (which I’ll admit isn’t reams), I just can’t see this as coming from her. I can see it coming from Laura.
    My vent. Whew. 🙂

  14. Um, glad you got that off your chest, Becky!
    Well there’s definitely a weaving going on in the writing, and no one can every know precisely who wrote down which word. There are some pages we have from each to compare, but not all of each book. But hey if you want to think the genius was in Laura, why not? She certainly was a survivor and intelligent and as you suggest was the one who might best see things from both a mother’s and a daughter’s point of view. But I wouldn’t discount the power of imagination and compassion either, or just the right blend of people working together.

  15. Sigh. one of my soapboxes. I’m sure that Rose did help her mom, in many ways. I just get frustrated when someone discounts Laura as a writer–I thought the Times article had some of that tone to it. 🙂

  16. Truth
    I read an article years ago that said that Rose Wilder bent the truth to fit her own conservative beliefs. For example, in the books , Pa claims to never take public assistance… but in reality , Mary went to a school for the blind paid for with public money and they family did take publically offered assistance when needed and available according to historical record.
    Apparently, she bent the truth to fit what she believed. Not uncommon among “believers” who reject their life experience over a belief in “what it ought to be”. That’s a common human mistake.

  17. Re: Truth
    Yes, I too read about Rose leaving out details that didn’t fit her politics; and I agree with you, that’s not such a rare thing.
    Thanks for writing!

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