Welcome back! I’m glad to be picking up the book club where we left off.
By chance, I attended a book signing at my local indie bookstore last week, and spotted this on the “Staff Picks” table:
How about you? I hope you’ll share your reaction to the book in the comments section below.
As a child, this was not one of my favorites—probably because Laura was growing up faster than I was. I’ve found the book much more satisfying as an adult.
One of the most poignant moments for me comes on page two. When Pa introduces the idea of Laura getting a job in town, Ma reacts: “No, Charles, I won’t have Laura working out in a hotel among all kinds of strangers.” Pa responds, “Who said such a thing? …No girl of ours’ll do that, not while I’m alive and kicking.”
I know now that Laura did work in a hotel, and at a much younger age, when the family went through hard times and ended up at the Masters Hotel in Iowa. It’s telling, I think, that Laura presented that topic as she did in this book.
That moment is followed in the next chapter by one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. While walking with her sister Mary, Laura reflects on their improved relationship. Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different.
Laura has recently shared how annoying she used to find Mary’s behavior. Here’s Mary’s confession:
“I’m not really (good). …If you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me. …I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”
Laura is shocked by this confession, and so was I! Suddenly Mary, who’d been pretty one-dimensional in earlier books, jumps off the page as a complex and, to me, a more sympathetic character. To further the theme, later in the book Laura confronts the reality of Mary going off to college, and realizes how much she’ll miss her older sister.
A different “sisters moment” provides another of my absolute favorite scenes in the chapter titled “Sent Home From School.” When the vindictive teacher Miss Wilder orders young Carrie to rock her seat, which has come a little loose from the floor, Carrie is soon exhausted. Laura is so angry she takes over and soon is loudly thumping the seat back and forth.
The girls were ultimately sent home from school, a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Shocking! I think Ma and Pa handled it well.
Again, a little behind-the-scenes knowledge adds layers of complexity to this chapter. Eliza Jane Wilder was destined to become Laura’s sister-in-law; Laura’s daughter Rose spent extended time with her. Still, Laura painted Eliza Jane as a petty tyrant who seems to torment Carrie in an effort to provoke Laura. That must have led to some interesting family conversations.
As in all the Little House books, the landscape is evoked in vivid detail, and becomes a complex character itself. “The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” (Laura) said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”
Laura is just as skilled at describing the town itself, and her reaction reveals much about her: The town was a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. Old haystacks and manure piles were rotting around the stables, the backs of the stores’ false fronts were rough and ugly. …The town smelled of staleness and dust and smoke and a fatty odor of cooking. A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by back doors where the dishwater was thrown out.
We’re getting toward the end of the series, and this is a transitional book. Laura gets her first glimpse of Almanzo’s beautiful horses, her first job, her teaching certificate. She’s in her mid-teens, and her girlhood is fast slipping away.
PS – I stayed at a B&B in De Smet while working on Death on the Prairie, and the proprietor told me that bluish-gray cats are not uncommon in town today. Perhaps they’re descendants of the kitten Pa brought home?
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Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.
Next up for discussion: These Happy Golden Years.