Guest Post by Carrie F.
These days, many teenage girls treat their mother’s fashion advice with disdain, even contempt; but turn the clock back to 19th century De Smet, and we find our always obedient and sensible Laura realizing that her Ma’s comments about her clothes were right. She really did need a new summer dress for best, but after surrendering her teaching mazuma to help buy the family organ, she was now strapped for cash.
So as quickly as you can say, “Extreme Makeover,” Laura hightails it to Miss Bell’s to ask about a job in her dress making and millinery store in return for yard goods. For Laura, it’s time to get serious about some fashionable threads and we’re not talking about everyday lawn fabric (it’s so 1877, anyway). We’re talking brown poplin…from Chicago no less.
Of course, Miss Bell is happy to give Laura a job and before the school term has ended, she has earned herself ten yards of fabric. With the poplin now in Ma’s capable sewing hands, Laura continues to work at Miss Bell’s so she can afford to pay for the perfect accessory…..a stylish new poke bonnet.
Meanwhile, the activities back at the homestead are taking on a veritable Better Homes and Gardens vibe, with Ma whipping up a new dress for Laura, and Pa constructing an extension to the claim shanty to accommodate the pending arrival of the family organ. You’ve gotta hand it to Charles. While he may have trudged the family through the harsh reality and (let’s face it) frequent heartache of America’s westward expansion, he really came through when stuff needed to be built. Yes, good one, Charles. But let’s face it. It’s the least he could do, given his gentle (shall we say) encouragement of Laura to cough up the cash for the organ.
Although I understand it was common for kids to help out their families back then, I always felt a bit annoyed with Charles for asking Laura to give such a large amount of money. After undertaking some online research, I now know that $75 during Laura’s teenage years would today be worth about $1600. I wonder how many teenagers in 2012 would happily donate that kind of money (if they had it), like Laura did?
When the new sitting room is finished, happiness abounds and interestingly, Ma makes repeated comments about not wanting to call the place a claim shanty any more. Okay, Ma – we get it! Clearly she is very happy to have a real home finally taking shape.
Eventually, the new organ arrives in all its shiny, musical glory. The family admires its polished walnut scrolls, the crisp black and white keys and fancy levers and pedals. It seems only a minor detail that nobody in the room can play the organ, that is apart from Mary, who is living 400 miles away. Grace couldn’t care less about the organ and is more enamored by the stool that came with it. Sitting on the seat, she twirls herself around until she accidentally comes crashing down. Of course, no adult reader is surprised by this typical childhood behavior, although I personally don’t know if I would have been as tolerant about the incident as Pa was. You see, I’ve never twirled. Honest.
By the time Ma has finished sewing her new dress, Laura has her new, matching poke bonnet and decides to wear the ensemble to church. On Sunday morning, Carrie happily watches Laura get ready and while doing so, makes the comment, “You do have beautiful hair, Laura.” With this, we are immediately taken back to the Big Woods of Wisconsin….to the golden hair/brown hair incident, where a sensitive Laura slaps Mary for saying, “Aunt Lottie likes my hair best. Golden hair is lots prettier than brown.” The spanking she received for slapping her older sister, coupled with Mary getting off scot-free meant that Laura carried a feeling of injustice about this childhood event most of her life. Finally here, it seems she gets some come back through the flattering words of her younger sister.
Perhaps as a display of her growing maturity, Laura passes Carrie’s compliment on to her older sibling, stating that her hair wasn’t golden like Mary’s. Laura’s ultimate description of her own lovely tresses in the chapter shows her growing self confidence. So there, Mary!
The description of Laura’s new dress is elaborate. To be honest, I struggled to understand some of the more esoteric details during my first reading of THGY. Luckily though, I was able to see the (almost) real thing for myself at LauraPalooza in 2010, with the lovely Melanie Stringer wearing her own replica of Laura’s brown poplin.
Once Laura is dressed, the family collectively admire her new outfit. Of course, no moment like this is complete without a little of Ma’s wisdom. She tells Laura, “You look very nice, but remember pretty is as pretty does.” With that, the family leave for Sunday’s service.
On such a beautiful day, Laura doesn’t feel like going to church. Reverend Brown’s sermon seems longer and duller than usual. She wishes there could be more to enjoy than simply going to Church and back home again. After returning to the homestead, Laura decides to stay in her new clothes and finds herself wandering restlessly around the house. Is she secretly hoping for a visit from Manly?
It isn’t long before Laura sees a shiny new buggy dashing out on the road toward the Big Slough. It’s Manly at the reins. He bulls the rig to a stop at the Ingalls homestead and asks if she’d like to go on a buggy ride. It’s just as well she didn’t change her dress!
The new buggy is beautiful and Laura comments about the low, lazy-back seat, which is a new experience for her. It isn’t long before Almanzo pulls a move that is very open to interpretation. Perhaps he was trying to be helpful (it was a new type of seat after all), or maybe it was something more affectionate – but Almanzo putting his arm around the top of the buggy seat was not a welcome gesture for Laura. She responds by leaning forward and deliberately shaking the buggy whip, which makes the horses bolt and Manly moves his hands back to the reins.
Poor Manly! Irrespective of his motives for the “arm on the buggy seat” move, he was always a gentleman to Laura. Either way, he was just trying to be nice! Clearly, he was going to have his work cut out in winning Laura’s affections. Oh, but poor Laura! She is completely clueless when it comes to men. She is nervous and let’s face it, who wouldn’t blame her? Manly was more than a few years her senior.
Luckily, our always brave and strong, Manly perseveres. Following some gentle admonishment about the buggy whip, he asks Laura, “You’re independent, aren’t you?” Instead of being turned off by her positive response, he seems to appreciate her self reliance (which is clearly needed for any pioneer woman worth their salt) and starts to open up to her about his plans for the future.
Arriving back to the homestead at sunset, Laura shyly (and somewhat indirectly) agrees to another buggy ride next Sunday.
Oh boy, we know this is going to be good!