The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.
A Wilder Rose: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and their Little Houses by Susan Wittig Albert.
This week I serendipitously read both of these biographical novels about two strong women of the early twentieth century: Rose Wilder Lane, who was an author and independent world traveler, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, also an author, a mother, and wife to the most famous American man of the 1920’s, aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Both Rose and Anne have been in danger of being overshadowed by their more famous family members and collaborators, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Lindbergh, respectively. Both women wrote under difficult circumstances: Rose while essentially supporting her parents and two adopted “sons” through the years of the Great Depression, and Anne while raising a family of five children almost single-handedly during Charles’ long and frequent absences. Both women have not always received the credit due them for their extraordinary accomplishments.
It was fascinating to read about Rose Wilder Lane and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and realize as I read that these two women could very well have crossed paths during their lifetimes, maybe more than once. Of course, Anne’s life story is dominated by her marriage to Charles Lindbergh and by the tragic kidnapping and death of the couple’s first son, Charlie, when he was only two years old. Anne Morrow knew when she married the famous aviator who had been the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean that her life would be forever changed and circumscribed by Lindbergh’s overwhelming fame and by the press that hounded him and wrote about every detail of his days. But she had no idea how Charles Lindbergh’s celebrity and popularity would damage her family and transform even her accomplishments.
“Working for months on an account of our trip to the Orient, in the end I still wasn’t satisfied with it; I had found it impossible to capture the innocence of that time before my baby’s death. It had done modestly well, and Charles was proud of it, although I couldn’t help but think that most people bought it out of morbid curiosity. The bereaved mother’s little book—cold you read her tragedy between the lines? I’d imagined people paging feverishly through it, eager to find evidence of a splotch tear, a blurry word, a barely suppressed sob.”
The sad thing is that, if I am honest, back when I first read Anne Lindbergh’s published diaries, and again when I read this novel about her life, I was waiting to get to the part where her son was kidnapped. I wasn’t “paging feverishly”, but I was anxious to see how the tragedy would be written, how the utter horror of the defining event in the Lindberghs’ family life would be handled in print. Well, it’s vey sad and quite moving to read about a family torn apart by journalistic excess and by criminals who fed on that excessive notoriety that made the Lindberghs a target.
It’s very interesting that both of these books are not biographies, but rather fictionalized blends of fact and imagination that both Ms. Benjamin and Ms. Albert felt were more vivid ways to tell the real story of these two women than a straight piece of nonfiction would have been. In A Wilder Rose, Rose Wilder Lane tells her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, several times that her books (Little House on the Prairie and its companions and sequels) can’t be told as the exact history of her family’s travels and travails as they really happened. The family stories must be turned into fiction, shaped and reworked as stories that hang together and have a beginning, a middle and an end. And somehow in doing that reshaping, the story become more true than it would be if it were a simple recitation of the dry facts. The fiction gives the stories a context and a theme and tells more about the feelings and drama behind the history than could be done without the framework and freedom of fiction.
“‘I want to tell the true story,’ she said firmly. Her blue eyes darkened and her mouth set in that hard, stubborn line that I knew very well. ‘I’m sorry if it’s not exciting enough to suit those editors in New York, but I’m not going to make up lies to make it more exciting.’
‘Nobody’s suggesting that you tell lies,’ I replied cautiously.’But sometimes we need to use fiction to tell the truth. Sometimes fiction tells a truer story than facts.'”
It’s an odd truth, but it works in both of these books and in the Little House books. I very much enjoyed reading about Rose Wilder Lane and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, and I feel as if I know them both in a way. I must say, however, that I don’t think I would have liked Ms. Lane very much, too prickly and independent, and I’m sure I would have wanted to slap Charles Lindbergh up the side of the head, if he really did what the book says he did and if I knew anything about it.
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin has been quite the popular beach read this summer and is available in bookstores, libraries, and from Amazon. A Wilder Rose by mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert is due to be published in October, 2013, but is not yet available for pre-order, as far as I can tell.