Who Really Wrote the Little House Books?

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Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when she published her first book, the beloved Little House in the Big Woods. By this time, her only daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, already had a well-established career as a respected writer and editor. Lane had already written biographies about Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Jack London, and Herbert Hoover. Her work showed up in magazines like Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post. A few of her stories were even nominated for O. Henry Prizes. When she wasn’t writing her own pieces, she took on ghostwriting and editing work, revamping books and stories for other writers who weren’t quite up to snuff. Rose was doing quite well for herself until 1929, when her finances took a dive during the stock market crash. Three years later, Little House in the Big Woods was published.

Now, Laura (below, left) had some chops as a writer herself, so it’s not as if she manned a typewriter for the first time at the age of 65 (in fact, she didn’t use a typewriter at all—Wilder preferred to write longhand). She spent years as a writer and editor with the Missouri Ruralist, penning a column called “As a Farm Woman Thinks.” By the mid-1920s, she had placed two articles about her farmhouse in Country Gentleman magazine, thanks to quite a bit of help from Rose (below, right). “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,” Rose wrote to her mother after the piece was published.

Library of Congress

It was no secret that Rose helped her mother with the editing process, but the question of "how much" creeped into discussion after Lane’s death in 1968. Lane left her estate to politician Roger Lea McBride, whom she considered a son (Lane didn’t have children of her own). When McBride was sifting through the contents, he discovered an unpublished manuscript written in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s hand. The First Four Years covered Wilder’s early marriage to husband Alamanzo—and it was vastly different in tone and style than anything that had been published under her name thus far. For the Little House books, some scholars believe this indicates that Rose did more than just edit her mother’s work and provide direction—she practically rewrote it altogether.

If you think a heavy editing job diminishes a writer's claim of authorship, then the case of the Wilders is worth diving into.