I can’t believe nobody else wanted to do the minstrel show chapter! I am so lucky.
As the past several chapter titles will attest, town life has been positively bustling. The sociable! The literaries! The whirl of gaiety! The birthday party! And now…THE MADCAP DAYS. What, you mean things are about to get even crazier in De Smet?
Oh, yes. Yes, they are.
But before we get to that, there’s the post-birthday-party spirit at school that brings the older girls and boys together—gathering around the stove, playing at snowball fights in the schoolyard, and coming in from recess “warm and glowing and full of fresh air.” (And, well, probably hormones, too.) It’s all enough to make Laura’s arithmetic grade drop down to a pathetic 93. Oh, live a little, Flutterbudget!
Cap Garland and Ben Woodward make a bobsled that’s just big enough for them and the other two boys (Arthur and who else? Elmer?) to pull Laura, Minnie, Ida, and Mary Power. Then Nellie Oleson decides to risk roughening her delicate complexion for some boy attention (perhaps she’s figured out that guys do not give a fig about alabaster skin, which is like the 1880s equivalent of a salon manicure).
But now the only way five girls can fit into the bobsled is to have them sit with their legs sticking out and their stockings showing, and it’s all fun and games until the boys decide to take the sled into town. This is not good. Shins will be seen! Laura can tell it’s about to get all “De Smet Girls Gone Wild (Or, at the Very Least, Quite Disheveled)” on Main Street, right in front of Almanzo Wilder. Thinking quickly, she tells Cap Garland to stop for Mary’s sake, and Cap turns the sled around just in time. Nellie is furious and calls the boys “ignorant Westerners,” Cap and Mary exchange smiles and have a moment, and disaster is averted. (And Almanzo will have to wait a few more years to see Laura’s knees.)
Next comes March, when the snow begins to melt and the much-ballyhooed final Literary of the winter is approaching. Laura presses and sponges her best dress in preparation, but she also wants a hat to wear. Ma buys her half a yard of beautiful brown velvet, and so on Saturdays Laura and Mary Power work their hats, and Mary’s hat is blue, and Laura’s hat is silky and soft and tawny and THEN OMG EVERYONE IS IN BLACKFACE.
Okay, maybe I skipped a few things there.
It’s just that nothing quite prepares you for page 258, otherwise known as The Uh-Oh Page, which has the Garth Williams illustration of the surprise minstrel show performance (which includes Pa!) at the final town Literary. But hey, there it is. I think there’s a tendency to forget that The Uh-Oh Page and its corresponding scene even exists, especially if you had no idea what minstrel shows were when you first read the Little House books. I’m pretty sure that as a kid I stared at The Uh-Oh Page and thought something like, “So Pa’s a… black clown?” and shrugged, because I just didn’t get it. But it’s that adult knowledge —understanding what the painted-face “darky ” represents in our culture—that really puts the uh-oh in The Uh-Oh Page.
But after that initial jolt, the book does a pretty good job of negotiating that sticky territory between the way modern readers view these blackfaced folks and how the people of De Smet would have seen them. Minstrel shows, after all, were one of the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment in the 19th century, and the book manages to convey the excitement—a big-city-style spectacle appearing suddenly in a Dakota schoolhouse!—while wisely omitting some of the particulars. “When the dancing stopped, the jokes began,” reads the narrative. Uh, do you really want to hear those jokes? Noooo, and the book doesn’t go there, either, thank goodness. At the same time, the Garth Williams illustration allows us to see what minstrel shows were all about and reminds us that the Little House books took place in American history and not some pristine and politically correct prairie.
Still, I don’t envy anyone who has to explain The Uh-Oh Page to their kid: “Sometimes people dressed as, um… ‘black clowns.’ But they don’t anymore! So don’t ever dress like that!” Parents, how do you cope?
Anyway, back to the chapter: after the show, everyone is wondering who the performers were. Laura believes the dancing darky (please, Book, stop making me have to say DARKY) was Gerald Fuller and suspects that the darky (AUGH!) playing the bones was Pa. Except that none of the (YOU KNOW WHATS) appeared to have whiskers like Pa’s. Ma and Laura and Carrie begin to mildly panic over the thought that Pa may have shaved his whiskers for the sake of a minstrel show, but when Pa comes home, with tiny smudges of greasepaint in his wrinkles, Laura figures out that he slicked down his whiskers with black grease and tucked them behind his coat collar.
Now that spring is here, the family moves back to the claim, though Laura’s come to like living in town more than she ever thought. She sort of blows off her final exams for the year—which, in her case, means she gets scores of 99 and (gasp!) 92 instead of her usual perfect grades—then resolves to stay inside all summer and study so she can get the teacher’s certificate and the job that will keep Mary in college. Good luck with that, Laura!