Throughout my journey with Laura Ingalls Wilder last spring and summer I began to understand how fascinating, complicated and and difficult Rose Wilder Lane was. (Some of my understanding was thanks to the experts I interviewed–Wendy McClure, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson and Sarah Uthoff.) She was educated, well traveled, successful in her career and known for her work in a time when women weren’t. Yesterday Slate featured a blog post by Rebecca Onion that included a full text scan of a letter RWL wrote to her mother while working on By the Shores of Silver Lake. The letter is full of the general vitriol and superiorioty we’ve seen Rose exhibit in their relationship. (Remember the forward to On the Way Home.)
It’s fascinating that so many years after both women’s deaths we’re still learning about and discussing their dynamic. Of course we know that we owe the success and craft of the Little House Series in part (possibly in large part) to Rose. But why does she have to be so difficult to like?
The Twitter universe, including Allison Arngrim, Nellie Oleson on the TV series, has commented on the potentially salacious details Rose cut from By the Shores of Silver Lake, including the time 12-year-old Laura pulled a knife on Cousin Charley when he tried to kiss her and when Pa told the girls not to watch the railroad men work because they were potential rapists. It seems that Rose was very likely overblowing these events in her letter. There inclusion in the letter should indicate their importance to the story, but Rose took every opportunity to prod her mother. As we see when she explained (as if to a child) that sexual degenerates didn’t exist on the frontier (but of course psychotic murderers did). And that her mother had misunderstood Charley. His attempt at kissing her was completely different than the time dumb old Mrs. Boast almost got her raped. Even though she didn’t know what sexual assault was at the time.
One thing that still fascinates me is the discord between how Rose saw herself (always precocious) and her seeming lack of maturity when speaking to her mother. I wonder how many of us would come across the same way if our 76-year-old letter to our moms were to be dug up and mass distributed.
Further, I find her lack of understanding of human nature interesting. But far more interesting (and keeping with her character) is her lack of awareness of such a shortcoming. Years of poverty didn’t make her wiser–just bitter.