Book Reviews

Book Review: The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz – Mothers and Daughters Are Complicated

In my younger days, I developed a deep love of the Little House books. As I grew older, I wondered about what happened beyond what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in the books and sought out various sources to fill in the gaps in her life story. When I visited her home in Mansfield, Missouri, I also saw the book The Ghost in the Little House on a shelf with another book and decided to pick it up.

The Ghost in the Little House tells the story of the life of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s only child. Specifically, author William Holtz takes the position that most of what we have read in the Little House books is thanks to Rose.

Many people don’t know that Rose was a well-known writer in her own right, having worked on several newspapers and authoring books in addition to the many pieces she sold to various magazines through the years and the Saturday Evening Post.

Rose’s life began on the Dakota prairie written about in several of the Little House books. Her family moved several times until finally settling in Mansfield, Missouri. Life before then wasn’t a happy time for Laura and Almanzo. Once in Missouri, their life seemed better but Rose seems to have felt oppressed under small-town life.

Highly intelligent and a creative writer, Rose left the farm to make her way in the world and ended up in San Francisco, which is where she would eventually begin a writing career after several attempts at running a business with her husband, Gillette Lane. The two would later divorce, which is what allowed Rose to be free to travel the world and write her stories from far-off places. Her first overseas commissions were from the Red Cross, but later on, she free-lanced and did quite well. She traveled to places such as Baghdad, Paris, and Albania and reported back to readers in America about conditions there following the first World War. Her writing is part travelogue and part social statement as to her observations during the time.

Holtz has taken many of his accounts of Rose’s life from her own letters and writings. The letters were gathered from a variety of sources, including letters to a former editor, Fremont Older, as well as Dorothy Thompson who was a close friend for forty years. Rose’s letters to a long-time lover were returned to her upon his marriage and were available in the collection of material relating to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

I found myself looking at Rose’s writings and coming away with something different than what Holtz seemed to want to argue to his readers. Holtz seemed to almost want to make Laura a horrible person throughout the book. What I saw was how Laura looked through Rose’s eyes. Rose seemed to be manic-depressive and moody in her writings to people and in her journal. In that respect, she saw her mother as overbearing and cruel. What I saw was someone who, in Rose’s eyes, could do nothing right. Every comment her mother made Rose seemed to automatically take as a criticism or a negative.

One particular incident, I thought was painted this way was the issues of the houses. Laura and Almanzo had built their house on Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. When Rose wanted to come back and live in the house in the mid-1920s, she had an English Stone cottage built on the property for her parents. They lived there and Rose and some of her friends lived in the farmhouse. Rose resents the fact that after she left the property, her parents wanted the other people who were living in the house out and wanted to move back in. Since there is no way to hear the other side of the argument, all we are hearing about is Rose’s feelings on the matter. Perhaps her parents only moved out to try to please her in the first place.

In regard to the Little House books, there’s no doubt Rose had a hand in them. In some cases, I am sure it was a very heavy hand. However, at the same time, I read the letters and I wonder how much of it was Rose coming across to her mother as a know-it-all and Laura not wanting to fight with her daughter about it. I am not saying that Rose didn’t have a better feel for how her mother’s books needed to be edited for publication, but in reading all of Rose’s letters to other people and how she comes off, I can’t help but wonder if she talked to her mother the same way she wrote at times.

It’s shown how she inserted her increasingly Conservative ideology into Little Town on the Prairie. It was something for me to read about both Laura’s and Rose’s very Conservative leanings. Rose’s political books and pamphlets at the end of the 1930’s deriding Roosevelt’s New Deal are still cornerstones of Conservative ideology. However, some of the policies she speaks about, such as keeping business out of government, seem to be exactly what the neo-Conservative movement has embraced as of late. In Rose’s eyes, Conservativism was people standing on their own and not expecting the government to help them. Yet, in reading the entire book, Rose had considerable help. All along she is borrowing money all over the place from her friends, and even from her parents at one point. Yet she is against the government helping people out. In her eyes, it is okay to hit up someone you know but not for the government to help people out. Regardless, her political writings have been very important and influential.

Political leanings aside, most of the book is concentrated on Rose, and by extension her relationship with her mother. Holtz seems to buy into the idea that Laura was to blame for all of Rose’s ills, and that’s something I don’t buy into. Of course, he sets up the marginalization of those who disagree with his assessment by stating that there are those out there who feel a need to be protective of Laura’s memory. I have no problem admitting Rose’s hand in the writing of the Little House books, be it as a full-fledged ghost-writer or acting as her mother’s editor. What I do disagree with is the leap he seems to want readers to make as to Laura’s overall character.

I also think that Rose usurped some of her mother’s ideas for her own writing. There are passages that speak of the two arguing over a particular incident as to who would get to write about it. Rose’s books, Let the Hurricane Roar and Free Land seem to be heavily borrowed from her mother’s memories of the pioneer days on the prairie.

All that aside, Rose’s life is fascinating. She is a woman who is doing what she wants at a time when society had other ideas. It took me a long time to finish the entire book as it’s not exactly compelling reading. I started it at least three months ago and had to put it down several times and pick it up again. It did make great reading the days I was waiting for my kids at the bus stop.

All in all, I found The Ghost in the Little House to be a good piece of the puzzle in the life of the Wilder family and in the evolution of the Little House books. I think Holtz was a little too biased in his opinion of Laura Ingalls Wilder based on her daughter’s writings to be truly objective.

3 replies »