Something that has always bothered me in the Little House books is the whole Eliza Jane debacle. I couldn’t figure out why Laura presented such a bleak picture of her sister-in-law.
Part of the reason for that is the timeline.
Let me back up. Through the eyes that Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author, allowed for us as readers, what do we know about Eliza Jane Wilder?
She was bossy.
She was a know-it-all.
She was a terrible teacher.
She was easily manipulated by her students (say, Nellie Oleson).
She was overly emotional.
She wanted to take over Laura’s wedding.
Does that about cover it? If I have missed anything, let me know.
Aside from smoothing over the blacking-brush situation in Farmer Boy, Eliza Jane Wilder is never redeemed. Even in Little Town on the Prairie, as an adult, she is presented as merely an exponential version of that bossy, unlikable big sister we first met in Farmer Boy.
And let’s remind ourselves: this is all through Laura’s filter. This is only what Laura chose to share about this person. I don’t know about your marriage, but if I published what essentially amounts to a character defamation of my husband’s sister, he’d have something to say about it.
Which leads me to think that either A) Almanzo didn’t read the books, or B) he didn’t care. Him not reading them seems plausible enough. But if he didn’t care, there had to be a good reason.
Let’s look at the timeline:
1881 (according to Little Town on the Prairie, which was off from the real date by a year): Laura is taught school by Eliza Jane Wilder, the sister of the man who will become her husband.
1885: After courting for three years, Laura marries Almanzo Wilder.
1899: James Wilder, Almanzo’s father, dies shortly after losing most of his fortune investing in rice crops in Louisiana on the advice of Eliza Jane.
1903: Laura and Almanzo send their daughter, Rose, to live with Eliza Jane in Crowley, Louisiana to attend and graduate from high school.
1904: Rose leaves home for Kansas City, MO, and is essentially gone for good.
1930: Eliza Jane Wilder (Thayer Gordon – she married twice) dies.
1932: The first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, Little House In the Big Woods, is published.
1933: Farmer Boy, the second book in the series, detailing the childhood of her husband, is published—this is where we first meet the character Eliza Jane.
1935-1940: The next four books in the series are published.
1941: Little Town on the Prairie is published; we meet Eliza Jane again, this time as an adult, teaching school to Laura’s class.
At the time of the writing of Little Town, Eliza Jane has been dead for about a decade. It’s been almost forty years since Laura and Almanzo entrusted Rose to her care for the girl’s last year of schooling. By all accounts, Rose grew to deeply respect and admire her unique, eccentric, and politically active aunt.
Why would Laura choose to defame her sister-in-law’s character in this way? It seems out of left field to me. A case could be made that it was Rose’s suggestions that led to EJ’s character development—but if Rose expressed any untoward feelings toward Eliza Jane, I’ve missed them. I’ve toyed with the idea that Laura and Almanzo, or even Rose, resented Eliza Jane’s meddling in the elder Wilders’ investments and blamed her for the drain of their fortune—and her father’s subsequent death. It wouldn’t be that hard to accept Rose being angry about her parents losing an inheritance, since she took such responsibility for her parents’ financial support. But the big loss happened in the late 1890s, before Rose was sent to Crowley.
Did Laura and Almanzo simply value Rose’s education that much? Or were they OK with EJ then, and only later on resented EJ’s influence on their young, impressionable girl—who would follow her Crowley stay by leaving home, for all intents and purposes, permanently?
I go around and around in my head. I simply cannot come up with a plausible explanation as to why Laura chose to turn her sister-in-law into a pariah. In the book series, even Lib “Mrs. Brewster” Bouchie has mitigating factors—you can almost understand why she acts as she does. And Nellie, ever the villain, is ultimately revealed to be a lot poorer than she lets on, which brings a different level of understanding to her behavior. (And let’s remind ourselves of one very interesting commonality these two characters shared: Their names were changed.)
We never get this understanding with Eliza Jane. In Farmer Boy, we understand her actions because we know she’s just a child, and later on we even like her when she tells Almanzo “You’re the only little brother I’ve got.” (Which he wasn’t, but I digress.) But Little Town, written just eight years later, gives us no such escape hatch. Instead we’re left with the enduring image of the incompetent teacher who then (in These Happy Golden Years) has to face the humiliation of her most troublesome student joining her family—and they won’t even let her help plan the wedding.
I’m out of ideas. Anyone else?