Little Town On The Prairie: Literary Overview (Part 2)


These last two books in the series focus not so much on the West and the frontier,though these things remain in the background. Instead, the last two books published in Wilder’s lifetime are truly coming of age novels. Laura assumes her place in the world. One last point about the opening chapters of ‘Little Town on the town on the Prairie’:in the book’s first chapter,a passage leaps off the page for readers who are familiar with Wilder’s real-life experiences. After Pa asks Laura if she’d like to work in town,Ma says: “‘A job? For a girl?In town?Why,what kind of job?’ Then quickly she said,’No Charles,I won’t have Laura working out in a hotel among all kinds of strangers.’ ‘Who said such a thing?’Pa demanded.’No girl of ours will do that!Not while I’m alive and kicking.'”And yet of course the real Charles and Caroline Ingalls had put their daughters to work in the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak,Iowa, when Laura was nine years old going on ten.Is this a comment on her parent’s decision,not only to run a hotel but to put their girls to work in it? The real Laura Ingalls,after all,had been sent out to work in the homes of strangers repeatedly before the family settled in Dakota Territory. Wilder didn’t comment on this in’Pioneer Girl,’but she did write about her interlude on the homestead claim after the hard winter,and before she went to work in town sewing buttonholes for Mrs.White, whose son-in-law Chauncey Clayson became Mr. Clancy in’Little Town on the Prairie.’ “Town was just a place to spend the winter.I didn’t care much for all those people in town.I loved the prairie,and the wild things that lived on it much better,”she wrote in ‘Pioneer Girl.’ Once the hard-working fictional Laura Ingalls begins her life as a hard-working young adult in De Smet, her experiences there separate her from her family and give Laura more maturity and worldliness. She even keeps secrets from Pa starting on that very first day in town. In the Clancy shop,Laura is exposed to what we would now call a dysfunctional family.”Mr. and Mrs.Clancy and Mrs. White,all quarreling at the top of their voices,sat down and ate heartily. Laura could not even understand what they were quarreling about. She could not tell whether Mr.Clancy was quarreling with his wife or her mother,know whether they were quarreling with him or with each other.They seemed so angry that she was afraid they would strike each other.” And yet when Pa comes to fetch her home,Laura tells him nothing about this.”‘How did you like your first day of working for pay half pint?’Pa asked her.’You make out alright?’ ‘I think so,’she answered. ‘Mrs.White spoke well of my buttonholes.'”Pa remains Laura’s mentor through this book, but his influence is gradually and slowly diminishing. Laura is becoming her own person, relying more and more on herself and her own instincts to see her through.She begins to make her own friends and has a social life outside the family, with Mary Power,Minnie Johnson, Ida Brown, and of course the return of Nellie Oleson,whom we’ll discuss in the next lecture. And with these new friends comes a growing awareness of the opposite sex, although in Laura’s case one wonders if she’s primarily interested in Almanzo Wilder, or his handsome team of brown morgans. “Sunlight ran glistening on the curve of their arched necks, strayed along their smooth sides, and curving on their round haunches. Behind them ran a shiny new buggy. Its dashboard glittered,its spotless black top curved over the seat on gleaning black spokes. Its wheels were red. Laura had never seen such a buggy. ‘Why didn’t you bow,Laura?’ Ida asked when it had sped by. ‘Didn’t you see him raise his hat to us?’ said Mary Power. Laura had seen only the beautiful horses, til the buggy flashed before her eyes.” Laura thinks the horses look like poetry, and at the end of the scene she’s only slightly interested in the intentions of the grown-up man with his own homestead. Now that she had seen the buggy, more than ever Laura wanted a ride with Almanzo. “How could you prevent such thoughts when those horses were so beautiful and the buggy so swift?” Not surprisingly, Laura becomes interested in fads and fashions. In the beginning of the novel, she’s drawn into this world reluctantly. “Her corsets were a sad affliction to her, from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts down to their shoe tops, they must wear corsets.” But soon Laura’s cutting bangs a ‘lunatic fringe’ as they’re called in De Smet, and thinking seriously about her wardrobe and its deficiencies. “Laura sponged and pressed her blue cashmere, and freshened its lace frill. She so wanted a hat instead of a hood, but Ma bought for her half a yard of beautiful brown velvet.” Laura spends a Saturday with Mary Power, making and trimming their new hats. This may appear to be a frivolous preoccupation to some readers, all this fashion, the desire for things other girls have. But Wilder is tapping into universal adolescent yearnings. Remember those universal themes of a young adult novel? Finding sexual identity, accepting a changing body, achieving emotional independence from parents and/or adults, choosing an occupation, developing a sense of morality, becoming part of a larger community? Laura’s preoccupation with fashion, the growing awareness of the opposite sex, and even her new thoughts about marriage, certainly play into those adolescent themes of finding sexual identity, accepting physical changes, (think about those corsets), and preparing for marriage. Toward the end of ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ even the prospect of marriage doesn’t seem as frightening to Laura as it did when she and Lena discussed the homesteader’s daughter who had married at 13. Laura asks Ma, toward the end of the novel, how many terms of school she had taught before marrying Pa? “‘Two,’ said Ma. ‘What happened then?’Laura asked. ‘I met your Pa,’ Ma answered. ‘Oh,’ Laura said.Hopefully she thought that she might meet somebody. Maybe after all she would not have to be a schoolteacher always.” In fact, Wilder touches on all of these YA literary themes in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’ The book is in many ways an archetypal young adult novel in its depiction of adolescence and coming-of-age. Yet Wilder never loses sight of her larger overriding theme: that moral struggle Laura faces to understand goodness. Even her preoccupation with fads and fashion feeds back into her greater quest to understand what it means to be good. When Laura finally gets her own name cards, she lies alone in bed, mulling things over and feeling ashamed. “She was not truly good, like Ma and Mary and Ida Brown. At that very minute she was so happy to think of having name cards, not only because they were beautiful, but partly to be meanly even with Nellie Olseon, and partly to have things as nice as Mary Power and Minnie had.” Laura remains in this book and archetypal teenager. “It seemed that the winter would never begin and never end. Nothing would ever happen but going to school and going home, lessons at school and lessons at home. She did not know what she wanted but she knew she could not have it, whatever it was.” Still, Wilder gives readers a glimpse of who Laura may ultimately become. As the book progresses, Laura emerges as a serious student. She becomes a scholar who excels in everything she does: the history recitation and her examinations for a teaching license (more about this in our next lecture). She also learns to assert herself, despite her internal fears and natural nervousness. Laura Ingalls becomes a leader among her classmates, and by the end of the novel she has resolved her struggle to be good. “Then then suddenly she knew that there must be no more self-indulgence. There were only ten months left before she would be 16 years old. Summer was before her, but she must stay in the house and study. She must. If she did not, perhaps next spring she could not get a teacher’s certificate and Mary might have to leave college.” Almost simultaneously, Ma and even Pa begin to fade into the background of Laura’s life. In the scene when Almanzo asks to walk Laura home from the revival meeting, Pa seems to recognize this transition. Ma stands petrified until Pa says “C’mon, Caroline.” He leads the family home, leaving Laura with Almanzo, to fend for herself and face a new future. By the end of the novel, Laura is a popular and smart young woman in De Smet, about to engage in both a romance and an adventure to teach school far from home. Laura has accepted what it means to be good, and in the process has found independence. Best of all, at least for readers of the ‘Little House’ books, she remains likable, credible, and believable. Laura may understand goodness, but her fierce independent nature saves her from becoming predictably good.

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