Guest post by Naomi Shanks
Summer is over and it’s back to school, but De Smet is no longer a one-room schoolhouse town. Laura’s mind has clearly moved on to other things because this new construction is glossed over shockingly quickly. Two stories!?! Bricks!?! What?!? Laura is focused on old friends and new plans. Turns out singing school is quite the couples’ evening.
Nellie Oleson has gone back East…the people of De Smet are onto her, and all the best men are taken, so she has gone to stay with relatives and mingle with better prospects. A new girl, Florence Wilkins, looks “left out and lonely and shy, as Laura used to feel.” I don’t know when our Laura ever really felt that way for very long. That one day when no one came to take her sleigh-riding? On the way to school at beginning of term, when she usually (re)made friends before the first bell? Certainly she’s always been deeply uncomfortable with strangers, but she’s also always had the ability to quickly turn them to friends, as she does here. Florence is also preparing to teach school, and it is a credit to both of them that this makes them allies and not rivals. Florence is no Nellie Oleson.
Friday night. Almanzo and Barnum are right on time, and Laura is ready with brown poplin on. Almanzo warns that they have to leave a little early since Barnum gets skittish around crowds. Laura makes clear that she is with him. “When you think it is time, just leave, and I will come.” I’m always confused by the need to plan, because this is so clearly a date that I want them to be sitting together, but Clewett sorts them by voice and of course Laura’s place is with the sopranos. The first night of singing school involves a lot of theory and scales, all of which I would have thought Laura already knew, but the only thing she ever admits to expertise in is singing in rounds, and that not in this chapter. She enjoys herself, but is always aware of Almanzo, watching for a sign. [Girl, he’s been giving you signs for months now! So glad you’ve started paying attention!]
As they slip out the door, Almanzo says that she needs to get in the buggy first while he unties Barnum, and they both know she will probably have to hold him while he rears and runs. Laura is startled—but up for it—and takes the reins. Barnum rears, and they are off. She has to drive him around the church three times before he is willing to stop for Almanzo to get in, and each time, there is the open prairie before them. If Barnum decides to run away, there isn’t much that could stop him. But Laura trusts Almanzo, as he trusts her, and they both trust Barnum, and when at last Almanzo’s hands close on the lines ahead of Laura’s and slide back, she is glad to let him have the reins for a while. The feeling is mutual. And so it is decided.
Here is a man who needs a woman he can drive with. His horses trust her, so he can too, and she has shown at last that she’ll keep circling back till he is by her side. (He’s been doing the same for her for quite a while). Here is a woman who needs to drive herself sometimes. He trusts her to do that, so she can trust him to let her. Much as she loves and honors Pa, a man like him would never pass her the reins, and now she is ready to share them with a man who already has.
So there they are, shaking and numb, and they take the long way home, because this is their moment, and they want to make it last.
“I don’t know when I ever saw the stars so bright”.
“In the starlight, in the starlight, let us wander gay and free.”
He drops her off, and tells her what she knows, that he’ll be back Sunday, and she confirms what they both understand. “I will be ready.”
Pa and Ma are waiting up…this is probably as late as Laura’s ever stayed out, singing school was over hours ago, but those crazy kids drove on and on. Ma sighs with relief.
Pa says, “Does that devil horse of Wilder’s drive all right at night?” and Laura knows what he is asking. But it’s ok, and she has made up her mind. “He is really a gentle horse, and he stood so quietly when I got out. I like him.”
She intended to drive Barnum.