Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“The Little House Books: A Literary Deception?”

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Today's guest is Susan Wittig Albert, one of my first friends in the writing community. The author of the best-selling China Bayles mystery series, her latest novel was inspired by another beloved series - and a rather infamous literary deception...

Susan Wittig Albert : As many readers have learned—sometimes to their surprise—a book isn’t always what it seems to be. Take The Education of Little Tree, for example. Published in 1976, it was marketed as the true story of an orphaned boy who was adopted by his Cherokee grandparents in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression. The book was a huge financial and critical success, selling more than 9 million copies. But 15 years later, readers learned that the author, “Forrest” Carter, was in fact Asa Carter, a KKK member and 1970 Georgia white supremacist gubernatorial candidate. Little Tree, from beginning to end, was a fiction. The disclosure didn’t dampen the book’s popularity, however. Oprah put it on her book club list (and then took it off again), and it was made into a movie.

Then there was Clifford Irving’s claim that Howard Hughes had hired him as a ghostwriter for his memoirs and sold McGraw-Hill on the project, to the tune of $765,000. Howard Hughes came out of seclusion to say that the project was a fraud, and Irving got 17 months in jail. But he got a book out of it, after all. The Hoax was made into a film starring Richard Gere.
And if you’re looking for additional examples, check out the list of 100+ literary hoaxes on Wikipedia.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the writing of the Little House series, the iconic pioneer books for young readers—should be described as a “literary hoax.” But there’s certainly a mystery around the books—and a deception at the heart of it—which for me adds to their enduring interest.
You remember the series, don’t you? 
The eight Little House books were written in the 1930s and 1940s. The series eventually produced a wildly popular TV program (Little House on the Prairie, which enjoyed an eight-year run and endless reruns), as well as dozens of related children’s books. The named author was Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was known to her neighbors as a contributor of short essays to The Missouri Ruralist and an excellent producer of eggs for market.

Over the decades since the first book’s publication, readers, teachers, librarians, and critics have marveled that this farmer’s wife (in her 60s when Little House in the Big Woods was published) could have written so many polished, publishable books. In fact, Ursula Nordstrom, one of the series editors, marveled at their extraordinary quality: “None of the manuscripts ever needed any editing. Not any. They were read and then copy-edited and sent to the printer.”

Laura must have been, in one critic’s phrase, “an untaught literary genius.” Not quite. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder did have some remarkable stories to tell about her pioneer childhood, which she wrote down in a pencil manuscript called “Pioneer Girl.” That document became the source for the eight Little House books, all published by Harper. But while Laura produced the penciled drafts, the typescripts that went to the publisher were the work of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a writer of books and magazine fiction and nonfiction who produced two bestsellers of her own and 70-some magazine stories and articles during the years she worked on her mother’s books.

Those are the facts behind my novel, A Wilder Rose, which is based on a careful reading of the daily diaries Rose kept in the 1930s. These unpublished diaries (held in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library) detail her work on her own fiction and nonfiction and on her mother’s books. They confirm—at last—just how much time and effort Rose contributed to the rewrites of Laura’s stories.

But Rose told no one of her work on her mother’s material. She sold the first book to Marion Fiery at Knopf, claiming it was her mother’s independent work. In her correspondence with her literary agent, George Bye (who also represented the Little House books) and with the editors who acquired and worked on the series, Rose insisted that she had no involvement with the books beyond being her mother’s “consultant.” And she never mentioned the books in her copious correspondence with other writers.

Laura, for her part, submitted Rose’s finished typescripts as if they were her own, sending them with a signed cover letter (sometimes drafted by Rose) to literary agent George Bye, who then sent them on to the Harper editors. The copy-edited manuscripts were returned to Laura, who gave them to Rose for checking, then returned them to the editors via Bye.
It’s not likely that the co-authors thought of their project as a literary deception. For both of them, writing was a commodity, and they wanted to sell books. The Wilders, retired from their subsistence farm, had no source of income except for Rose, who had supported them with an annual cash subsidy since 1920 and was eager to find or create a source of reliable income for her parents. When the stock market crashed in 1929 (Rose lost not only her own money but the funds she had invested for her mother), she turned to marketing her mother’s pioneer stories, hoping they would bring in some cash. And they did. Over time, the royalties provided the Wilders with a fine living, freeing their daughter from her financial obligation.

