Little Town On The Prairie: Literary Overview (Part 3)

As we saw in the last lecture, Laura takes on new responsibilities in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’ She decides to become a schoolteacher to help pay for Mary’s tuition at the College for the Blind, and as she begins to accept a new understanding of goodness, her relationship with Mary deepens. So too in this novel does Laura’s relationship with Carrie. Until ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’Carrie has remained in the background, without a strong personality. She is quiet, timid, and sickly. Laura feels protective of her, and in ‘The Long Winter’ she takes the coffee mill from Carrie. It worried her to see how thin and white Carrie was, and so exhausted from grinding. Laura’s protective impulses toward Carrie increase in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’ Now I should point out that the real Carrie Ingalls, born as you’ll remember in Kansas, was about 3 1/2 years younger than Wilder. The photograph on the screen, taken after Mary lost her sight, perhaps in Walnut Grove before the family moved to Dakota Territory, illustrates essential qualities about the three sisters. Carrie is tiny and small, looking much younger than her older sisters. Notice the calm and sweetness in Mary’s expression. And as for Laura, she looked somewhat fierce and protective, leaning in toward her sisters. In ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ the fictional Laura Ingalls, as we’ve seen, has a social circle all her own. Mary Powers, Minnie Johnson, Ida Brown,and the character readers love to hate: Nellie Oleson. Despite her growing circle of friends, however, Laura keeps a close eye on Carrie at school, and continues to worry about her sister’s fragile health. “She was still pale and spindly and always tired. Often her head ached so badly that she could not learn her spelling. Laura helped her with it. Carrie would know every word in the morning, then when she was called upon to recite she would make a mistake.” This leads of course to a pivotal scene in the book, when Carrie fails at spelling and the heartless Eliza Jane Wilder sends her to the front of the class to write the word she’s misspelled 50 times on the blackboard. Carrie nearly faints, and Laura steps in, which leads to an escalating crisis at the school. In the novel, Laura’s growing sense of responsibility to her sister is bound up with two other central characters, who serve as foils and antagonists to Laura: Eliza Jane Wilder and Nellie Oleson. Let’s lets start with Eliza Jane Wilder. When Laura first sees her in ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ Miss Wilder is something of a fashion plate. “Her hair was dark and her eyes were grey. She seemed a very pleasant person. Her dark gray dress was stylishly made, like Mary’s best one, tight and straight in the front with a pleated ruffle just touching the floor, and an over skirt draped and poofed above a little train.” But despite Miss Wilder’s lovely appearance, she proves far from pleasant. She loses control of the classroom, strikes up an inappropriate friendship with Nellie Oleson, and in a very dramatic scene that illustrates Laura’s loyalty to her family, her deepening sense of fairness, and her sheer physical strength, Miss Wilder sends the two Ingalls girls home from school. “Everyone had heard of being sent home from school. No one there had seen it done before. It was a punishment worse than whipping with a whip. Only one punishment was more dreadful: that was to be expelled from school.” Compounding the seriousness of the situation, Charles Ingalls is on the school board. Ultimately Miss Wilder abandons teaching school, and although Laura appears to have been bad, being sent home from school, authoring a cruel chant about Miss Wilder, and in the process contributing to the mayhem in the classroom, Laura is ultimately redeemed. A new teacher arrives who is everything Miss Wilder was not: quiet, but firm, a good disciplinarian. Obviously the portrait Wilder drew of her sister-in-law in ”Little Town on the Prairie’ is far from flattering, but the first glimpse ‘Little House’ readers have of Eliza Jane in ‘Farmer Boy’ isn’t especially flattering either. She is bossy, supremely self-confident, and humorless. In the second chapter of ‘Farmer Boy,’ for example, she catches Almanzo in the act of snitching a piece of broken pie crust before supper time. “‘Almanzo, you stop that! Mother!’ she called.” Almanzo doesn’t get a crumb of pie crust, but he does stick his tongue out at Eliza Jane, which is pretty much how readers feel about her throughout the book. Eliza Jane also appears as herself in Rose Wilder Lane ‘s novel ‘Free Land.’ In this novel, Eliza Jane is the older sister of David Beaton, the novel’s main character, who is loosely based on the real Almanzo Wilder. In this novel, Eliza Jane cuts a fashionable figure, and is naturally bossy, and teaching school for seven years had made her more so. But what do we know about the real Eliza Jane Wilder, EJ as she came to be called? According to the federal census, she was 29 in 1880, and had arrived in Dakota Territory the year before to teach school in a small town about 100 miles southeast of the future town site of De Smet. During that same year, EJ filed a homestead claim near the De Smet town site, and wrote an account of her life as a homesteader there. The voice EJ strikes in this account does indeed sound bossy, self-centered, and self-confident. “In September, I think the fifth, there came a frost so severe as to kill grass. The corn was not ripe and of course ruined. The lobes of buckwheat were loosened, and a strong wind the next day just thrashed it where it stood. Thus, every every bit of crop was ruined in a night. Was I discouraged? Not a bit. I wrote such bright descriptions of frontier life home that my mother and little brother, Pearly Day Wilder, a boy of 12 or 13, came to see me. They they were not charmed.” According to her own account, Eliza Jane began teaching school in De Smet in September 1882, which conflicts with Wilder’s accounts in both ‘Pioneer Girl’ and ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ which place Miss Wilder in the De Smet schoolhouse in the autumn of 1881. Perhaps not surprisingly, Eliza Jane’s narrative doesn’t include any reference to a disturbance at the school, or to a confrontation with Laura Ingalls. She simply states that “when the term of school ended, I was worn out and unfitted for any labor.” She left Dakota Territory permanently in the mid-1880s, moved to Washington DC, and worked as a secretary for the Department of the Interior until 1892. She married and eventually moved to Louisiana. As those of you who took part one may remember, Rose Wilder Lane finished high school in Louisiana, living with her aunt EJ. The two seemed to be kindred spirits. Eliza Jane Wilder died in 1930, two years before the first ‘Little House’ book was published. One can’t help but wonder how she would’ve reacted to her depiction in her niece and sister-in-law’s books. And now, on to Nellie Oleson. As we discussed in part one of this class, the Nellie Olsen readers first met in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek,’ was based on Nellie Owens, a shopkeeper’s daughter Wilder remembered from Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Nellie Owens and her family moved on to Oregon; they did not move west to Dakota Territory. The Nellie Oleson of ‘Little Town on the Prairie’ was loosely based on two other girls Wilder encountered in De Smet. Let’s start with Genevieve Masters. Do you recognize her last name? Masters. Her older brother George, his wife Maggie, and their infant son had spent the hard winter with the Ingalls family. The Masters clan had moved from Walnut Grove to De Smet, like the fictional Nelson family in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’ Genevieve was just a few months younger than Laura Ingalls Wilder, and like the fictional Nellie Oleson, had been born in New York State. Her father, Samuel Masters, was well educated. He had graduated from Cornell University and taught school, among other things, in Walnut Grove. Yet according to veteran De Smet newspaperman Aubrey Sherwood, Samuel Masters, like the fictional Mr.Oleson in ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ became a homesteader near De Smet. In 1938, Wilder wrote Lane, saying: “I think I will let Nellie Oleson take Jenny Masters’ place in ‘Prairie Girl’ (the working title for ‘Little Town on the Prairie’) and let her be the only girl from Plum Creek. Their characters were alike.” Genevieve Masters became a schoolteacher herself, married, but died young in 1909 at the age of 41. She is buried in the De Smet. As for the other girl Wilder used as a model for Nellie Oleson, we’ll discuss her later when we examine ‘These Happy Golden Years.’

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