The Ghost in the Little House by William V. Holtz

Ghost in the Little House

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The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane (Missouri Biography)

by William V. Holtz

Review by Deb Houdek Rule

Review of Ghost in the Little House:

“Ghost in the Little House” is a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. It is rather controversial among Laura’s fans as a major premise of the book is that Rose, not Laura, was the real writer of the beloved Little House series of books.

If, when you’re reading this website, you are offended by things like the reference to the new Martha and Charlotte book series as “Little House in the Ice Age,” or you take umbrage to the page saying the area technically defined as the Big Woods did not include the “Little House in the Big Woods” (I have been taken to task by readers here for these very things), then by no means should you even attempt to read “Ghost in the Little House.” You’ll just end up angry and offended. On the other hand, if the “Little House in the Ice Age” crack gave you even a twitch of a smile, then you could probably read “Ghost in the Little House” with interest and, for the most part, enjoyment.

Make no mistake, this book is a biography of Rose, from Rose’s perspective and reflecting Rose’s sensibilities. It is not an homage in any way to Laura or Almanzo Wilder, nor does it attempt to offer any sort of balance or fairness in their portrayal. The way you will read about them in this biography of their daughter is not the way you will have come to know them from the Little House books, nor from any biographies focusing on Laura. Instead, the focus is from a daughter who was often angry, bitter, and resentful of her parents–particularly her mother. Picture the most angst-ridden outpourings of a troubled teenager against her parents and you’ll be able to visualize the overriding tone presented as Rose’s view of her mother. Laura (called “Mama Bess” throughout, the appellation Rose used for her mother most of her life) is portrayed as calculating and wholly manipulative as concerns her daughter. Was Laura really? Or were these just Rose’s perceptions as an only child with a strong, yet deeply resented, sense of responsibility to care for her parents.

As the perspective and sympathies of the book lie with Rose, the flip side of this coin is somewhat shadowy. But, if you look, you can see clearly that the passive aggressive manipulation between mother and daughter quite thoroughly went both ways. As Laura seems to be trying to manipulate Rose into guilt-ridden financial support of them, you can also see Rose rather arrogantly trying to change her parents’ lives to suit her own notions of how they should live. As an example, Rose at one point works out a plan whereby she could move Laura and Almanzo to England to live out their days in a country house there. Then Rose could live in Europe and visit them occasionally without the need to spend time in Mansfield, Missouri–a place she apparently never liked. When they refused to comply with this remaking of their lives, Rose instead built an English cottage on Rocky Ridge Farm and moved Laura and Almanzo into it. She, then, took over their house and started remodeling it to suit her tastes. If you’ve visited Rocky Ridge Farm–where both of these houses are open to the public–you can easily see that, while the English cottage is a nice house, it just isn’t the type of house that would suit Laura and Almanzo.

This theme of resented obligation, and manipulation, runs throughout the book and through Rose’s life. Though the author stuck with the premise that Laura was manipulative of Rose, the other examples, honestly given in the narrative, show the pattern was more so that of Rose’s. She repeatedly tried to “buy” affection of people and then used that coinage as a leverage to try to run their lives according to her notions. Repeatedly she is shown throughout her life giving people money and places to live, then deluging them with orders–thinly veiled as instructions and suggestions–on how they should be living. This pattern then, obviously, created resentment, rather than the gratitude and compliance Rose expected, and her beneficiaries flee from her for the sake of their own self-respect and freedom. Rose is then–again–left lonely, depressed, and bitter at the betrayals.

