Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was more famous than her mother until after World War II. She wrote biographies of Herbert Hoover and Jack London and quite a lot of fiction, as well as a number of nonfiction pieces for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. She was an unscrupulous writer, essentially a tabloid journalist who had no problem inventing details that seemed to fit with her kernels of truth, and which, in her shrewd opinion, would bring about more sales.
She was seen as a dubious character in Mansfield, Missouri, her mother’s home and sometimes Lane’s, too. In the long view of history, it was Lane’s right-wing politics that mattered, both in how she critiqued the New Deal and in how her shrill pronouncements marred her writing, but in Mansfield she was seen as an immoral, troublesome, haughty woman, a divorced, audacious feminist with no patience for the stubborn mores of small towns.
Old Home Town is a fictional portrait of Mansfield delivered as nine stories, all from the point of view of Ernestine, a small girl who turns into a teenager as the stories unfold. Many of the stories would have been better served with a third person point of view; first person forces Lane to stick Ernestine in all kinds of unlikely circumstances in order to portray crucial scenes.
In her introduction, Lane points out that she is portraying small town life around 1900, not 1935. A woman can hardly go out in public other than to market, and a buggy ride or even an unchaperoned walk with a single man will ruin a girl’s reputation. A kiss is as scandalous as intercourse—which, of course, isn’t mentionable.
Nothing concerns these young women other than clothes, and the clothes, well-described, were awfully complicated in 1900. The clothes are necessary to land a husband, and if you haven’t managed this by your early twenties, you’re an old maid. It’s hard to believe this world ever existed, but if so, it’s an effete, snobbish world that has little to do with the backbone of the community, farming.
One of the best stories is “Immoral Woman,” about Mrs. Sims, who wants to build on a new bedroom so that there’s space to turn her front room into a fancy parlor. Enterprisingly, she becomes a milliner and sets up shop where her husband works as a clerk. She’s a big success and the owner of the store is glad to have her, but then keeps her earnings to pay off the debts her husband, without informing her, ran up. Mrs. Sims rebels and leaves town, children in tow. She becomes a successful businesswoman with men working for her, and Lane has made her case, weak plot and all, against the slavery of marriage. Still, except for that fairy tale ending, “Immoral Woman” is full of details and rings true.
“Country Jake” is the tale of an awkward young hick, Ab Whitty, who pays his way through high school by cutting firewood. The town swells are endlessly contemptuous of him, except for the prettiest, most refined girl. Ab opens a store, saves his money, and puts himself in position to court his sweetheart, but then the banks fail, and everyone goes broke. Ab is undaunted and concocts a clever scheme to recoup his fortunes. It’s still not enough for the town’s snotty elite, so the hick elopes with his sweetheart to Hartville.
Old Home Town is entertaining, didactic, and not very believable. It’s as though Lane wanted to write her own version of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but didn’t have enough real knowledge to carry it off.