Rose’s motives for the deception also involved her professional status. She did not want to be seen as a ghostwriter, especially for “juveniles.” (Children’s literature at that time did not have the status it enjoys today.) She felt that ghostwriting, if it were known, could damage her reputation as a writer—although in the years 1932-1934, she ghostwrote five “true-life” adventure books for Lowell Thomas, again keeping her work secret.

But whether Laura and Rose intended to deceive, deceive they did. Laura was celebrated as the series author both before and after her death in 1957, and especially after Little House on the Prairie became required viewing for families across the country. Her name is on several literary awards and on libraries and reading rooms. When literary researchers of the 1980s began to suggest that Rose had something to do with the books, the idea was not popular. In fact, William Holtz’s 1993 biography of Rose, The Ghost in the Little House, provoked such a hurricane of indignation from Laura’s devoted fans that subsequent scholars approached the question of authorship only tentatively. Readers were enchanted by the romantic picture of a sweet little old lady, sitting down all by herself to write (in longhand!) the true stories of her pioneer childhood, perhaps by the light of a kerosene lamp. And since Rose herself was frequently presented as a rather unpleasant woman who was given to fits of depression, it became fashionable to discount her influence. As far as readers were concerned, Laura’s sole authorship was established fact.

All of this was in my mind when I sat down to write A Wilder Rose. Set in rural Missouri during the Great Depression, it tells the true story behind the Wilder myth. To me, it doesn’t matter how the Little House books were written or by whom: they stand securely as fictional representations of a vital part of our American heritage, as seen by a child of pioneer parents.
But I believe that we need to know the truth that lies behind the fictions that shape our perceptions of ourselves and our histories. I hope that A Wilder Rose will encourage readers to understand the Little House books in the context in which they were written, and appreciate them for what they are: the work of a remarkable mother and daughter, who for compelling personal reasons, concealed their collaboration.

Susan is the author/co-author of over 50 books for adults and 60 for young readers. You may read more about her work at www.susanalbert.com. For more about A Wilder Rose (including free downloads of reader resources), visit www.aWilderRoseTheNovel.com. The book is available in print and eBook formats from online retailers.

ROSEMARY: I seem to remember hearing something about this when I was a bookseller, but I never knew the whole story! Next people will be saying Shakespeare didn't write all those plays - oh wait...

Susan will be stopping by to say hello today and she has generously offered one lucky JR reader a signer copy of A Wilder Rose - so weigh in on Laura, Little House and Literary Hoaxes and it may be you.


  1. Wow . . . who knew?

    It just seems sad that Laura and Rose felt they needed to take this route rather than being honest about the authorship of the stories. Still, the truth eventually comes out, I suppose, though I'm not at all sure that this diminishes the stories; they're still wonderful books, aren't they?

  2. I enjoyed reading the Little House books to our two youngest children. They looked forward to the stories and planned activities that we read about in the books. I had hoped that it would inspire them to read on their own. They never did, but at least they were able to enjoy the stories.

    I was very sad when we finished the last, because there were never any others that kept their attention. I think the Harry Potter books would have done it, but they came out a bit late for me to read to them.

    It doesn't bother me that Rose did most of the writing or that she was the actual author. It makes sense. It's told from Laura's point of view, and that's the real story. I don't think of it as a hoax, despite the awards, although I hesitate there. Both were in agreement in what they must do, and they did so for a good reason.

    I saw Laura's manuscript that was written in pencil on lined tablet paper. It was on display at her house in Missouri. I found it very interesting to look at and enjoyed the side trip over there to see the very peaceful looking location and house.

    Laura worked on her stories, and her daughter wrote them. It doesn't bother me. It's too bad that Rose had to conceal her authorship, but I understand that was a different time. She had a career she needed to protect.

    I think each generation has a different way of looking at authorship. Many, many years ago stories were rewritten by numbers of authors who often used names that gave credence to the stories they told. Multiple truths were added to fictional accounts that told the stories, the account of an idea or a people's history. Adventures became truth in the telling. They informed and enlightened the reader or audience about life and relationships in community and the world outside their own. Plagiarism was not an issue in those times. These things were not considered wrong or deceitful in that distant history. They served a good purpose, acceptable in their time.