Rose blames an unhappy childhood of poverty for most of her problems. Also, a lack of affection from her parents is credited as a major source for her depressions and uncertainties. Reading “Ghost in the Little House” it struck me that the two things Rose lacked in her youth that Laura had were: 1.) Pa, and, 2.) Pa’s fiddle. In the Little House books, I can’t recall any times when exuberant affection flowed from Laura’s ma. Caroline “Ma” Ingalls was the source of gentle correction and discipline for her daughter. She also provided sound examples of behavior and restraint of emotion. There wasn’t any gushing, hugging type of affection from Caroline Ingalls. That came from Laura’s Pa, and even at that, do you recall any time in the Little House books where parents and children hugged and told each other they loved them? Hugs and I-love-yous are very recent additions to our culture. Yet, while reading, did you ever doubt the love in the Ingalls’ house was there? And the joy and happiness that filled and sustained their family through the hard times, and incredible poverty and shortages, came from Pa’s fiddle, filling the days and nights with joyous music. Rose didn’t have those two things. She had in a mother someone trained by Caroline to offer correction and discipline, but with Laura’s readily acknowledged quicker temper and lack of verbal restraint. And in a father she had Almanzo. At one point Rose is described as being fond of him in an almost pet-like way. If anyone was the ghost in the Little House it was Almanzo.

At one point, Almanzo says to Rose, “my life has been mostly disappointments.” That’s a profound statement, especially to make to his only daughter. Yet, if you consider what Almanzo’s life goals must have been, it makes sense. He grew up on a large, successful farm with a father who was a respected leader in the community. It’s a small guess that when he homesteaded the Dakota prairie, Almanzo visualized a similar future for himself. When he married Laura, he had 320 acres, a new house, good stock, and a respected reputation growing in the community. He was set in the years to come to be a mirror of his father. Instead of the success continuing and expanding, his crops failed, he lost his farm, and had to trudge away in defeat. Though a new farm could eventually be acquired, the other impediment to Almanzo’s success could not be overcome. Without a large family, one can not have the large prosperous farm that garners the role of community respect and leadership. A childless couple, or as with Laura and Almanzo, a couple with a single daughter, simply can never have the type of farm that Almanzo’s father had. Children, sons as well as daughters, are vital. They are critical workers. Hired workers can not take the place of a family on a farm–enough hired hands cannot be afforded and can’t put in the kind of hours and devotion a family can. So Almanzo’s disappointments tie–through no fault of hers–to having Rose as a sole daughter. And as goes Almanzo’s thwarted dreams, so would go Laura’s. Rose might have given her father a second chance at this dream via a marriage in Mansfield with a son-in-law to take over the farm and provide grandchildren, but that was not the life Rose chose. In fact, it was a life she actively, and somewhat insultingly to her parents, rejected completely. Fertile ground for resentments?

So, Rose moved away as quickly as she could and as far as she could. In San Francisco she married a man with, it seems, scant love, at least on her part. She had a son who was lost at birth, or in infancy, about 1909, with medical complications that left her unable to have any other children. There followed decades of wandering around the country and around the world, always seeking something that she never could quite define. She fell in love with the troubled land of Albania. She had grand adventures where few American women had ever been, yet the overriding thing that came through the narrative of her travels was a sense of bleakness, disappointment, and failed dreams. Throughout the “Ghost in the Little House” Rose comes off as unhappy and conflicted. Unfortunately for the reader of “Ghost”, this overshadows the secondary enjoyment of reading about these places and times.

Rose is already middle-aged at the point when Laura sends her a manuscript to look at titled, “Pioneer Girl.” This is Laura’s memoirs, never published, which become the basis for the Little House series of books. Rose is already a well-established writer, making her living with reasonable success as a writer of articles and short fiction stories. Rose also has a secret writing life “ghosting” other people’s works. Here lies my major objection to this book–there are differences between writing, editing, collaborations, and ghost writing. “Ghost in the Little House” blurs these distinctions. Rose performed all of these functions, yet, herself, seems to categorize a large amount of her editing work as ghost writing.

