Guest post by Eddie Higgins
Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings. I know this from watching It’s a Wonderful Life. In Laura land however, the double strings of Prince and Lady’s sleigh bells mean the joy of a trip home – and the cautious beginning of a romance, since Almanzo has decided to step up his courting under the cunning guise of a favour to Pa, fetching Laura home for the weekend.
This is just about my favourite chapter, and I think it’s one that you appreciate more as an adult – or someone who has left home – than you can possibly do as a child, when the idea of leaving home doesn’t mean much, or it’s something way in the future. All week Laura has been steeling herself to the thought of having to spend the weekend at the Brewsters, tempered by a tiny hope she hardly dares to allow herself that Pa might come to her rescue. Instead it’s Almanzo – he may not be on a white charger, but Prince and Lady and the new cutter are so much more practical for prairie travel. As a romantic ploy, it’s a master-stroke.
Laura’s already dismissed school a little early (I know she says the storm is getting worse, but even so, can’t help feeling you aren’t supposed to quit work just because your ride home has turned up) and Clarence dashes outside to admire Almanzo’s horses while Laura sorts out Ruby’s wraps (just so we know she is still conscientious), and then they set off. They have to stop at the Brewsters’ so Laura can pick up her things and drop off the dinner pail, and Almanzo shows some disgust. (Harsh from the man who advocated constant eating to save on doing the dishes in Long Winter.) But I suppose it shows Laura and Almanzo are in synch about the Brewsters, and Laura isn’t inclined to waste time thinking about the Brewsters. Then they are off. The conversation they have on the way home is so sweet. Laura is in the Flutterbudget ‘speak before thinking’ mode that Pa counselled her against, realises it, resolves to do better, and then does it again straight away. The cutter is 26 inches wide at the bottom, which I just measured as half the width of the desk I’m sitting at typing this. Tight squeeze!
Then all of a sudden she is HOME and the really good stuff starts (isn’t “Ma’s smile lighted her whole face” a lovely expression?). Here’s why I love this chapter: it’s the perfect expression of the unspeakable joy of returning to the haven of the ‘homefolks’ from the terrors of the big wide world. There really is nothing like going away to make you appreciate home. Everything is as it was – the house, the family, Kitty, the news from Mary, school and the town, the food, the fiddle music – yet different, because Laura is seeing it with new eyes, having had her first, not very pleasant, taste of fending for herself. I feel like I’ve come home myself when I read this, and my own throat aches a little along with Laura.
After a perfect evening, Laura wakes up still noticing all those little things which make the happy home: everyone says good morning, pleasant talk at the table, and even the housework. Laura’s meaning to put a brave face on the time she’s having at the Brewsters’ but she confesses to Carrie, who (in a bit of a Jane Austen moment) can only suggest marriage as a solution. Laura’s firmly on the page of wanting to stay at home forever (and just in case anyone is reading along for the first time I’m not saying a word about how that pans out).
Next Laura pops out into town to see Mary Power and find out where the town class is up to, while her wash water heats. Laura finds she even likes the town now, and I give a little cheer for Gerald Fuller, as he lifts his cap to her – as does Mr Bradley (does anyone else find themselves paying more attention to the minor characters as we do the readalongs? I find I’ve become very fond of Mr Bradley), and calls Laura “Miss Ingalls”. “Laura felt very grown up”. I love this, though I’m not quite sure why exactly. I suppose Laura gets a flash of seeing herself as others see her – in a grown-up job, therefore a grown-up. And, as we find out in a moment, with a beau, according to Mary Powers, much to Laura’s embarrassment and denial. “Everything is simple when you are alone, or at home, but as soon as you meet other people you are in difficulties,” she says, in a sudden entry into the second person. Quite! On the other hand, the Almanzo situation does give the chance for a little crowing over Nellie Oleson, slightly to Mrs Powers’s disapproval.
Back home, washing, redoing her hat, ‘talking all the time with Ma and Carrie and Grace’ and Laura is still musing on the truth of appreciating something more when you have less of it. Now there’s only Sunday morning left, which means best clothes, church – and Ida, who is the only other person apart from Carrie to whom Laura confides her dislike of teaching. Laura uses the idle time during Reverend Brown’s ‘stupid’ sermon (is it just me, or is Laura getting a little more curt now she’s a grown-up?) to muse on the passage of time, and growing up generally. And, with the return to school imminent, she’s now worrying about managing the school, and Clarence in particular. So now Laura has learnt the Friday ‘hurrah I don’t need to think about work for two days’ feeling and the Sunday ‘oh no, back to work tomorrow’ feeling. While enjoying Sunday lunch, Laura’s joy lets the cat out of the bag to Pa that she is not enjoying staying at the Brewsters’. His advice is to keep a stiff upper lip – about which there is more to come in the next chapter.
Finally, it’s time to go back to school. Pa baffles Laura and Ma by delaying starting – he and Almanzo have clearly been plotting. The feminist in me feels I should object to this, but I love the way Pa acts as unofficial sponsor of Almanzo’s courting efforts. I wonder exactly how that particular conversation went. Finally Almanzo arrives and Laura is off back to school in a further jingle of sleigh bells. I never actually noticed before that the chapter doesn’t just begin with sleigh bells, it ends with them as well. A weekend of joy with sleigh bell bookends. I like that.