I’ve always been drawn to stories of women who chart their own paths, walking boldly outside the lines we draw in life. On my desk are two such books, equally compelling although the stories couldn’t be more different. Here’s a peak at each:
In A Wilder Rose, mystery author and memoirist Susan Wittig Albert gives voice to Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic Little House series.
In 1928, Rose was writing fiction and articles for popular magazines and living an idyllic expat existence with her dearest friend and perhaps lover, Helen “Troub” Boylston, in a villa in sun-drenched Tirana, Albania:
The air in the house was fragrant with the aroma of Turkish tobacco and electric with international intrigue in four or five languages. We drank tea and wine and yes, sometimes French champagne, and nibbled on whimsical Albanian pastries contrived by Yvonne, our French cook, and danced….
Until the summons from Rose’s mother:
Come home, she cabled, and I went. Troub always complained that I was at my mother’s beck and call. Troub was right, of course. Still, the situation was desperate. My father was sick. My mother was sick. They had to have help. Who else could they turn to but me?
“Home” was Rocky Ridge, “some two hundred acres of hardscrabble Ozark mountainside that produced nothing but apples, milk and eggs, and not enough of any of them for a decent living” in rural southern Missouri, a long ways from Tirana, the Paris of the eastern Mediterranean.
Rose arrived in Missouri in the spring of 1929. Troub followed several weeks later. They planned to stay only long enough for Rose to build her parents a modern house, hire a handyman to help out, and fix up the old farmhouse as their sometimes rural writing retreat.
Only then came the Crash. Magazine and book work dried up, the farmhouse became home of necessity, and Troub left, never to return. During the dark years that followed, Rose began a reluctant, secret and unpaid collaboration with her mother, shaping Laura’s childhood stories into what became the eight best-selling books of the Little House series.
Without Rose’s brilliant writing skills and reputation, the books beloved by millions of children would never have existed. Yet the two women kept up the fiction of sole authorship by Laura, a sweet, elderly farm wife. Why?
In A Wilder Rose, Albert weaves a compelling story revealing the true and complicated authorship of the Little House series. The book is so much more though: a classic tale of the choices women make to pursue their art, a portrait of the complex bonds binding mothers and daughters, and an evocative look at a time that shaped a nation and culture.
In Dirt Work, An Education in the Woods, Christine Byl chronicles the lessons from her career building trails with humor, introspection and an irreverent reverence (“reverence” in the sense of true appreciation).
Byl was a college graduate tired of school when she moved West, looking for Thoreau’s “authentic” life. She landed in Missoula, Montana, “a town where writers and laborers, professors and loggers not only drank at the same bars, they were sometimes the same people.” Needing to earn a living, Byl applied for a job on a National Park Service trail crew.
She had never worked with her hands or at a job outdoors. Byl was surprised to find that not only was she was good at trail work, the work itself was deeply satisfying. That summer job “in the woods” ended up becoming her life:
Over the past twenty years of my life, books have taught me some things, people have taught me many things, and tools have taught me everything else. I mean this as neither romantic nor prescriptive. It just means that touch and work are part of what I had to learn.
These two very different books do what art does best: transport us beyond our daily lives and beyond our imagining to show us new ways of being and of understanding our very own selves.