For my birthday Jon gave me a copy of Free Land, the last novel written by Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House fame. I treasure the Little House books and reread them all every few years.
I’ve always loved Almanzo. He grew up in Malone, not far from here, and with my friend Alison and a group of young campers, including Lucy, I visited the homestead five years ago. (They’ve since made a documentary about the farm and Almanzo. Though it appears slightly too cute and the actors much too clean, I look forward to seeing it someday.)
Free Land is not a great book, but for Ingalls Wilder fans, it’s a fun read. I enjoyed being inside the adult Almanzo’s head. Of course most of the events are fiction, but the personality rings completely true. And no wonder, as to write it Rose interviewed her father, in person and by questionnaire. The character, “David,” is stoic and taciturn, but his feelings, particularly for his horses and concerning his responsibility to his small family, are powerful.
As is his great irritation with his older sister, Eliza. Words and commands come easily to Eliza and she uses them to try to order her brother around. I kept breaking off from reading to laugh. Poor Eliza! As it turned out, her quiet little brother would get the last word by marrying one writer and fathering another.
Eliza Jane Wilder appears in Farmer Boy, where she bosses young Almanzo to the point of fury. (At the Wilder homestead I found myself automatically searching for the patched wallpaper in the parlor, marking Almanzo’s poor aim when he threw a blacking brush at her in a rage.)
Eliza Jane also appears in Little Town on the Prairie, where she is Laura Ingalls’s school teacher. She is autocratic, unfair, and plays favorites.
Now here is Eliza in Free Land. She is bossy, thoughtless, difficult, and superior.
Do you notice a theme here?
In Free Land, “David” is so nettled by his older sister that he won’t even pick her up at the train station when she arrives in Dakota Territory to stake a claim. On the other hand, when they are buried in an unseasonable blizzard, he risks his life to fight his way to her shanty to rescue her. Naturally, Eliza is simply waiting for him, lying in bed under the covers in all her clothes. As David reflects, he should have known she would be in control of the situation.
After finishing Free Land, I had to read more about Eliza Jane Wilder. It turns out she died at 80 in 1930, before any of the books were written, which explains why both Laura and Rose could be so frank.
Eliza was obviously a pistol as a personality. Single in an era when most women married young, she was 29 when she swept into Dakota Territory. After relinquishing her claim, she relocated to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Department of the Interior. At age 42, spinster, she married a widower with six children and had a son of her own, Wilder. (Laura was appalled by his very spoiled bad manners.) After only seven years, her husband died, and by an early will everything was left to a daughter from his first marriage. Eliza picked up herself and her child and moved to Louisiana. Apparently she convinced her youngest brother Perley to bring his family along too, to invest in rice farming. They both lost all their money.
However, Eliza lived in Louisiana for the rest of her life, and in 1904 took in Rose Wilder for a year to finish her schooling (ninth grade). Rose would grow up to be another very bright, demanding, controlling, “difficult” woman. Perhaps it was in the genes.
Wouldn’t it have been great if Eliza had left letters and papers? I’d love to see how all these stories looked from the perspective of Lazy, Lousy, Lizy Jane — who if nothing else was certainly a woman of courage and determination.