Guest post by Naomi Shanks
I grew up on my mom’s Little House collection, clothbound with the Helen Sewell illustrations. The last page of These Happy Golden Years made clear that the story was over, and I was fine with that, reader and lovers alike blissful and satisfied as the sun set in the West. I didn’t find out about The First Four Years until I was older, and see it as part of the library of secondary Little House literature. Not a Little House book. Not a part of me. It’s more bitter than sweet watching people I love go from carefree to careworn in such a quick read.
But this is the honeymoon, and having gotten through the dreaded threshers’ dinner, Laura gives herself over to some newly wedded bliss. Here we are before the troubles come—the farm is all right, we have time to play, money to spend.
At the old home, Laura walked the line and obeyed her parents, but here she is the woman of the house, with a man who would never ask her to. Almanzo respects his in-laws, but he sees Laura differently than they did. Maybe more like I do? He sees horses differently too. “Don’t let me hear any more about your father not letting you learn to ride his horses,” he says. And to my delight, we don’t. Not only does Almanzo trust Laura with his horses, and trust the horses with her, they cease to be his horses at all, and instead are theirs, and even, first the case of the wonderful Trixy, and later the investment colt, HERS. Laura hadn’t ridden horseback since the rough bareback moments at the railroad camp with brassy cousin Lena, a pleasure Ma put a stop to mighty quick. Now she rides every day, encouraged, not curbed, and she and her man race and run, gallop and fly. They are flirty and fresh in a way they couldn’t be when they were courting. Horses have always been party to this relationship—can’t have one without the other. It’s physical, it’s free, and it’s good.
“It was a carefree, happy time, for two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like.”
Laura and Manly feel so DIFFERENT from Ma and Pa Ingalls in these pages. Were Ma and Pa ever different? Before children and homesteads and the endless prairie? Did they relax, breath deep, enjoy the land and the time and each other? Maybe. As with our own parents, it is awfully hard to picture.
I know what’s coming, so passing shadows weigh heavy: “Manly had only paid half down and given a note for the rest to be paid next year.” And the light goes out of the room. “To be sure, now and then Laura thought about the short crop and wondered.” Nothing to do but press on. And we do.
Butchering time calls to mind the Big Woods (Bladder balloon, baby! Woohoo!) but now Laura is alone in the kitchen, and filling a larder bountiful is WORK. Why don’t Ma and the girls come to help? Were they invited? The homefolks are just memories, not present in any tangible way. During these first four years weren’t they even closer than the Lakes? When you start a new family on the frontier, you leave the old one behind. A lesson Ma and Pa may have taught too well.
Oh, the dreaded Indian encounters, always problematic, though this one holds up pretty well. When the Indians come calling, the woman of the house is home alone. “Likely they only wanted something to eat.” The first time little Laura found “Indians in the House,” Ma bent over the fire making their cornbread, too frightened to say a word. But by now, our “Laura had seen Indians often, and without fear,” so she just locks the doors, none too troubled… until they head for the barn, home of her dear Trixy, and it is ON! Laura storms and stamps, flashes and slaps…
Confrontation over, I’m not the only one warmed by Laura’s fire, and the Indian’s proposal has just enough humor to be more flattering than creepy. There’s nothing to consider, she with her man so thoroughly in sympathy, the well-built little house, the gentle pony with her fine saddle special order from Montgomery Ward’s, the days riding with wind and the cowboy yells….
Still there is a moment. She watches, sees them disappear across the prairie, into the west. He turns back, maybe catches her eye. She has felt it before, the Indian baby, the Wessington hills, the call of the horizon. She is not her Ma. It is nice to have a choice.