Guest post by Melanie Stringer
The one with Ambition!
I have long thought of this chapter, “East or West, Home is Best” as one of my favorite in all of American literature. Laura’s style is deceptively simple on the surface, but that hardly means she doesn’t have something substantial to offer. While chapter 7 of The Red Badge of Courage may be the subject of thousands of English majors’ literary analysis papers, there is plenty of material in THGY to work with, and as much as I admire Stephen Crane’s masterpiece, I’m still ranking Laura’s right beside him in the top three. Somewhere, Dr. Hinman is gasping as I write this but I insist I have a case.
Of all the vignettes in Laura’s novels, this one chapter is only rivaled by LTOP’s “Sent Home From School” in terms of the sympathetic anticipation which the reader feels. Stoic little half-grown half-pint Laura has been facing one challenge after another and is all ready for a little respite, when, Oh no! A composition is due? Now? On the first day back to school after boarding in that wretched house for two whole months as she taught her very own first school? What exactly is a composition anyway? How does one write a composition when one has no experience writing a composition? This is serious…though hardly life-threatening. But Laura is in a tizzy, so it must be really, really, REALLY IMPORTANT that she do it, do it fast, and do it better than any other student or…she will lose her standing as the best student in the class!
Now, I’m willing to bet that most modern readers need to pause for a chuckle here at our favorite, generally obedient and self-sacrificing girl, or, at the very least, will ask, “Why doesn’t she just ask Mr. Owen for an extension?” He already revealed that he knows she’s been teaching for the last two months. Isn’t that a good enough reason to be missing the assignment? “What’s the big deal?”
Well, yes. Most of us would do that today, but in Laura’s world, and according to the standards of the time, a person was expected to maintain responsibility for their successes and failures regardless of circumstances. Or, so we are told. Immediately I am reminded of Rose’s editing hand, and her politics—nay, Philosophy—as it was by the 1940s might suggest that our favorite heroine is about to encounter another lesson in tenacity, but with a new, single-minded twist.
Communal problems within the family are nothing new to our girl Laura; she has had almost continual experience with them. But this…well, what can she do? The reader knows how an Ingalls solves a problem, so at first it seems strange that Laura is panicking. When Pa has no other menfolk around to help to build a house in Kansas, Ma rolls up her sleeves, pins up the skirts, and works like a man alongside her husband to get the job done. When the problem is achieving a long-term goal, such as “how does the family afford to send Mary to college?” Laura is more than willing to take action, even do a job she doesn’t enjoy, for the greater good of the family.
In fact, this is a lesson all the girls have learned at a very young age. And even as a very little girl, Laura is never afraid to jump into action (or a dangerously flooded creek) to conquer the situation. Rather than let her sisters be injured or the house burn, she drags Mary (and Carrie, and the rocking chair) out of the way of an errant burning log. Rather than freeze, she coordinates an effort with Mary to bring the entire woodpile safely inside the house to ward off the storm while Ma and Pa are away. The job is daunting and getting through the door is difficult with arms full, so even tiny Carrie chimes in with “yes I tan!” to open the door for her big sisters. This family knows how to pull together in any crisis.
In these cases, Laura did not truly need to assume the entire burden of the situation. Rather, her place has been as a contributing member of the family who will create a solution together. But this…well, what can she do?
Laura is confounded, and momentarily paralyzed. For the first time, the problem is hers, and hers alone, with no time to seek counsel and very few minutes left to find anything resembling a solution. The difference lies within Laura’s recognition that SHE is the only one who can affect the outcome in this situation, as it primarily concerns herself. How will she get through this one unscathed?
Fictional Laura is caught off-guard by an unexpected challenge which, due to her rigid self-imposed standards, threatens to destroy years of diligence in a single afternoon. She simply cannot conceive of failure. She would not quit teaching the Brewster school, even with Pa’s permission to do just that. And she will not give herself permission to fail in her own scholarship. Laura as an adolescent has created an ideal for herself which seems to be lifted right out of her mother’s playbook…which makes me wonder, have they been reading Emerson in the Little House?
