Guest post by Teresa Lynn (aka TLynn)
This chapter begins with the same optimism found in the book so far, with the revelation that Mary is at long last going to be able to go to college in the fall. Things have gone well for the Ingalls this year. Pa earned nearly $100 from his carpentry work in town that spring, and their crops of oats and corn are growing well, along with the garden.
It seems there is always something to contend with on the prairie, however, and Laura and Mary encounter Spanish needle grass on their walk. (I have experienced this myself, and it can feel like a bite. You have to snip off the head and pull it through to remove it from your clothing.) Luckily they didn’t notice much of it while walking, so Pa can burn it out.
While enjoying a dinner of potatoes, peas, string beans, onions and tomatoes from the garden they discuss the bounty of the farm. (Do any of you eat tomatoes with sugar and cream? I love fresh tomatoes, but have not tried them this way.) It seems that the Ingalls family will be well prepared this winter! Then Ma mentions the oats – but Pa says the blackbirds are eating most of them. Every time I read, “Ma’s cheerful faced dimmed,” I get a horrible feeling of foreboding – even though I know how everything turns out.
Pa seems undaunted, however, so plans for Mary carry on, with the preparation of her college wardrobe.
I have always wondered why the winter wool dress was so much more difficult for Ma than the others. “She had made the summer dresses first, for practice with the patterns.” So it must have been at least a similar pattern. For whatever reason, Ma seems to have trouble with this winter dress, and has to re-do seams several times. Laura sees for the first time, by the way “her patience was so tight around her mouth,” that even Ma hates sewing.
In addition to the difficult pattern, they must decide whether to sew for hoops, or no hoops. Ah, women and their fashion worries! What will be in style next fall in Iowa? There is no Godey’s Lady’s Book to be found, so they must improvise and make the dress suitable to wear either way.
Laura describes all the pretty clothes, including underwear, that they are making for Mary. They put such pretty trim on them all. Every time I read the description of the winter dress, it makes me wish I had one – and somewhere to wear it! But after all the work on the dress, and re-sewing of seams, Mary can’t button it up! Ma is in despair, but then Laura realizes that Mary’s corset strings have stretched. After pulling the strings tight, “the bodice buttoned, and it fitted beautifully.” They do finally finish the sewing.
That evening, Pa shoots blackbirds. Although no one likes this, they know that it is truly a fight for survival…them or the birds. Still, when Laura goes to bring some roasting ears for dinner, blackbirds keept flying all around her. She realizes that the blackbirds were eating the corn! Laura tries to chase them away, but there are so many that she is no match for them. Going to tell Pa about it, he says he shot a hundred or more and cleared them out of the oats. He doesn’t seem too worried…until Laura asks, “Pa, if you don’t get a corn crop, can – can Mary go to college?” Now Pa looks bleak. After dinner, he tries to shoot them out of the corn, and they begin to recognize that the shooting was not what cleared the birds out of the oats; it was just that they had eaten all the oats! Pa uses all his cartridges, and goes to town for more. While he’s gone, Ma and the girls try to keep the birds away, but it’s no use. Pa shoots blackbirds all evening, but more and more come. Finally he brings in some of the birds he had shot. “I never heard of anyone’s eating blackbirds,” he said, “but these must be good meat, and they’re as fat as butter.” Ma responds with one of her practical axioms: “There’s no great loss without some small gain.” The fried birds were delicious.
Pa finally gives up the corn crop for gone, and encourages Ma to make meals of birds and what corn they can salvage. Laura and Carrie gathered several apronsful of ears, and they dry them for future use – an idea borrowed from the Indians, as Pa reminds Ma.
For dinner, there is blackbird pie – even better than chicken pie. In addition, there is more bounty from the garden: new potatoes, peas, cucumbers, and carrots. There is even cottage cheese and more tomatoes with sugar and cream. “And the day was not even Sunday.” Laura thinks, “Ma is right, there is always something to be thankful for.” Still, she knows that the loss of the oats and the corn means that they will not have the funds for Mary to go to college that year. Her heart is heavy with disappointment.
But as Pa leaves the dinner table, he remarks that tomorrow, they will go pick out Mary’s trunk. Even Mary gasps, showing that she also had given up the dream; and like her, with never a word of complaint. Pa seems astonished that anyone had thought Mary might not go to college that fall after all. He did not realize the girls would be worrying over money; but he already has a plan, to sell the heifer calf. It is Mary who cries out, “Oh no! Not the heifer!” It sets Pa back a year, but as Ma says, “We must cut our coat to fit our cloth,” and Pa remarks that “now we’ve made up our minds you’re going. A flock of pesky blackbirds can’t stop us.” And so the indomitable pioneer spirit carries them through another hurdle, and things are not as dark as it seemed they might become.