Guest post by Eddie Higgins
If ever I find my calendar getting booked up with several social occasions in one week, I indulge my inner Laura by saying out loud, “I am living in such a whirl of gaiety lately, I declare…” I particularly love the “I declare” part. The pleasure of a full social calendar can be immeasurably enhanced by actually declaring it to be so. (Honestly. I urge you to try it. You may find an invite to a party arrives while you’re doing it, too).
If Long Winter was all about the struggle for bread, then Little Town is surely proof that once you have bread, there’s time to start thinking about circuses. In this chapter we see a lot of circuses as the fledgling De Smet gets its ginger up and lets its collective braids down. As a microcosm of all the good parts of Ingalls life, it has almost everything you could wish for: Pa being better than anyone (as always), church, singing, fiddling, fun, food. Oh, the FOOD. More on than later. And it has one of my favourite non-family characters, the clog-dancing, accordion-playing Englishman Gerald Fuller. Best of all: nothing bad happens in this chapter. Ok, so there is some sadness – their first Christmas without Mary is the sober filling in the gaiety sandwich – but apart from that you can sit back and enjoy it all without so much as a sniff of a remark about beautiful settled weather or bragging about a glorious crop to cause any worry.
The fun starts with the secondary Literary. Following Pa’s spelling triumph at the first, he defeats the little town again with a charade, presenting ‘Commentators on the Ac’s’ with the aid of his axe and two ‘common’ potatoes. Here’s a question: whenever I’ve played charades, there’s no dressing up but just miming of particular syllables (etc.) of a book or song title. I’ve read descriptions of the more tableau-style version of charades that Pa plays here in other old novels – so what I’m curious about is when did the game of charades transform into the modern version? Does anyone know?
Back to the Literaries. How can they beat ‘that stunt’ of Pa’s, wonders Mr Bradley. Good question, and it gives Gerald Fuller the chance to call out, “I say, there’s talent enough for a musical programme, what?” in his (allegedly) ‘English way’. I LOVE this line. I say, this is how English people talk, what? Actually, there’s talent enough for two musical programmes – for the third Literary, there’s Gerald Fuller’s accordion and Pa’s fiddle, and at the fourth, there’s Mrs Bradley’s organ and singing, and (of course) Pa’s fiddle. Fortunately, Mrs Bradley turns out to be the kind of stalwart performer who doesn’t get put off when the whole town starts weeping during her act. (I’d never heard of this ‘Backward, turn backward’ song, but I’m guessing from the number of hits I got on Google it’s actually pretty well-known. But if there’s anyone else unfamiliar with it, it’s actually called ‘Rock me to sleep’, and the full words, attributed to Elizabeth Akers Allen, are here: http://www.bartleby.com/102/173.html. Although it’s not my cup of tea I can see why it got to Ma, with her growing-up-and-leaving-home daughters, and it chimes neatly with the mood of sadness for the passage of time which hits Laura later in the chapter.)
As well as the Literaries, the new church is finished, and Mrs “Sure, I’ll lend you my organ” Bradley has stepped in again so the town can sing hymns, including Laura’s favourite, Hymn Eighteen (which, it turns out, is pretty catchy: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/o/goodoldw.htm, and the words do seem appropriate for a pioneering town ). I love the way Laura whiles away the sermons by mentally improving Reverend Brown’s grammar. This will be good practice, should she find herself having to get that teaching certificate anytime soon.
And the gaiety just keeps on whirling: the Ladies’ Aid Society plans a New England Supper for Thanksgiving. And what a supper. This is one of those gorgeous food abundance scenes – like the Christmas dinner in May, but thankfully, for the nutritionally-conscious, with more vegetables. “In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food”; the contrast with the previous winter couldn’t be greater. There’s a lot of buttery mashed stuff: potatoes, turnips, squash; there’s creamed corn, baked beans, assorted pickles and preserves, three kinds of bread, and chicken pie. For pudding, there’s Ma’s pumpkin pie, fruit pies and cake. “Most marvellous of all”, there’s a whole roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. And all this for 50 cents, which sounds a bargain to me, though not to Laura who is probably remembering that it’s two days’ worth of sewing buttonholes. We get an implied Ma-ism, when Laura sees the pig and has to remind herself that a grown-up must never let feelings be shown by voice or manner, but Grace has to be hushed. (Aw, poor Grace, it’s her first pig sighting, give her a break. Come to think of it, I hope to goodness someone tells her it is a pig – Grace, see that curly thing on the end there? That’s a pig’s tail.)
