A Peek Inside the Mother-Daughter Collaboration That Brought Us the Little House Series

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 21 2014 9:00 AM

A Peek Inside the Mother-Daughter Collaboration That Brought Us the Little House Series

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In this letter, Rose Wilder Lane responds to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, regarding the first draft of what was to become By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fifth in the Little House on the Prairie series.

Lane and Wilder worked together on the Little House books starting in 1930. Historian John E. Miller writes that the collaboration was often full of intense friction and conflict. In this letter, which is often irascible to the point of rudeness, you can see how that dynamic played out in the editing process.

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By the time of the collaboration, Rose Wilder Lane had supported herself for years by writing for magazines and newspapers. Judith Thurman wrote in the New Yorker in 2009 that Lane took her mother in hand, recognizing the potential of Wilder’s stories and asserting her own singular ability to shape them into something that would sell.

Thurman quotes a letter that Rose wrote to her mother in 1925, when the two had begun working together on magazine articles: “I’m trying to train you as a writer for the big market…You must understand that what sold was your article, edited. You must study how it was edited, and why…Above all, you must listen to me.”

In her notes on Silver Lake, Lane adopted the pose of a worldly child addressing a cloistered, rural parent. Wilder wrote of a memory in which her father warned her about a potential sexual threat from railroad workers. Lane, without reference to any source or authority, writes:

There was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical it all…It existed of course, but typically it belongs in the cities; such men usually haven’t the muscle for hard work or the type of character that sticks to it.

Lane was famously conservative and libertarian; many of her sweeping statements and offhand comments (especially about the pernicious New Deal) reflect this political bent.

By the Shores of Silver Lake won a Newbery Honor in 1940.

LittleHouseLetter1

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives.

LittleHouseLetter2

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives.

LittleHouseLetter3

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum/National Archives.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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