Maintaining fortitude which lives up to the kind of Self-Reliance preached by the Sage of Concord (and possibly Editor Rose) is the apparent goal now. As if inspired by all the great scholars of 19th Century America, Laura, like her beloved-but-difficult-to-please Ma, makes something wonderful out of meager means and a lot of ingenuity. But when did Laura decide to be this person? There seems to be little discussion of it, if any. We have followed Laura’s adventures and missteps through her own eyes, wincing along with her when Ma scolded or Pa counseled her for misbehavior or poor judgment. Somewhere along the way, she has started to absorb the wisdom of her parents and learn from her mistakes, and has begun to impose her own self-rule, the mark of true maturation. As Pamela Smith Hill stated, the fictional Laura “can only blossom once,” in the series, so perhaps this chapter is intended to be the internal, psychological equivalent of Laura’s social maturation, wherein her superego begins to really assert itself.
So, after a long and lonely winter term of teaching in her very first school and dreading her time spent boarding at the Brewster house, Teacher Laura gets to trade in her tenuous authority for the much more comfortable and familiar role of Top Student Laura. She is relieved to return to what she now appreciates as the ease of schoolgirl life, and looks forward to continuing her own study in the company of friends. She is joyful at the prospect and her light heart even looks forward to tasks she might ordinarily dislike. Somewhere along the way, the girl who once could have nearly started a riot among the students against Miss Wilder has sailed to the head of the class and she covets–perhaps takes for granted–her position.
Then, during her first day back to school in DeSmet, Laura is horrified to discover (almost too late) that an assignment-a composition on the subject of Ambition-is due after recess. She is suddenly thrown into a panic, assuming her two months’ absence will be no excuse for failing to submit the composition. (I will always wonder how many modern readers immediately think she is foolish for not asking for an extension, or that the teacher is unreasonable to not offer!) She is convinced she will lose her place at the head of the class, and scrambles during the remainder of recess to write something-virtually anything would be better than a grade of zero-and hopes it will not entirely ruin her record.
The reader, of course, should know by this time in the series that no child of Caroline and Charles Ingalls would be at a complete loss for long. In a manner strikingly similar to Ma’s creative cookery with nothing more than blackbirds and flour, or her make-do curtains and lamp-making, Laura manages to summon her every mental resource and lickety-split! she has an idea. Ever thinking on her feet, she scans the room for inspiration and desperately opens the dictionary. In moments, she weaves a few lines together and soon has pulled a composition, however succinct, almost from thin air.
A true perfectionist, Laura presses on and bends the rules a bit by continuing to write even as school is called to order. Dissatisfied, and concerned there was not time enough to look over her work before turning it in, she hopes she has not entirely failed. Her grammar class is called forward, and, sheepishly, Laura offers her scant lines of philosophy colored with a Shakespeare tagline. Emerson (author of Representative Men, which features an essay on Shakespeare) and his Concord pal Bronson Alcott (innovator of modern American education and father to Louisa May) would be SO proud!
Now there is nothing to do but wait for Mr. Owen to scold her. She is certain her work is lacking. She is ashamed at the brevity of the piece and thinks the content may not be sufficient to satisfy the intent of the assignment. As the curious Mr. Owen questions her prior writing experience, she apologizes for her perceived shortcomings, only to discover that her much-admired teacher has nothing but praise for her hastily composed assignment!
Amazingly, the girl who might have starved alongside her entire family, the girl who might have been caught in the midst of a war between settlers and natives in Kansas, the girl who feared for her life just a few days ago while boarding with an dangerously depressed woman wielding a butcher knife, Laura is almost more horrified by the thought of losing her coveted spot at the head of her class in school than she was by any of those very real, and very life-threatening situations. I can only conclude that Laura has reached that stage of psychological development wherein she has realized that she has the power to create, maintain, and change her own identity, and that her actions will be primary to that end. Thus, her Ambition in this situation is to maintain that which she has worked hard to achieve, and she has found herself in the uncomfortable situation of having to defend her title at a moment’s notice. Relying upon herself, and making the best possible use of her proven ability to think on her feet and waste no time, is the only way to succeed.
With one collective sigh of relief, and another job opportunity around the corner, all is once again right in the snug little world of Laura…for now!
Melanie Cynthia Stringer
Historian/Interpreter, Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder