Guest post by Naomi
But Pa knows that Laura is scared, so he opens the conversation. “You are a school teacher now!” And Laura admits that she IS scared. She’s little, she’s only 15; how can she teach school? Getting her certificate required that she diagram complex and compound sentences and recite the whole of U.S. history from memory, but she knows nothing about actually teaching school. Interestingly, Laura’s concerns have nothing to do with how she will teach – how she will pass on her knowledge — but rather, how will she make the children behave? Which says a lot about how schools worked back then. But Pa assures her that she’s never failed at anything she’s attempted, so she will succeed at this too. (I have a daughter who was also ‘little’ at 15. I can’t imagine her teaching school at that age!)
Laura has never spent a single night away from her family, but now her whole life is about to change.
Finally, after 12 cold miles (a trip that would take us about 10-15 minutes in our warm heated cars but probably took them an hour or more), they arrive at Brewster’s. And there, Laura soon finds that much is familiar, even pleasant. The shanty looks much like the one on Pa’s claim; two tightly-battened tar-paper rooms. Yes, it’s smaller than Pa’s shanty, but seems ample for a family of 3. (As Laura says later, enough is as good as a feast.) The furniture too is adequate: a cook stove, a dining table and chairs, a high chair for Johnny, a clock on the wall, a white table cloth, a rocking chair, a large bed, a bureau and trunk, and even a store-bought sofa where Laura will sleep. There are feather pillows, sheets and plenty of quilts on the sofa. We learn later that there is a bench for the washbowl and a looking glass. There is also a stable where Mr. Brewster has at least one cow (they still have milk and butter in the winter, so there are probably two cows) and horses or oxen for his trips to town and farm work. And there are, presumably, a privy and chamber pot, but those are never mentioned in the books. The food is good and ample; the same familiar salt pork, gravy, bread and potatoes that have always made up the bulk of the Ingalls’ winter diet. There is even a cat. How can life be bad with a cat in the house?
But all is not familiar and much is not pleasant. There are no loving sisters to talk to, but a squalling, neglected, runny-nosed toddler. There is no cheerful conversation at the dinner table, but glum silence broken only by toddler tantrums. Despite her claim that she spends her days ‘slaving’, Mrs. Brewster is evidently a slovenly housekeeper because the table cloth is dirty and the table carelessly set. There is no cozy fiddle music after supper, but more silence. There are no books. Last week’s newspaper has probably been used to start the cookstove, or torn up for use in the never-mentioned privy. So Laura gets out her school books, sets herself lessons to study, and struggles through the long evening hours before she can finally go to bed. And once she is there, the silence ends. Through the thin partition she overhears Mrs. Brewster complaining. While most lonely homestead wives would welcome another woman to talk to, Mrs. Brewster views her as only one more trial and burden in her miserable life. A miserable life that Laura must look forward to sharing for the next 8 weeks. 12 miles is too far to travel often.