This chapter speaks to me, in a way that probably most of you can identify. It explains the growth and the shift of Laura’s perspective: from early teens to newlywed. This chapter really highlights the last 4 books (have you read the readalongs on this site?) of the original 8 book set “The DeSmet Years” – By The Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.
My Little Town Perspective
Before I delve much further, I need to explain my personal association with this section. In July 1985, my mother, one of her friends, her daughter and I roadtripped to DeSmet. One of my favorite memories was traveling Highway 14. You see, 20 miles east of DeSmet is Arlington, SD. As we were from Arlington, MN, the town itself made all of us ladies in the car giggle; after all, it seemed smaller than my Arlington (for perspective – Arlington SD ‘s population was posted on a sign that said Arlington was home to “999 happy people… and 1 grouch”). In DeSmet, we went to the Surveyors House, ate at the Oxbow, went swimming at the pool (with a really HIGH diving board), saw the pageant – Little Town on the Prairie – they handed out name cards to all of the kids and then we went home. It was memorable and fun, but not the way I would explore the “Little Town” in the future.
10 summers later, I traveled to Kingsbury County for an entirely different reason. Anyone who has been in a long term relationship and “met the parents” for the first time, can empathize with that experience so clearly. My boyfriend, Dave, was from Arlington, SD, and his last name was Manley. All giggles aside, do you think it was a coincidence? I don’t. It was the first of dozens of trips to eastern South Dakota. On Christmas Day morning, 1996, on our way between the Arlingtons (165 miles on the same road with only one 4 mile turn), the snow was much higher than our little Saturn and we literally drove through tunnels of snow drifts higher than the car roof in western MN. All you could see was packed snow around the vehicle. Does that remind anyone of the railroad master and his decision to stop running the trains? It resonated with me all the way to SD. Anyway, because I married my South Dakota Manley, I had access to visit DeSmet almost any time I wanted to, in any season. In 2007, I started reading more about Laura’s life; the biographies, the poetry, the backstories of the characters in the books and started taking “excursions”. Sometimes it was to leave our young boys with my in-laws, but mostly because I started owning my passion for Laura’s DeSmet and took advantage of the opportunity to indulge my curiosity. I hunted down what was left of Silver Lake, I drove the gravel roads and went to Ingalls homesite multiple times, however, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know.
Make New Friends, But Keep the Old
I think the reason why this section of Prairie Fires seems to have less to uncover (or maybe fewer ah-ha moments for me) is because Laura remembered this part of her life with more clarity than with the first 4 books and didn’t have to rely on the memories of others. She is more grown-up and she witnesses the railroads establishing towns and participates in making DeSmet a thriving community. In these books there is more blurring of the lines between Laura the character and autobiographical nature of Laura the author. The memories of dating, friends, school, drama, first love, first party, first job are all very clear in my mind, and I think they were in Laura’s, too.
Fraser basically doesn’t really expand in this section much more beyond what Laura wrote in these books. There are a few things, such as the huge omission of George and Margaret Masters living in the Ingalls’ home during the Long Winter. Sure, some dates are changed, for example Laura didn’t start teaching at 15. But by and large the majority of these 4 books are true: the Hard Winter did really happen, Mary Ingalls did go to college, Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland bought seed wheat to keep the town of DeSmet from starving to death, tornadoes did touch down, wolves occupied a den near Silver Lake, Nellie Oleson (Stella Gilbert) tried to nose her way into Laura and Almanzo’s relationship, and Eliza Jane really struggled to teach and discipline Laura and Carrie at school.
Laura’s memories of school, peer pressure (autograph books/name cards) riding in the cutter and buggy with Almanzo, learning to manage her classrooms, and her growing maturity still resonate with today’s readers, younger and older. How many of us still need to heed Pa’s advice to think before speaking? I am still working on that one, how about you?
One of the best things about being involved with LIWLRA is meeting other members who have internalized Laura’s words and want to see the things she saw. One of my favorite post-Laurapalooza memories was visiting DeSmet and seeing it through the eyes of my friends. Wanting to hunt down Almanzo’s tree claim or find the location of the Bouchie school or even understanding the significance of walking Twin Lakes Road, makes these experiences so much richer than my solo excursions. And guess what? My hubby and in-laws think my passion for all things Laura is pretty cool, too.
DeSmet and Kingsbury County are full of good memories, for me and for Laura. If you are ever traveling to DeSmet and going through Arlington, I will gladly suggest places to check out. So I am going to end this blog post with the same “happily ever after” sentiment that Laura had at the end of These Happy Golden Years.
This section of Prairie Fires is about building a community and Laura’s maturing place within it. My wish this holiday season is that you find your community and place: within the books, within LIWLRA, at Laurapalooza 2019 and feel the peace & contentment that Laura has in her family, her town, in her relationship and with her little gray home in the west.