Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Little Knife Fight on the Prairie

A friend had linked to this Slate piece which reproduces a part of one of Rose Wilder Lane's letters to her mother, containing Rose's feedback on the first draft of On The Shores of Silver Lake. Rose was an experienced newspaper writer and author of popular books (both under her own name and ghostwritten) and guided her mother through the process of writing the much more enduring Little House books. It remains a source of some dispute among specialists how much of the final result was Laura's and how much was Rose's. To me, the interesting thing about the letter is that it shows both Rose's good editing instincts, and her strong affinity for cultural assumptions and tropes. The former undoubtedly helped the books, but it seems to me that Laura's more individual and experience-based voice overcame the latter to an extent and was thus responsible for making the books the classics which they remain.

In a section which highlights Rose's editing instincts, she advises:
I still think that the place to begin is the house on Plum Creek. There are four years to skip if Laura is twelve; she was 8 in Plum Creek when she started school. Therefore the more nearly you can tie the two books together the better, and the house on Plum Creek will do that.

You must take into account the actual distinction between truth and fact. It is beyond all human power to tell all the facts. Your whole lifetime spent at nothing else would not tell all the facts of one morning in your life, just any ordinary morning when you get up, dress, get breakfast and wash the dishes. Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts to illustrate it. All your travels to Burr Oak and back can be skipped because they do not mean anything except elapsed time. Essentially the family is the same except that time has passed. It is not a fact, but it is perfectly true to take them west from the house on Plum Creek, where everything that has happened during this time might as truthfully have occurred as where it did occur.

But then you also have glimpses of fascinating material which Rose didn't feel fit the expectations of readers:
You have a brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out. A 12-year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he's her cousin. Or if she's shy or doesn't like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention. Here you have a young girl, just 12 years old, who's led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you can not have her suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight. Maybe you did, but you can not do it in fiction; you can not make it credible in under ten or twelve thousand words, and if you do make it credible it's not a child's book. I remember when I was five year old or so, and Mrs. Boast let those hoodlums take me home, I ran away from a hulking big brute who tried to kiss me, and his motive was pure sex sadism which I recognized well enough without knowing at all what it was. I suppose something of that kind was in this incident. But it is not child's book stuff. We'll just have to manufacture another kind of cousin, that's all. Seems to me the normal thing would be to have both Louisa and Charley now so much older that they pay little attention to 12-year-olds. Laura just sees them, as she did in the Big Woods.


Jenny said...

What is interesting to me is how people take sides in the Laura/Rose debate.

I read about this letter on Facebook and most people tended to agree with Laura that the working men were probably dangerous. When I read about it in another location, most of the people there agreed with Rose that the danger was way overstated.

Darwin said...

Yeah, that's kind of interesting. It seems to be the way that people approach the whole authorship question as well: Either Rose is the forgotten real author, or Rose is the pushy daughter getting in the way of Laura's authentic voice. I'm not sure why a true author/editor collaboration is so hard to envision.

bearing said...

I think it's hard for people to envision because they are thinking of the characters Laura and Rose and not the real live women.

It's apparent from the third person she uses in the letters that Rose at least thinks of the Laura who exists in the books as a character in a children's story, not as the mother who raised her or as the author she worked with to develop.

lissla lissar said...

I want to know about those hoodlums whom Mrs. Boast let take Rose home. I don't know whether or not Laura and Mary would have been endangered in the camps, but I do remember getting a clear, if muted, sense that Ma and Pa thought they there was danger. I first read the books when I turned twenty. I wouldn't have twigged if I'd read them first at ten.

Rose does clearly think of Laura in the story as fictional. I wonder how Laura felt about it, having to change and rewrite her own childhood motivations?

I still want to read the unexpurgated version, with Laura pulling a knife.