    We have changed our expectations, but we do a disservice to the ancient texts with our modern interpretation of reality and ownership. How different was it for Rose and Laura? It was different enough for them to conceal the truth.

    It was a time when pioneers were still living and were side-by-side with people of the industrial world. Times when eras meet up and occupy the same space, historic ways invade the new and the clash is striking.

    I had a neighbor whose grandfather had seen his father killed in a massacre by a group of cavalrymen. That Indian massacre is alive today in the valley where our ranches were located. The Little House stories about tensions and fighting with indigenous people represent that kind of crossing in time that must be understood as the forced sharing of transitional time and space.

    Laura's and Rose's stories are just that kind of clash fighting for space in the modern world of their time. They had to find a way to survive the obstacles of the time, so they could write and publish those wonderful books. That's what I think.

  3. Hi Susan. I never knew that about "Little House."

    I never read the books nor did I watch much of the tv show but I know many who did. It's too bad they didn't start out with the collaboration being public. I'm not sure how it would have diminished the stories but maybe the times demanded it.

    Best of luck with the book!

  4. Hi Susan, welcome to JRW!

    I was a big fan of Little House...

    The Wilder Rose is a novel right? I'm so curious about how you choose which part of the facts to use and what you fictionalize. Could you tell us a little about that?

  5. We look at things through the filter of our own times and own experience. Life in the great depression was a life or death struggle for many. People did whatever they could to survive. They lost everything. There was no safety net. Also, women held a very different place in society. Rose and Laura saw an opportunity in writing the Little House books. The stories were great even if the hardships of rural life were sugarcoated.
    Before we cry "hoax" let's just consider the actions of Rose and Laura as resourcefulness.
    Susan's period pieces are beautiful.

  6. How fascinating. Thank you for telling this story, Susan, and having read some of your other work, I know it will be an intriguing read.

    My middle daughter read all the books when she was in second and third grades, and chose Laura Ingalls Wilder as her subject for a book report. The children were encouraged to dress the part of their subjects, so she asked me to make her a prairie girl outfit: dress, apron, bonnet. It was also her Halloween costume that year. I'll have to share this blog post with her; she'll love knowing more about the Wilder family.

    Reine, a few years ago we drove down through North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, and passed signs for the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in De Smet, SD, but I couldn't convince my husband to stop. One of these days.

  7. A long time ago I heard that "Rose taught her mother to write". I didn't know until recently the extent to which Rose was involved.

    It doesn't bother me at all that the stories were a collaboration. It would have been sweet to know the entire story right from the beginning, but I do understand why they handled things the way they did. I devoured the Little House books as a youngster, and borrowed them from the library one at a time. When I was in my twenties one of my sisters gave me the entire collection for my birthday, knowing how much I enjoyed them. I have no plans to ever part with them! She and another of my sisters also enjoyed them. One of them is a sixth grade teacher, and she has the books in her classroom library.

  8. Oh, I had NO idea! How fascinating..thank you! What difference would it have made, do you think?

    And you know, I never read or saw any Little HOuse. Wonder why..

    Great to see you!

  9. What a fascinating inside story, Susan. A reminder that writing books is as much a business as an art. I never read any of the Little House books either.

    Is A Wilder Rose a novel or nonfiction? And it seems like a major departure for you as a writer, yes?

  10. Lucy/Roberta, I've written a Readers Companion that separates the facts from the fictions. It will be available as a Kindle book this week (I hope). But essentially, I framed it as a "told-to" story, using the facts of Rose's unpublished diaries to create the fiction. I created dialogue, expanded scenes, built narrative "bridges"--the kind of thing we do in novels all the time. But check the Companion for the nitty-gritty.

  11. S.E. Warwick: "hoax" wasn't my word, actually. My title for this post was "The Little House Books: A Literary Deception?" The two women were intent on getting Laura's stories published, as a way to produce family income. Their motives for their deception are perfectly understandable--at least to me.

