These Happy Golden Years: Literary Overview (Part 1)


Laura Ingalls Wilder considered ‘These Happy Golden Years’ the end of her ‘Little House’ series. The book was published in 1943, 14 years before her death in 1957. She submitted no more manuscripts to Harper & Brothers, nor to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who died in 1968, 25 years after “These Happy Golden Years’ was published. The book is essentially a coming-of-age and a courtship novel. Laura becomes a successful school teacher, wins the heart of heroic young bachelor, and at the end of the book is set to embark on her new adventure as a married woman. The courtship and coming of age threads in this book are interwoven right from the beginning. Although Pa takes Laura to the Brewster school in the first chapter, Almanzo is the one who rescues her at the end of the week, and he takes on this responsibility throughout the opening chapters of the novel. In the opening chapters of the book, Laura’s experiences are neither happy nor golden, and given this period in American young adult literature, was unusually dark and edgy, as dark and edgy as ‘The Long Winter’ had been. Laura’s first evening at the Brewster school is unsettling, even disturbing. After supper, Laura tries to strike up a conversation with Mrs.Brewster, “but she did not answer. The silence grew more and more dreadful. Laura felt her face grow burning hot. She went on wiping the dishes blindly. When they were done, Mrs.Brewster threw out the dish water and hung the pan on its nail. She sat in the rocking chair and rocked idly, while Johnny crawled under the stove and dragged out the cat by its tail. The cat scratched him and he bawled. Mrs.Brewster went on rocking.” The Brewster family is dysfunctional, the marriage precarious, and Mrs.Brewster makes no attempt to conceal this from Laura. Laura has barely stepped foot into the family’s home when she’s caught up in this conversation: “‘Nowadays breakfast is so late we eat only two meals a day,’ Mr.Brewster explained. ‘Whose fault is that I’d like to know?’ Mrs.Brewster blazed out, ‘as if I didn’t do enough, slaving from morning to night in this-‘ Mr.Brewster raised his voice. ‘I only meant the days are so short.’ ‘Then say what you mean.’ Mrs.Brewster slammed the high chair to the table, snatched the little boy, and sat him in it hard.” The image of lonely, isolated, and sometimes suicidal women living reluctantly in claim shanties or sod houses on the Great Plains is a recurring image in early 20th-century American literature. One of the most notable examples is a character of Beret, who follows her husband into Dakota Territory in O.E. Rolvaag’s ‘Giants in the Earth.’ “Had they traveled into some nameless abandoned region? Could no living thing exist out here in the empty desolate endless waste of green and blue? How could existence go on? she thought desperately, if life is to thrive and endure it must at least have something to hide behind.” For the most part, Wilder’s work, like Willa Cathers, counterbalances this image. Ma is a sometimes reluctant pioneer woman, for example, but she is also capable, resilient, and courageous. In her own way, she brings civilization with her wherever she goes, and it’s women like Ma who ultimately tame the West. But Mrs.Brewster in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ is Ma’s antithesis. Indeed, the entire Brewster family is diametrically opposed to everything the fictional Ingalls family represents. As Laura struggles to cope with her new environment at the Brewsters, she looks out from that miserable claim shanty at the prairie beyond, and imagines herself back home. “The road went straight across the snow and far away out of sight. Twelve miles away was home. Ma was getting supper now. Carrie was home from school. They were laughing and talking with Grace. Pa would come in and swing Grace up in his arms, as he used to lift Laura when she was little. They would all go on talking at the supper table. Later they would sit in the lamplight, cozily reading while Carrie studied. Then Pa would play his fiddle.” But during that first week, Laura can’t imagine away the unpleasant and unsettling experience of living in the Brewster household. It presses in around her. “Before Laura could hurry into bed in the cold dark, Mrs.Brewster began to quarrel at Mr.Brewster. Laura tried not to hear. She pulled the quilt over her head and pressed her ear tight against the pillow, but she could not help hearing. She knew then that Mrs.Brewster wanted her to hear.” So this is gritty, edgy stuff, and it was especially so in the early 1940s, before the YA category had been invented, and before writers for young readers tackled darker subjects that we now associate with the genre: physical and verbal abuse, dysfunctional families, sex violence, and suicide. And of course, ‘These Happy Golden Years’ gets even grittier. There’s that unforgettable chapter entitled “A Knife in the Dark” when Mrs.Brewster threatens her husband with a butcher knife. “The moonlight shone through the calico and thinned the darkness, so that Laura saw Mrs.Brewster standing there. Her long white flannel nightgown trailed on the floor, and her black hair fell loose over her shoulders. In her upraised hand she held the butcher knife. Laura had never been so terribly frightened.” This was dangerous stuff for readers in the early 1940s, and it was essentially unprecedented in young adult literature. Wilder’s literary agent George Bye informed Wilder that her editor, Ms.Nordstrom, “is suggesting that Mrs.Brewster’s butcher knife incident be cut out.” Although Wilder had compromised with Ursula Nordstrom on the title for ‘The Long Winter,’ she refused to cut “The Knife in the Dark” from “These Happy