Guest post by Chris Lowenstein
When Pa explains that Laura’s job in town will not be working as “the hired girl in the hotel” but instead making shirts in Mr. Clancy’s store, he tells the family all about Clancy’s amazing sewing machine: “You work the pedal with your feet, and that turns the wheel and works the needle up and down. There’s a little contraption underneath the needle that’s wound full of thread, too. Clancy was showing some of us. It goes like greased lightning, and makes as neat a seam as you’d want to see.” Though I am sure the Ingalls family considered sewing machines to be a modern invention at the forefront of technology, I remember smirking at the idea that they had never used a sewing machine, something I took for granted in my late 20th century childhood.
I first read Little Town on the Prairie when I was 10 years old. I remember remarking to my mother after reading all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, “Since the time when Laura Ingalls was a girl, we have invented cars, airplanes, telephones, tv, and rocket ships to the moon. People will never be more modern than we are now.”
“No,” my own Ma told me in that modulated tone of voice probably not unlike Laura’s Ma. “The world gets more modern every day, and we do, too. Some day you’ll look back on the time when you were ten years old and think that it was not very modern at all.” Had I been aware of some of the inventions that were yet to change everyday life – personal computers, cell phones, the internet – I would have agreed immediately. Instead, I couldn’t believe that life would change, that I would ever be anything but a ten-year-old girl talking to her mother in the kitchen and that modern conveniences could ever be more cutting-edge than they were in 1978.
In Chapter 5, it seems that Laura, too, has always supposed she will be a girl living with her family on a homestead outside of town and away from the many of the changes wrought by progress. It is in this chapter that Laura has her first realization that life changes. Chapter 5 returns to the question posed by Pa in Chapter 1: “How would you like to work in town, Laura?” It is a turning point for the book, whose action begins to transition from the homestead to town, and also for Laura, who, though she loves life on the homestead, begins to think in a mature way of those beyond herself: “If she worked hard and pleased Mrs. White, maybe she could work all summer. She might earn fifteen dollars, maybe even twenty, to help send Mary to college.” Laura is beginning to be aware that there is a modern, changing world just outside the homestead and that she will not always stay a child living on a farm with her parents and sisters.
Initially, Laura doesn’t want the responsibility of a job in town or to leave her childhood behind on the homestead, but during the course of the book she realizes that by leaving the homestead each day to go to work in the bustling town, she is able to contribute to her family’s, and specifically, to her sister Mary’s, well-being. This realization is not immediate, however. The quarreling Clancys are a far cry from the harmonious Ingalls family and the work of sewing the shirts is tedious. Laura “had never sat still for so long,” but she tells Pa after her first day on the job, “Mrs. White spoke well of my buttonholes.” She begins to take pride in this new aspect of her life in a new town. She begins to know more, and do more, and be more. She makes progress in her journey to adulthood.