It is with these blurred definitions that we arrive at the first of the Little House books. Holtz credits the Little House books almost entirely to Rose, referring often to Laura’s writing as “attempts” that were “primitive” and “amateurish,” with “clogging detail,” or alternately with a lack of detail. Rose is presented as regarding Laura’s books as nothing but a trivial bother, even though it’s the royalties from Laura’s books that support her later in life, not Rose’s own works, which fade from public view. Here the reader of “Ghost in the Little House” must make his or her own assessment of the situation concerning Laura, Rose, and the writing of the Little House books. Who wrote the books? Whose voice is it we hear when we read? Who had the greater influence on what the Little House books are? Laura? Or the editing/ghost-writing hand of Rose?

Rose clearly was a skilled editor. But she also seems to have been a heavy-handed editor who rewrote segments and restructured material. This, however, is a vastly different thing than writing a book. Rose could rework material that she could never have generated originally herself. The voice in the Little House books is Laura’s, not Rose’s. As Laura mined the materials of her childhood for her books, Rose tagged along, using this material for two books of her own. “Free Land” and “Let the Hurricane Roar” (later republished as “Young Pioneers”–both, linked, available at are effectively Rose’s interpretation of the Little House books. While both are enjoyable reads, they simply aren’t Little House books, and, I dare say, had not Laura’s books been the successes they are, Rose’s books would have faded from view–it’s Laura’s writing fame that sustains Rose’s books.

Examples of Laura’s writing skill and ‘voice’ that precede the writing of the Little House books are readily available (see Little House in the Ozarks,” a collection of Laura’s early articles and essays). Reading her early works, you’ll find many of the events later told about in the Little House books, as well as Laura talking about herself, her life, her memories… many beautifully, and skillfully written without Rose’s input… Holtz, the author of “Ghost in the Little House”, frequently denigrates these articles, calling them “parochial.”

Herein lies another area one can dispute: Was Laura a talented, educated, and skilled writer in her own right, or was she a ‘barefoot bumpkin’ [a phrase that pops up here and there in other editorial works] who could not possibly have written the books that appear under her name? The overriding tone in “Ghost in the Little House” continually supports the ‘barefoot bumpkin’ viewpoint, and–as a person who grew up on a farm myself–one that irks me.

Consider who and what Laura was:

A farm/pioneer girl who never even graduated from high school, lived in the rural fringes of the country cut off from all culture and sophistication, literally barefoot, impoverished, “parochial”

but also

A person who was educated in one-room schoolhouses which had educational standards such that a high school senior now probably could not pass a seventh grade exam then. I’ve taken the California basic teacher’s exam (CBEST)–child’s play next to the teacher’s test Laura took every year, yet people taking the CBEST have studied in college for four years to pass it struggled and have a huge failure rate. Laura passed her first teacher’s exam with no prep time at age fifteen. Laura had traveled the entire country, much of it in a covered wagon, true, but by the time she wrote her books she’d been from Florida to California and across the entire middle of the USA meeting and interacting with people from every possible culture and background. Laura had learned to speak Swedish! She had learned a foreign language in her youth from neighbors who didn’t speak English. Laura read everything she could get her hands on–she and her family had read every book available in Mansfield. Laura–thanks in great part to Rose’s travels–had contact with people numerous cultures, entertaining visitors from all over the world.

Uneducated, ‘barefoot bumpkin’? Ha! Laura was an educated woman (often home schooled), with a strong cultural and literary background that eminently prepared her to write anything she chose–and she chose to write what she knew, her own “parochial” life.

So, to return to pure review of “Ghost in the Little House”… As annoyed as it sometimes made me, as many points as I found to dispute, I enjoyed and respected the book and the information it presented and am glad I got and read it. The research is thorough, exacting, informative, and interesting, though the conclusions and point of view can be disputed. It’s sometimes cumbersome reading as the book is scholarly in its presentation. Rose was a complicated person and this is the best examination of her I’ve ever seen, and though unsympathetic to Laura, “Ghost in the Little House” does an able job filling in details of Laura’s life and writing that aren’t generally covered elsewhere. “Ghost in the Little House” made me want to get more of Rose’s works–particularly accounts of her Albanian travels. If you can read with a tolerant heart, this is a recommended book.

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