- Pioneer Myth Displaced:The Life of Rose Wilder Lane
In telling the life of Rose Wilder Lane, William Holtz invokes Virginia Woolf's insight: we think back through our mothers if we are women (1). But the focus of the book is different from Woolf's insistence on the connections among all women; instead, a careful look at the daughter's buried life will "displace the great shadow of the mother's fame." Shining through this steady endeavor will be the issue of Laura Ingalls Wilder as "an episode in Rose Wilder Lane's career." The irony and pathos of Lane's diaries and letters, and of her public insistence on her mother's historical accuracy and authorship, differs from the romantic narratives and mythic status of the Little House books. Pointing to the unrelieved pain of the posthumous book The First Four Years (1971), Holtz builds both an interpretation of the earlier books as jointly constructed products of family ideology about independence and a case for his thesis that the narrative art of Laura Ingalls Wilder depended upon her manuscripts' extensive reworkings through the typewriter of her daughter. Lane never revised The First Four Years; its difference in style, form, and philosophy is one of Holtz's key exhibits in this case for Lane's genius. The eight Little House books, he contends, are line-by-line rewritings "of labored and underdeveloped narratives" (379). The availability of later manuscripts for his study is cited as the reason Holtz can extend the arguments of earlier scholars such as Rosa Ann Moore and differ from the version of [End Page 220] mother-daughter collaboration offered by William T. Anderson. Moreover, the use of Lane's diary and letters can undergird Holtz's recognition of the daughter's importance. He views "Laura Ingalls" as the product of Lane's imaginative ploy to free herself from guilt and indebtedness to her mother.
As a biographer, Holtz offers interesting metanarrative. He distances himself from the political theory Lane developed in her late adulthood, especially in The Discovery of Freedom (1943), the handbook for the radical Right and a major influence on Libertarian politics framed by Lane's "intellectual son," Roger MacBride. This is one of the ironies of Holtz's own text, since MacBride is a chief source of information about Wilder and is responsible for the publication of The First Four Years. Though dealing conscientiously with Lane's later years and their retreat from personal into political contexts, Holtz's true fascination is with telling a travel narrative about Lane as the quintessential wandering Jew (a self-description). This travel narrative moves with zest through the tasks of describing family history, the realities of climate and topography within that history, and the complex journeys of Rose Wilder Lane to Louisiana, Kansas City, California, Paris, Albania, and finally to Columbia and Danbury. Within that pioneer narrative of a woman searching for a home, acquiring and shedding male partners, adopting and shedding a bevy of "sons" and "daughters," lies the not-so-placid center, the home farm, Rocky Ridge.
Still in Missouri throughout her daughter's adventurous and improvident life as journalist/ghost writer/cultural critic, "Mama Bess" (the name bestowed by Almanzo Wilder to avoid confusion with his sister Laura) was 61, Almanzo 71, when Rose returned at 41 to center herself for the future. The biographer's interest in his subject re-creates some of the tensions between mother and daughter during the early thirties as they struggled for economic and artistic grounding, but he is primarily interested in Lane's writing, including her family-based novel, Free Land (1938). This successful fiction ended Lane's life as an artist, Holtz believes; though she continued her revisions of her mother's manuscripts, she moved toward theory and polemics in her individual works. Children's books could sustain the myth of individualism; but the realities of national politics called for adult books addressing the nature of a freedom Lane saw in eclipse with programs like Social Security (for which she never did...