Guest post by Melanie Fishbane
I picked this chapter because in my recent-re-reading of THGY, I was struck by how quickly Almanzo leaves with Royal. Although Laura remembers that he had said something about it, there is no foreshadowing of him going away, except for the literary rhythm of the chapter heading, “Almanzo Says Goodby.” For such a short chapter, there is a lot going on.
In the adaptation of the “true story” of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, Beyond the Prairie, the CBS miniseries with Meredith Monroe and Walton Goggins, the writers created a more dramatic reason for Almanzo’s parting than what is in the Little House books. In the movie, Manly shows Laura the home he’s building for her and she gets jittery at the idea of staying in one place her whole life. She tells Manly that she needs time to reconsider to which Manly replies (in a sort of passive aggressive act) that he is going to leave earlier with Royal to back to New York. In the novel, Almanzo tells Laura that Royal wants to travel through Iowa to get back to Minnesota, so they will need to leave earlier than expected.
Why am I bringing this comparison up? I’m fascinated by adaptations, so I hope that you will indulge this a little because I find this change in motivation fascinating. I recently re-watched the CBS mini-series and was one again confounded by how the Laura and Manly’s love story develops a la Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman style – complete with sex in the great outdoors near a burned out old shanty. The method by which the adaptation goes about showing Laura’s character growth may be different, but it does reflect in some ways the internal transformation she goes through in this chapter, which maybe they didn’t feel they could pull off on screen. Also, there are feminist themes weaved through this chapter about women’s choices and Laura’s cold feet in the CBS miniseries perhaps reflects this.
Back to the chapter…
At the beginning of Almanzo Says Goodby, Laura returns to school with the beautiful garnet ring on the first finger of her left hand. Not used to having anything so nice and feeling a little shy about being engaged, she hides the ring. But, when Laura looks over and sees that her best friend, Ida, has her own engagement ring from Elmer, her reservations fades away and she shows Ida the ring.
As Laura, Ida, Florence, Minnie and Mary Power animatedly discuss the upcoming nuptials, there is also a hint of what choices women had at the time. Considering when Wilder wrote these novels and the kind of partnership she advocated in her non-fiction writing, a feminist reading of this scene suggests that although Wilder never came out as a suffragette or a feminist—indeed as we see later on when she tells Almanzo later on to take out the word “obey “ in the vows—it is interesting to think about what Wilder could have been showing readers then and now about these choices.
While Mary Power assumes that Laura and Ida will quit school now that they were engaged, they both stand firm on finishing, and Laura will also get her teaching certificate. See what isn’t being said here:
“Well, I’m not engaged, nor do I want to teach,” said Mary Power. “How about you, Ida? Are you going to teach for a while?”
Ida laughed. “No, indeed!” I never did want to teach. I’d rather keep house. Why do you suppose I got this ring?”
They all laughed with her, and Minnie asked. “Well, why did you get yours, Laura? Don’t you want to keep house?”
“Oh, yes,” Laura answered. “But Almanzo has to build it first.” (218)
We know that teaching was one of the few opportunities available to women during the nineteenth century, but Mary Power’s statement about not being engaged and not wanting to teach struck me because I couldn’t tell if she was jealous and wanted to be engaged, or if she didn’t want to teach (or marry) what did she wanted to do—or could do?
Ida confirms that by choosing marriage she doesn’t have to go into teaching —a profession she doesn’t like. Whereas Laura, although she doesn’t like teaching, she understands the importance of earning a living for her family and is also willing to wait for Almanzo to build their home. Laura will take a job to support her family and perhaps save some for her life with Manly. These women are stuck in a man’s world with few options.
This next bit of patriarchy confirms this when Pa tells Laura that he saw Almanzo at the blacksmith shop who asked him to pass along a message to her. Almanzo’s message: that he might be too busy to come and see Laura after school, as he was getting ready to leave on Sunday for Minnesota. Now, Laura didn’t really expect to see Almanzo until the weekend, but she had no idea that they would be going so soon.
Interestingly, she isn’t surprised that Almanzo conveyed such personal and important information to her Pa. This could be because they lived in a small town where the men bumped into each other often, it could be because they were friends first and Almanzo saw nothing wrong in telling his soon-to-be father-in-law. Maybe in the days before instant messaging, this was the easiest thing to do…
Immediately, Laura knows that her Sunday buggy rides are at an end and how “whole pattern of the days could be broken so suddenly.” Is Laura hurt by the buggy rides, or that Almanzo was too busy to tell her his plans himself?
But, Laura’s been well-trained to not let her feelings show and responds with some comment on the weather and how good it would be for the men to make the trip before winter hits. Pa seems unaware that his information would have even upset his daughter, and informs her that he told Almanzo that he would keep Lady while they’re gone.
Carrie and Grace get pretty excited about the idea of going riding, but Laura feels oddly empty and Wilder repeats the refrain of how much Laura had looked forward to those Sunday drives.
That Saturday, Almanzo arrives with Lady and Pa comes out to greet them, leaving Laura indoors. (Just a note: in the CBS miniseries, Laura comes out with Pa, she isn’t content to be shut inside and is rarely kept indoors.) Almanzo leaves Pa and Royal at the stable and comes to the kitchen door and asks Ma if he can speak to Laura.
So, the modern reader in me is kind of ticked at Almanzo by this point. He waited a whole week before coming to see Laura and relied on her father to give her second-hand information. He was so busy that he couldn’t just come by for five minutes to talk to her? Seriously? But, then he’s so smooth, isn’t he? He compliments Laura on the ring —the ring she has been too shy to show off at the beginning of the week—and Wilder provides a luscious description of it, giving it more prominence, as if Laura is finally getting comfortable with it on her hand. As well as the idea that she will become a married woman.
“It is a beautiful ring,” she said.
“I would say the hand,” Almanzo replied. (220)
Swoon. Okay, you may be the strong silent type, Manly, but when you say something, you make sure that it counts.
Royal’s whistle announces that Almanzo needs to go, so they “kiss quickly” —too bad as this is where the Dr. Quinn moment would have been nice. He’s going away for a whole winter after all. And, like when Pa told her that Almanzo was leaving, Laura hides her disappointment when she totally lies to Carrie and she tells her that she isn’t going to be lonesome without him.
Laura now understands how much she truly loves him.
Pa returns from the stables and asks Ma how she would feel about staying on the claim for the winter instead of town. He could rent the building in town and they would be snug for the winter. But, Ma is concerned that the girls will not be able to go to school —once again showing how the importance of education. When Pa promises to drive them there, Ma agrees.
As the snow falls, Wilder tells us that the little claim is no longer a shanty, but a real little house. Finally, at long last, a place Ma doesn’t have to move again.
But, with letters coming from Almanzo twice a week for Laura, we know that come the summer, she will be…