Ma plunges in to help wait on table while Laura valiantly seconds Ida on washing up duty. After a long and busy night, the exhausted ladies finally get to eat their own supper; thankfully, Laura’s marathon drying-up stint hasn’t deprived her of her some of that roast pork. Meanwhile the men talk man stuff over by the stove. Good old Mrs Bradley isn’t too tired to add a little organ music to the entertainment. What a woman. Tears hopefully optional this time.
On the way home, there’s a curious little incident where we learn that while Ma can cope with being dragged all over the prairie, and doesn’t bat an eyelid when her husband comes home and announces they are moving either to or from town at a moment’s notice, it really riles her if you call a New England Supper, a sociable. I’ve always wondered if I’m missing some sub-text here. What’s going on? It just seems so un-Ma to get snappy over being tired, given what she takes on the chin day-in day-out in terms of workload, discomfort, poverty, near-starvation, danger and the like. Pa, we’re told, says “no more” (wisely, I feel). Perhaps he’s seen Ma in this it-wasn’t-a-sociable mood before. What is the difference between a sociable and a New England Supper anyway?
Before anyone can catch a breath, the Literary the following night is an educational debate on who was the greater man, Lincoln or Washington. Answers in the comments box please. Laura has a fleeting moment of guilt for the study time she is missing, but plans to make it up over the holidays. (Good luck with that.)
Christmas itself forms a low-key interlude, buried in the middle of the chapter. Apart from The First Four Years, every other book has at least one ‘special’ Christmas chapter (I had a quick look: “Christmas” in Big Woods, “Mr Edwards Meets Santa Claus” in Prairie, “A Merry Christmas” in Plum Creek, and “the Night Before Christmas” the following year, at the end of the book, no fewer than three in Silver Lake – “Christmas Eve”, “The Night Before Christmas” and “Merry Christmas” – “Merry Christmas” again in Long Winter, and “The Night Before Christmas” again in Golden Years). Usually, Christmas is a big event for the Ingalls family, even when they don’t have much to celebrate with: people visit / Ma contrives a special dinner / they make presents out of nothing /they sing carols. This is the first Christmas without Mary, though, and her absence has taken the heart completely out of what has always been an intrinsically family celebration, even when they had guests. “That was all there was to Christmas”, Laura says flatly, although they have fancier bought presents than in previous years, including the eagerly-anticipated Tennyson’s poems for Laura. But she misses Mary too much to enjoy them; Laura’s too old to find happiness in presents alone (remember when it dawned on you that getting presents wasn’t actually the best bit of Christmas?). Not surprisingly, the attitude of the sailors in ‘The Lotos-eaters’ doesn’t sit well with Laura’s pioneer work ethic, and she’s in no mood for nuanced literary criticism. Luckily poor old Tennyson was long dead before what must surely be the most hilariously disgusted review he ever got was printed.
Things look up a bit when Pa brings their first letter from Mary – I’m impressed the Post Office is open on Christmas day – but Laura’s mood is still sombre for how much will have changed before Mary comes back. Unusually, there’s no comforting ‘no great loss without small gain’ type maxim to carry everyone through – Mary’s gone, they all miss her, and they just have to live with it. (Can I also make an embarrassing confession here: when I was young and green, I’m afraid I thought, what, just a letter? That’s not a proper present!).
Life gets upbeat again, as the family plunges back into the town’s whirl of gaiety (it’s a phrase you can’t use too often). It’s interesting that in this chapter, the focus of the good times shifts, albeit temporarily, to external events rather than home scenes, where Mary’s absence is casting a long shadow. The next Literary we hear about is a fake waxwork show of historical figures, hosted by the mysterious Mrs Jarley. Who on earth is she? Why, it’s Gerald Fuller (hurrah!), and Mr Bradley appears as ‘Queen Elizabeth’ (note no regnal number in those days!). Mrs Bradley isn’t mentioned, which makes me wonder if she’s sneaked off to the church to have a go on her organ.
The next day, just as Ma is making her Declaration of Gaiety, a letter arrives for Laura – Ben Woodworth is having a supper party. (Seriously, Laura gets out more often than I do). I have another question, which is: who here has actually tried slitting an envelope with a hairpin? Either modern hairpins are weaker, modern envelopes are stronger, or I just lack manual dexterity, but I have trouble with this.
The chapter ends with a glorious Ma-ism, when Laura, panicked, asks how she should behave at a party: “You need only behave properly, as you know how to do”. Well, thanks, Ma, that’s a great help, thinks Laura.
And that’s it. But I say, that party’s going to have to go some to beat the fun in this chapter, what?