Sampling Rose Wilder Lane

Weeks ago, I wrote about my experience in visiting famed author of the Little House books Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Mansfield, Missouri. I had read her newly released autobiography before taking this trip, and all of this information made me want to read her daughter’s writing.

Rose Wilder Lane was an established and successful author before her mother published any of the Little House books. In fact, she encouraged her mother to write down her life story, and some believe Rose was instrumental in writing and revising some of the Little House books.  Her vision helped make them what they became. In fact, the museum in Mansfield contained many of Roses’s things as well , including her writing desk.

And yet, I’ve never read anything by Rose Wilder Lane, and I didn’t even know she existed until learning more about Laura Ingalls Wilder, whom I have known and loved since childhood. So I picked up Let the Hurricane Roar (1933) by Rose Wilder Lane to give her a chance.

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I was shocked and delighted at this book! It begins by introducing a young married couple, named Charles and Caroline (the names of Laura’s parents), who begin a journey West to claim a homestead. I realized immediately that this was Rose’s version of the Little House story. In fact, many of the major episodes of this book appear under different circumstances in the Little House books, but this book is a fictional account of Charles and Caroline’s experiences, for they start out West with no children, and when their first baby is born, it is a boy. I suspect that Rose was inspired by the stories her mother told her and used those to create a fictional account of the settling of the American West.

The familiar episodes include Charles and Caroline living “by the banks of Plum Creek” in a dugout, Charles returning in a blizzard all covered in snow and surprising Caroline, the appearance of millions of grasshoppers to eat their wheat crop, and the discovery of a herd of cattle with ice on their eyes in a blizzard. New to the story is that Charles leaves Caroline for an entire winter alone in that dugout, because he breaks his leg while working out East, and she must survive on her own. In the Little House books, I believe that when Charles must leave the family, Caroline always has Mary and Laura and Carrie to help her.

In this depiction of pioneers, I saw Rose’s attempts to create a mythology of the American West, a common aim of authors, such as Willa Cather, in the early twentieth century. Rose seems to have been romanticizing that time, while presenting its hardships and difficulties realistically. She describes the Lone Tree that Charles and Caroline pass on their way to the homestead as “a solitary cottonwood, a landmark for all that country, and Charles drove out of his way to get some seeds from it” (p. 13). That tree and its symbolism comes back into play several times through the narrative, and it reminded me of Willa Cather’s symbol of the American West in My Antonia, that of the sun going down behind the plough left in the field. From a literary perspective, Cather created a symbol of the West more skillfully than did Lane.

Throughout, the writing is simplistic and accessible. My library labeled the copy I read as a Young Adult novel, so perhaps she was writing the mythic novel of the American West for a younger audience, in the style of her mother’s work. I enjoyed it nevertheless, and I still see it as worthy of a read.

To bring the myth full circle, Caroline declares in a letter to Charles that “We are having hard times now, but we should not dwell upon them but think of the future. It has never been easy to build up a country, but how much easier it is for us . . . than it was for our forefathers. I trust that, like our own parents, we may live to see times more prosperous than they have ever been in the past, and we will then reflect with satisfaction that these hard times were not in vain” (p. 121-122). These words immortalize the work of many generations of pioneers, and show the hope and faith that such men and women must have had to keep going and to settle a country that was wild and unkind. The line “let the hurricane roar” comes from Charles’s favorite hymn, which he fittingly plays on the fiddle, a prominent feature of the Little House books, when he returns.

If you are interested in a new and continued perspective on the Little House stories, this is the book for you. I’m glad I picked it up, for I discovered more about Caroline and Charles Ingalls, although fictional, than I knew existed. This book humanizes and personifies these two mighty people more than Laura did in her books, as she focused on them from a child’s perspective. Lane wrote them as the protagonists of the great American novel.

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