  12. Hank, I think Rose could easily have acknowledged her part in the books to her agent and the editors. Laura's name could still have been used on the cover. It would have made no difference in the sales. But in the family dynamics, Rose's "gift" to Laura of authorship made a difference.

  13. Hallie, it's definitely a departure to self-publish this book! A whole new thing for me. But I've written an entire series (8 books) about a real person: The Cottage Tales if Beatrix Potter. And Bill & I, in the Robin Paige books, included real stories of real people. I like mixing fact and fiction. This novel is a lot more factual, however.

  14. Reine, I don't think of it as a "hoax," either--and you'll see why when you read the novel. Rose simply took what she thought was the easiest way to get her mother's work published. And all through the previous two decades, where Laura's writing was concerned, Rose did her very best to support her mother's idea of herself as a writer. It's a long and complicated story.

  15. Big thanks to Rosemary for restoring my original title to this post. The difference between "hoax" and "deception"--in the context of the Little House books--is substantial. One thing we need to remember is that the two women had NO IDEA that they were writing a series. That didn't dawn on them (I think) until they had to write the third book. And then they were stuck with using just Laura's name. I have no documentation of this: it's a guess, based on my own experience as a series writer.

  16. Hi Susan!! Welcome to Jungle Red!

    Would you believe I never read any of the Little House books, or watched the TV show? My family always wanted to move as far away from my dad's rural roots as possible. No westerns, ever, and certainly nothing about homesteading or farming or the Depression. So interesting.

    I certainly wouldn't call what the Wilder women did a "hoax." Their reasons for the "deception" make perfect sense to me, especially in that time period.

    But what a fascinating subject to choose for a novel--and what fun you must have had doing the research!! Can't wait to read!

  17. Looks like a book to add to my TBR list. We have owned and read two sets of the Little House books - one for my stepdaughter and one for my daughter, and visited all of the sites execept for the little house in the great woods.

  18. The last comment was mine! I hit the publish button by accident - Cindy

  19. Deb, many readers could come up with a contemporary example: the Dick Francis mysteries, which were "ghostwritten" by his wife. She was asked directly if she wrote them. Here's her answer. "That's an impossible question to answer...Yes, Dick would like me to have all the credit for them but believe me . . .it's much better for everyone, including the readers, to think that he writes them because they're taut, masculine books that might otherwise lose their credibility." http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/dick-francis-thrillers-were-ghost-written-by-wife-743503.html

  20. And I'm in the midst of a major fan-girl moment here. Welcome to one of my all-time favorite authors ever, Susan Wittig Albert.

    This is a fascinating story, and I'm looking forward to reading your A WILDER ROSE.

    I'm also looking forward to scampering over to the list of literary hoaxes you've pointed out to us. Thank You!

  21. I hold a special place in my heart for LIW because I was named after her.

    I wish that authors (all of them) were honest about who writes what but they're still great stories and wonderful books to be enjoyed, right? Who wrote it doesn't diminish the quality of the stories.

  22. Welcome, Susan - you gals have started without me! Yes...a difference between decpetion and hoax. Particularly if you're a lawyer. Whoever wrote the books, the story is an intriguing one and kudos to Susan for giving Little House fans another look at the series.

  23. Quite interesting. I guess my take on it is, if there was no harm intended, a good book is a good book.

  24. I find it interesting that we'll forgive them their deception ... I suppose because the works are based on Laura's life, and come out of material that Laura herself wrote? The books themselves aren't an outright lie.

    Remember the Million Little Pieces scandal? A work of fiction touted as a memoir by James Frey. That's low. Unforgivable.

  25. *waves madly* So exciting to see you here, Susan! Thanks for joining us at Barnes & Noble's Mystery Forum last month.

  26. Some of the same issues surrounded the Little House books, Lisa, when they were used in the schools. They were treated as if they were completely factual, and when scholars (in the 1990s) began separating fact from fiction and pointing out the degree to which Laura's stories were fictionalized, some readers were upset. It's sometimes hare to draw a line between memoir/autobiography and fiction.

