Guest post by Amanda Morris
Now that the family has realized its dream of sending Mary off to college for the blind, it is also time for Laura and Carrie to go back to school. The chapter opens with the girls heading to town for the First Day of School. I find it interesting that in this chapter, Laura capitalizes “First Day” multiple times. In all of the books, whenever Laura goes back to school after a break, she is nervous about returning – who she will meet, how she will do in her studies. It is remarkable that someone so gifted had the same insecurities that any young girl has upon returning to school.
There’s a new teacher in town – Miss Wilder, the oldest sister of the Wilder boy. The chapter starts off so promising. Laura is reunited with her friends from her time at school at the start of the Long Winter. Miss Wilder is pretty, stylish and friendly and agrees to allow the big girls to keep the best seats in the schoolhouse throughout the term. We are also introduced to Ida Wright, the adopted daughter of Reverend Brown. Apparently, despite being adopted by the Browns, she still goes by her birth parents’ family name. I wonder if this was the custom back then, or just a biographical detail that Laura included. Ida seems sweet, and Laura offers to share a seat with her.
And then…. (we need some ominous special effects here – thunder claps, perhaps)… someone arrives late for the First Day. Ladies and gentlemen, Nellie Oleson returns! She is still prim and prissy, and still looking down her nose at people. She wastes no time causing trouble, putting Miss Wilder in the awkward position of reneging on her promise to allow Mary Power and Minnie Johnson to keep their seat. Nellie ends up with the best seat in the class all to herself. We get the sense this does not endear Miss Wilder to Laura. But at least Laura gets the satisfaction of learning that Nellie is living out on a claim, and in a satisfying role reversal, she will be the country girl while, during the winter, Laura will be a town girl!
Awkward moment: Miss Wilder’s opening remarks to the school. She gives a sugary speech, smiling all the time, to the point where the boys in the class are squirming in discomfort. She doesn’t say anything inherently bad, but again, we just get the sense from Laura’s reaction that, despite the promising beginning, something is a bit off about all of this. During recess, Nellie makes herself the center of attention, bragging about coming from New York state and dismissing her time in Minnesota near Plum Creek as a brief stopover.
When the girls get home, Laura is conspicuously quiet about the day. Pa senses that she is unsettled about something and asks how school went. She tells about Nellie, and Miss Wilder’s broken promises. Ma admonishes her not to criticize her teacher, which I remember thinking as a child was nonsense. I complained about my teachers all the time.
I also remember Pa’s response very well. “So the Olesons came from New York State, did they? That’s not so much to brag about.” And Laura remembers that Pa was from New York! I grew up in New York, and I remember reading that response and laughing because that had been exactly my thought when I read Nellie’s comment! I love New York and all, but when I read the Little House books I could not imagine anything nicer than living on the rolling prairies. The idea of bragging about being from somewhere else was inconceivable to me.
The chapter ends with one of Pa’s songs and Laura channeling the strength to be good, no matter how hateful Nellie Oleson is.
This is a great chapter because even without the benefit of hindsight, you can see the stage is being set for something to go awry in this school. There is nothing concrete to dislike about Miss Wilder at this point, although there are definite clouds forming on the horizon. Laura’s talent as a writer really comes through here. Despite being left with a mostly positive ending, indicating her determination to be good and get an education, the visual is one of Laura summoning her strength. And by ending on that note, Laura implies that she will need it!