Golden Years.” But it’s interesting to note that the original addition of “These Happy Golden Years,” illustrated by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, does not include an illustration of Mrs.Brewster and that butcher knife. The incident was autobiographical. Wilder included it in all versions of “Pioneer Girl.” Here’s how she described it in her original draft of her autobiography: “I peeked between the curtains. I was so terrified, I must see. Mr. Bouchie lay on his back on the bed with one foot out from under the covers. He seemed to be lying quietly, but I could see that every muscle was tensed. Mrs.Bouchie stood beside the bed with a large butcher knife in her hand.” Notice here, however, that the couple’s name is Bouchie, not Brewster. And in her correspondence with Lane about the last two novels in the ‘Little House’ series, Wilder continued to use the surname Bouchie. But at some point Wilder changed her mind, and gave these characters a similar but fictional name. Bouchie became Brewster. Perhaps to shield the real people Wilder remembered or to protect herself as a novelist. Wilder was keenly aware of the history behind her fiction. She knew when she was taking literary liberties and when she was not. It was an issue that she felt compelled to reinforce with Lane as they worked together on both ‘Little Town on the Prairie’ and ‘These Happy Golden Years.’ As Wilder pointed out to Lane: “Unfortunately we have used real names in these books and must stick close to the facts than otherwise we would need to.” In the case of the Bouchies, however, Wilder stuck to the facts but changed their names. But what do we know about the real Lou Brewster and his wife? He was Louis Bouchie, a man in his early 20s, born in Canada, and according to the 1880 federal census, was living in Grundy County Iowa, working as a cattle herder. In 1882, he filed two homestead claims in Kingsbury County, not twelve miles south of De Smet, but six miles slightly south and almost due west of town. The real Laura Ingalls went out to the Bouchies the first of December, probably in 1883, as we discussed in the last lecture. As for Mrs.Bouchie herself, she was Olive Delilah Eisenberger Morrison. She moved to Kingsbury County in Dakota Territory shortly after Lewis Bouchie arrived, and filed her own claim on land adjoining his. Like Louis Bouchie, Olive Morrison had moved to Dakota Territory from Grundy County, Iowa. She brought her two-year-old son with her. It is unclear whether Olive Morrison was widowed or divorced, but in 1880, when the federal census was taken, she was a married woman living with her parents and siblings in Iowa. Presumably, her son had not yet been born. In ‘Pioneer Girl,’ Wilder writes: “Mrs. Bouchie was never pleasant. She was always sullen and seldom spoke. Breakfast was a silent meal, and I was glad to be gone all day.” Historical records are unclear. Louis Bouchie and Olive Morrison were either married in December 1882 or December 1883. In either case, they hadn’t been married long when the real Laura Ingalls boarded with them. Both the real Laura Ingalls (and the fictional one) decide to keep the butcher knife incident a secret from her family. Laura is determined to finish out her term. As Wilder wrote in ‘Pioneer Girl’: “This is one thing I didn’t tell when I went home, for badly as I hated to go out there again, it was only one more week, and I wanted to finish my school.” Of course, the person who rescues Laura from the misery and danger of the Brewster/Bouchie household is Almanzo Wilder. Out of the misery of the Brewster household, Laura finds romance, and the courtship theme in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ moves center stage. As we’ve seen in previous books, Laura comes to the idea of romance and marriage reluctantly. In ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ Laura and Lena find the idea of marriage very unsettling. Laura concludes that she’s not ready for the responsibilities of marriage: “‘I don’t want to be so responsible. I’d rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet.'” She is surprised and confused by the attention she receives from Almanzo Wilder in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’ “It was an odd thing for him to do, but he was grown-up. He’d been a homesteader for a few years, so he must be at least 23-years-old. And he was Pa’s friend more than hers.” Even when Almanzo begins to drive her home from the Brewsters in ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ Laura won’t admit he’s her beau, even to her good friend Mary Power. “‘Oh, no, he isn’t my beau!’ Laura cried out. ‘It isn’t like that at all! He came for me as a favor to Pa!'” Laura even tells Almanzo directly that she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. “‘I am going with you only because I want to get home. When I am home to stay, I will not go with you anymore. So, now you know. And if you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can.'” Laura’s reluctance to pursue romance brings realism and tension to her love story. And as we’ve seen earlier in the class, tension always makes a story stronger and more appealing to readers. Even when Laura accepts Almanzo’s proposal later in the novel, she seems somewhat tentative. “‘I was wondering,’ Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura’s hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned hand closed gently over it. He had never done that before. ‘Your hand is so small,’ he said. Another pause, then quickly, ‘I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.’ ‘That would depend on who offered it to me,’ Laura told him. ‘If I should?’ Almanzo asked. ‘Then it would depend on the ring,’ Laura answered, and drew her hand away.” Laura’s reluctance, and in fact her entire romance with Almanzo, seems very tame and relatively passionless to modern readers of young adult fiction. Contemporary YA novels are more direct and explicit. For example, John Green’s award-winning novel ‘Looking for Alaska’ includes a very candid, descriptive, and humorous scene about oral sex. Old-fashioned courtship, and a proposal that doesn’t even include a kiss seems quaint, even in a historical novel like this one. But in the early 1940s, Wilder was once again blazing a new creative path for young adult fiction. In fact, what’s now considered the first young adult romantic novel was published in 1942, just a year before ‘These Happy Golden Years.’ ‘Seventeenth Summer’ by Maureen Daly, contained scenes showing teenagers drinking and smoking unrepentantly, and thinking openly about sexual attraction. But like ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ the scenes in ‘Seventeenth Summer’ also seen prim, dated, and quaint. “It’s funny what a boy can do. One day you’re nobody, and the next day you’re the girl that some fellow goes with. Going with a boy gives you a new identity, especially going with a fellow like Jack Deluth.” The emotional underpinnings of this passage don’t seem radically different from Wilder’s depiction of Nellie Olsen and her interest in Almanzo Wilder. In ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ Nellie compares Cap Garland to Almanzo. “‘He isn’t such a much. It’s that chum of his I want to know, that young Mr.Wilder with the funny name. You’ll see. I’m going to ride behind those horses of his.'” And as we’ll see in the next lecture, Nellie continues to pursue Almanzo in ‘These Happy Golden Years.’ Explicit sexual content simply wasn’t part of mainstream American fiction in the early 20th century for young readers, or for adults. Only a handful of literary authors were experimenting with sexual content in the early 20th century, and only for adult readers. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence, was published privately in 1928, but it’s complete and unabridged version wasn’t published until the 1960s. ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, published in the early 1920s, faced obscenity charges because of its sexual candor. In the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine a world where writers were unable to openly portray the sexual feelings of their characters, but mainstream American publishing expected authors to ignore the physicality of their characters, or to write discreetly about it. One reason Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ was so popular in 1938, was because she found a way to write about sexual attraction in what for the period seemed both candid and passionate. And although the book is now considered a YA novel, Mitchell wrote it for adult readers. But Laura and Almanzo’s courtship in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ isn’t without passion, it’s just that their passion appears indirectly in the novel. Think about Almanzo’s horses. From the very beginning, they attracted Laura. Remember that first glimpse Laura had of Almanzo and his horses in ‘Little Town on the Prairie’? “Now that she had seen the buggy, more than ever Laura wanted to ride with Almanzo. How could she prevent such thoughts when those horses were so beautiful, and the buggy so swift?” I think an argument can be made that those horses are more than horses, that they serve as a kind of metaphor for the attraction, and even sexual tension, between Laura and Almanzo. In scene after scene, Laura is drawn to those horses and their beauty. In fact, they bring Almanzo and Laura together. When she feels lonely and forgotten after her return to town from the Brewster school, Prince and Lady pull up to the door and Laura jumps into Almanzo’s cutter. “Together they speed away up Main Street, and around in a circle to the north and back again and again. Laura was so happy she had to sing.” Think about Laura’s wild leaps into the buggy pulled by Barnum and Skip, or how she learns to control the reins herself. “Laura’s arms took the force of Barnum’s pull. His strength flowed up the lines with a thrill she had felt before.” And then there are those long, slow, buggy rides on summer Sunday afternoons, as Laura and Almanzo’s romance deepens. And it’s on one of those Sundays when Laura accepts his proposal. “Then, driving with one hand, with the other Almanzo lifted Laura’s, and she felt something cool slip over her first finger, while he reminded her, ‘You said it would depend on the the ring. How do you like this one?'” Laura admires the ring and accepts his proposal. Later in this scene, she and Almanzo stand beside the buggy. She holds up her face to the faint moonlight. “‘You may kiss me good night,’ she said.” And after their first kiss she went into the house, while Almanzo drove away. By the way, not all contemporary YA romances are sexually explicit. A prime example: ‘Scorpio Races’ by Maggie Stiefvater. The book also uses horses as a metaphor for the attraction and sexual tension between her two main characters. Of course, ‘These Happy Golden Years’ isn’t only about courtship. As a coming-of-age novel, it also deals with Laura’s new maturity, her career choices, and ultimately her independence. We’ll discuss these subjects and more in our next lecture.

3 Replies to “These Happy Golden Years: Literary Overview (Part 1)

  1. Does any literature written before this so perfectly depict the misery of postpartum depression? I suspect she lost one and that added to the frantic despair. Poor Mrs. Bouchie. I always thought she was threatening to harm herself with the knife, not her husband.

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