  27. You're welcome, Becke! Let's do that again sometime.

  28. I don't see why they wouldn't just say "As told to..." but that's just me.

    BTW, I just went to Amazon to download my copy and saw what the notoriously unpleasable Kirkus Reviews had to say about A Wilder Rose -
    "The book also offers insightful, timely commentary on what it means to be a career writer. With all of the charm of the Little House series--and the benefit of a sophisticated, adult worldview--Albert's novel is an absolute pleasure.--starred Kirkus Reviews."

    Wow...way to go!

  29. I also love fiction about real people and I so appreciate Susan/a and her effort to creatively bring this true story to our consciousness - I am a hardcore "Laura" fan, and this story only enriched my life, it didn't detract from the meaning and intent of the duo of Laura and Rose. Thanks Susan, for taking this difficult project on, and for being willing to open the windows for the rest of us!

  30. Intriguing! My four daughters and I all enjoyed the books, which I knew to be fiction. We have to put this "deception" in context, and realize the roles of women, especially the rural poor.

    I used to teach "The Education of Little Tree" and loved the book. It offers a point-of-view that is found in no other book I know of. The revelations about the author shook be because I began to wonder about his motivation.

    Today, the "truth" is much easier to document and unearth.

    This book sounds super.

  31. Laura, I think that's the ideal way to understand this: knowing how the books were conceived and written (and through what difficulties!) enhances our experience of them. Thank you.

  32. Denise Ann--Your phrase "realize the roles of women, especially the rural poor" pinpoints the Wilder/Lane problem. Rose had to play out the role of the dutiful daughter of very poor parents. She had a daughter's obligation to provide for them. And this was before Social Security, which Laura and Rose (ironically!) opposed.

  33. I'm sure I read at least a couple of the Little House books when I was a kid. I leaned more toward Lois Lenski's Texas Tomboy and another wonderful book called Caddie Woodlawn whose author I have forgotten. I don't really have any issue with Laura's tales being written up by Rose anonymously. Times were tough enough without nitpicking. Anyway, look at George Elliot and other women writing as men to get published.

  34. Susan, I will love your book. I know I will.

    I don't understand controversy over the Little House books. They are fictionalized stories built from the little-girl memories of a woman in her sixties and the little-boy memories of her husband.

    Karen, you know my Steve is a sentimental romantic incapable of denying me a little adventure—especially when it's on the way to Branson and Lake of the Ozarks.

  35. Interesting comparison, Susan, as I know Felix Francis, who is now writing the books under his own name. He was involved in the books from very early on, and after his mother's death wrote several books under his father's name. I don't think there was any big secret about it, however--certainly his editor and agent knew. I'm glad for Felix's sake that he's now getting the credit.

  36. Having read A Wilder Rose, I can say that I particularly appreciated knowing more about Rose Wilder Lane, a talented writer who has slipped through the cracks of time and deserves this recognition. It's a wonderful book, Susan, and in no way diminishes my feelings (which are fond) for the Little House books.

  37. For that matter, look at all the books supposedly written by "James Patterson". So many have been ghostwritten under his name. He calls them collaborations, but how much input does he really have? Hard to say.

    Where is the outrage about that?

  38. There are several contemporary "big" writers whose brand names shelter other contributing authors. I was a "Carolyn Keene" (a "Franklin W. Dixon" and several other YA brand names as well) and understand the way the process works. Rose had a larger share in the creative process, IMO, than most ghostwriters do, since she was involved in the actual marketing of the series, in the beginning.

  39. Of course Laura was also a published author. She wrote a column for the Missouri Ruralist until the mid-1920s. As for the books, they are as popular as ever, as far as I can tell. At the historic site I work at we do a 4-day day camp, (2, actually, the first based on the first 4 books and the 2nd based on the second 4) that are wildly popular and always have a waiting list. Although I think some of the kids (not always girls) like sewing their 9 patch quilt squares about as much as Laura did, which is not very much! On the other hand, fishing, the telegraph, and Laura's gingerbread are usually a hit.

  40. Yes, Laura was a published author. For 9 years, she wrote a column a month for the Missouri Ruralist. These brief essays have been collected by Stephen W. Hines in LAURA INGALLS WILDER: FARM JOURNALIST. A sample sentence, picked at random (Dec. 1922): "What endless work and patience it takes to make poultry keeping a paying part of the farm business, yet women are doing it in connection with gardening which supplies the greater part of the family's living the year round."