Guest post by Melanie Fishbane
As much as things may change, there is always the dependability of the cycle of the seasons. After months of “self-indulgence,” and teenage revelry, Laura is ready to buckle down and get to work. Her summer is full of chores, study and babysitting Grace – who now can “write letters to Mary” at college. Laura understands more than ever the importance of getting her teaching degree and helping Mary. Two themes struck me in this chapter, the first is how much the times are changing, the second, is how uncomfortable Laura gets when things don’t seem “human.” It is also one of my favourite chapters because Almanzo begins a courtin’.
Abundance is a plenty for the Ingalls family and the town. Ma’s hens are laying eggs and twenty-four chicks hatch. They even had green beans and fried chicken. Fried chicken! Even Kitty has grown a little, bringing them all presents of gophers and blackbirds. The Ingalls have recovered from the Hard Winter; the tide has turned.
Laura has a new teacher, Mr. Owen, who she likes and disciplines Willie Oleson, who has successfully fooled other teachers into thinking he was stupid. Oleson is the antithesis of Laura. He still wants to keep up his childish antics. Laura is very uncomfortable with Oleson’s behaviour. She thinks that when he made himself look that way: “He looked less than half-witted, he hardly looked human. It made anyone turn sick to see him.” Laura believes that his mind actually left him.
Mr. Owen, however, will have none of this and whips the bad behaviour out of him. It is a strange scene for sure. Weird language references the social stigma around people with special needs and that with a proper whipping you can get the dumb out of him. Whatever the meaning, it seems clear that playtime is over; it is time to get serious – even for the likes of Willie Oleson.
Another sign that the schoolhouse is getting too small for the town, is when Mr. Owens asks Laura and Ida to participate in a School Exhibition “to acquaint people with the school and its needs.” This is the set up for one of the most memorable scenes of the series towards the end of the novel.
Laura isn’t completely left her teenage woes behind, for as much as she wishes not to care, she envies Minnie Johnson’s new coat and Mary Power’s new dress. Ma counsels her on how to wear her corset so that her “figure will be neater” and critiques the new “lunatic fringe” hair style. Ma recalls how her teacher told her and her sister that combing their hair off their ears wasn’t ladylike. Fashion might change, but people being shocking by it hasn’t. Also, Laura isn’t too happy with the new fashion, the hoop skirt completely turns her around. “They are rather a nuisance,” Laura admits to Carrie on their way to school, “But they are stylish, and when you are my age you’ll want to be in style.”
Laura is once again uncomfortable when she thinks that Reverend Brown reminds her of the Devil.
Chills ran up Laura’s spin and over her scalp. She seemed to feel something rising from all those people, something dark and frightening that grew and grew under the thrashing voice. The words no longer made sense, they were only dreadful words. For one horrible instant Laura imagined that Reverend Brown was the Devil. His eyes had fires in them.
Weirdly, the Ingalls don’t seem all that comfortable with the evangelical bent of the service, but continue to go anyway. “She looked at Pa and Ma. They were quietly standing and quietly singing, while the dark, wild thing that she felt was roaring all around them like a blizzard” and then in a low voice, Pa says, “Come, let’s go.” Even if Laura would rather be home studying, and perhaps a better use of her time, they continue to go. They enjoy the music and we get a few pages of psalms and songs that pepper their way throughout the series. Is it because they enjoyed the singing so much, that they continued to go, or, were they bowing to social pressure?
Opposing Willie and Reverend Brown, is the guy who expertly weaves her out of the hot crowded hall, Almanzo Wilder. Surprised at first, Laura doesn’t know what to say when the man she always viewed as her Pa’s friend asks to walk her home. I always get butterflies when I read this part. Something about the beginning of the romance and watching how their relationship unfolds. She is, perhaps, distracted by Almanzo’s “manliness” (sorry couldn’t resist); the “dashing scent” of the cigar smoke that came off his overcoat.
Upon re-reading the book recently, I was also struck by the conversation Laura walks in on between Ma and Pa when she comes home from her first walk home with Almanzo. Although Pa would “trust him anywhere, “Ma is exclaiming in her dismay, “But she’s only fifteen!” Ma might be ready to help Laura dress like a lady, but she certainly isn’t ready for what follows. It is interesting that Pa is more comfortable with this change than Ma. Perhaps it is because he knows Almanzo so well. Did Almanzo ask Pa’s permission? One would think that courtship rules would dictate that he did?
After a week of the prayer meetings and walks home, Laura feels more comfortable with Almanzo and they find things to say. But, soon, the week is over and Laura is back at work, forgetting about boys and fashion.