Rose Wilder Lane: Her Story; Give Me Liberty


Rose Wilder Lane: Her Story, by Rose Wilder Lane and Roger Lea MacBride, New York: Stein and Day. 1977. 236 pp. $8.95.

Give Me Liberty, by Rose Wilder Lane. Foreword by Susan Mollison. Introduction by Robert LeFevre. Mansfield, Mo.: Laura Ingalls-Rose Wilder Lane Home Association. 1977. 53 pp. $2.00 paper.

Rose Wilder Lane: Her Story comes to us with only a cursory amount of explanation. Roger Lea MacBride, whose name appears on the title page as a coauthor, says it is a "perfectly genuine fictional autobiography." It uses true names for some of the characters, but there are other names that may or may not have been invented—one can't be sure. Since I have had a long-time interest in Rose Wilder Lane, and a continuing gratitude for what she did for me simply by writing The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle against Authority back in 1943, I read every page of this posthumous work of hers with a gnawing wish that Roger MacBride had footnoted the references to people, places, and incidents. But then it would not have been a "story"—and Rose Wilder Lane could never resist her true novelist's instinct.

This, we gather, is the fictionized account of Rose Wilder Lane's novitiate in living, which came before her novitiate in thinking and writing. It does not tell about her various intellectual conversions, first to a Jack Londonish type of socialism (she admired Jack London and wrote a fictionized biography of him) and later to an impassioned libertarian individualism. The three-page epilogue that Mr. MacBride has tacked on to the book is tantalizing in the extreme. So much is hinted in a phrase, a sentence, and a paragraph. It makes one hope that Mr. MacBride, Rose's godson and literary executor, has an authentic Rose Wilder Lane sequel in the mass of papers she must have left.

If Rose Wilder Lane: Her Story does not explain why the author and protagonist became a Bolshevik in 1919, it certainly does make it clear why she could not remain one. She was a daughter of pioneers and had known the world of sod huts and homesteading on the Great Plains and in the Ozark highlands that her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote about in her Little House books. The adolescent Rose became a pioneer woman telegrapher in California, presumably (if the fictionized autobiography is correct) to be able to work with the night operator boy she hoped to marry. She didn't marry the Paul of her book—he was too scruple-bound to break loose from his mother, and Rose got away from him. Instead, she married a charming highbinder who turned out to be a forger. This left Rose high and dry for a second time. She saved herself by becoming a real estate salesman—or saleswoman—in the California oil fields. The "story" ends with her seeing Paul once more—but only to leave him to become a newspaper writer in San Francisco. The story of her final parting with Paul gets merely a sentence.

Rose tells us—in her "credo" that is now republished as a paperback monograph, Give Me Liberty—that it was only by accident that she didn't join John Reed in founding the American Communist Party. If she had, she would have been an early apostate. As Max Eastman has pointed out, the motive patterns that drove Americans to communism in 1919 differed. Some joined because they wanted the order of a super-organization. Others were trying to get away from capitalist organization. Rose was one of the latter. She lost her momentary interest in communism when she learned that what she wanted was no organizational compulsion at all. She left Russia after an early visit with a passionate conviction that men and women should be self-movers. In her 1943 Discovery of Freedom, she sang a marvelous psalm to her own frontier birthright.

Rose Lane loved America because it really had no system. Everything moved according to the unpredictable decisions of individuals. When women cut their hair, fortunes that were wrapped up in making good hairpins vanished. Everything was fluid. Rose Lane wanted to keep it that way. During World War II she refused to accept ration cards. She raised her own bees for sweetening and grew her own food. She lived her theory. The value of her fictionized early autobiography is that it shows the genesis of the woman she was bound to become.