Guest post by Deb Stanish
“A Knife in the Dark” is a difficult chapter and is one of the few instances where Laura lets the very real and adult issues that faced many settlers slip through her narrative. As a child, this chapter horrified and confused me – why couldn’t Mrs. Brewster be as cheerful and stalwart as Ma? However, much like Wendy Corsi Staub said regarding “One Week” my adult reading of this particular chapter left me feeling more empathy and understanding toward Mrs. Brewster and the grim situation in which she finds herself. In fact, this chapter is the dark continuation of “One Week” in which all the set-up of that chapter comes to an explosive head.
Laura sets the stage beautifully for Mrs. Brewster’s descent into madness. The chapter opens with the unrelenting cold and tedium of a winter routine held hostage by both the weather and lack of opportunity. Laura is desperate for the escape, if only for a little while, to the comfort and warmth of her family which, to Laura, has as much to do with attitude as physical comfort. Mrs. Brewster, on the other hand, has no such opportunity for escape and the undercurrent of resentment is nearly palpable.
Since she is such a vivid character, it’s not inappropriate to once again examine Mrs. Brewster as she is held up as the “other”, a reserve image of our beloved Ma.
Readers will recall Laura’s feelings of frustration and numbness as The Long Winter continued to grind down the settlers. Mrs. Brewster projects the same sense of numbness but with the added burden of rearing a very small child in less than ideal circumstances. We don’t get a lot of back-story on Mrs. Brewster but it is clear that she is desperate to return East which indicates that she is most likely a recent transplant who may not be ideally prepared for the rigors of the west.
There has been an explosion of both scholarly works and self-published letters and diaries analyzing the female experience during the westward expansion. Nearly every single volume touches on the isolation and loneliness that women on the prairie faced. Women were cut-off from traditional support systems and cast into a harsh environment, often with meager supplies and experience. Add a small child into the mix and it’s a wonder more women didn’t crack under the strain. (The mothers among us will attest to the wild shift a young child brings to your life even under the best of circumstances!)
So what makes the Ingalls’ experience so much different than the Brewsters? Certainly attitude plays a part but circumstances also come into play. While Ma also came from “back east” her young married experience is markedly different from that of Mrs. Brewster. Ma began her journey in a cozy cabin in the Big Woods. While the reader’s viewpoint of this is rather idealized as we are seeing it through Laura’s fond memories, it is clear that there was much more physical comfort as well as more opportunities to interact with relatives and neighbors making the isolation more tolerable. When the family did head west Mary and Laura were older, able to shoulder more of the responsibilities as well as offering company and cheer during hard times.
While this is over-simplifying the issue and only analyzing the story as a fictional narrative (research has proven that many liberties were taken with this particular incident) it is curious that Laura chose to highlight this instance of domestic crisis, particularly since we now know that she left many other unpleasant details and stories by the wayside. Whether she did so to add dramatic tension to her narrative or to make a not-so-subtle statement as to the power of self-determination we’ll never know.
Regardless, Mrs. Brewster’s story serves an important purpose in this novel. As this chapter progresses Laura’s anxiety and desperation increase. The weather, a character in its own right, is an oppressive specter, threatening to turn deadly at any moment. The tension is nearly unbearable and when Mrs. Brewster makes her desperate bid to get home it feels as if the myth of “happy families on the prairie” has cracked wide open and Laura has given us a peek into the dark underbelly that was the reality for many women homesteaders.
Exhausted and heartsick, Laura is in an untenable position. Wracked with guilt over feelings of taking advantage of Almanzo she had, in her rather blunt fashion, let him know the previous week that while she is grateful for the transport he shouldn’t expect anything to come from it. Because of this forthrightness, she is convinced that he will not come for her and she is facing an endless weekend with the mad Mrs. Brewster.
The sound of sleigh bells in the distance means fills both Laura and the reader with joy. The bells mean hope and home and, for Laura, there is no sweeter sound.
We are fortunate that “women’s stories” are finally being recognized as having a legitimate place in the historical annals of the American west. There are many books available for further study and I recommend the following: Pioneer Woman: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna Stratton; Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel; Pioneer Women: and The Lives of Women on the Frontier by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith.