These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 1: Laura Leaves Home

Guest post by Naomi

It’s a bitter cold Sunday afternoon in late December.  Pa’s horses are following the ‘faint sled track’ (maybe the same sled track that Mr. Brewster had made a few days earlier when he came to town to hire her …  how DID people find their way on the empty prairie? I routinely get lost on the interstate!) south towards the little settlement where Laura will teach school.  It’s really too cold to talk … no heat in the open wagon, no down jackets or microfiber underwear, just  blankets and quilts and veils and scratchy red flannel underwear.  The average temperature in late December in east-central South Dakota (courtesy of Weather Underground) is about 15 degrees.  How cold was it that day?


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.


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9 comments on “These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 1: Laura Leaves Home
  1. MissPinkKate says:

    That always blew my mind- “12 miles is too far to travel home on weekends”. I drove 20 miles to and from my high school every day! And poor Laura had to suffer like she did. How lucky we are to be living in this modern age.

  2. Becky Harris says:

    I guess schools haven’t changed too much in the last 100+ years. Every year, before the first day of school, I hope to heaven that I will be able to make my class behave.

  3. Patty C says:

    I always thought Mrs Brewster was just manipulative, figuring if she made Mr B miserable enough he would relent and move back east. But once we get to the Knife in the Night, I know she’s well and truly a crazy witch with a b. lol

    • Kate the Great says:

      I’ve been re-reading the book, partly in preparation for my chapters and partly just because I love it, and I think Mrs. B was very depressed. And who wouldn’t be? Pioneer life was rough, being far away from your family & friends, isolated inside a teeny cold house for months on end with only a crabby toddler to talk to. I think I’d lose my mind, too!

  4. LauriOH says:

    It’s to far to drive – well it is for Pa, but Almanzo seems to have no problem with the length. I do wonder how that played out between the two men as I assume Almanzo talked with Pa before he drove out there.
    At this point in the story, I remember thinking that she was just mean originally.
    This really isn’t the first time that Laura’s away from home, but this really seems to stand out as the worst.

  5. Patty and Kate, I just wrote about my chapter (Chapter 3) and was actually examining Mrs. Brewster’s state of mind along those very lines. It’ll post this week. Nice post, Naomi!
    I was jarred to read that this opens in late December? Since the holidays always play such a big role in Laura’s books, I somehow never pictured it that way. I have to go find the book and reread. I think I always assumed it must have been January because of the school term starting (not that I expect things back then to have been the same as they are now, in terms of school terms–but still–December! Poor Laura! That had to make her even more homesick because Christmas was always so special in her family.

    • naomi says:

      The last chapter of “Little Town” is set right around Christmas, (they’d had a very quiet celebration because it was too depressing to have Christmas without Mary) and it’s indicated there that school will start the following week. So it was probably the week between Christmas and New Years. (Though IRL I believe it was earlier in December.)

      As for the practicalities of the trip — I too had always figured that winter driving should have been, if anything a bit easier. Sled-runners over hard packed snow would be easier and faster for the horses than rutted grass tracks. But Sam and David aren’t young horses. They were probably past their prime (the best he could afford) when Pa bought them on Plum Creek, so maybe it would have been hard on them. And there are weather worries too venturing many miles from town when a blizzard could blow up at any minute.

  6. I also went back to Little Town and saw that it was December–Christmas Eve, when she got her teaching certificate, and they said she had to be there the following weekend. It was interesting because I then went back to a December 1882 calendar and saw that Christmas Eve, the 24th, was a Sunday–it seems unlikely to me that during that era any kind of business would have taken place on a Sunday, particularly Christmas Eve. I assume Laura/Rose took artistic license with the timing for whatever reason. Or does the teaching certificate with the 12/24/82 date actually exist? I’m always fascinated by trying to piece together the history vs. the fictionalized story.

  7. Cindy says:

    When I read through These Happy Golden Years and into that beginning part where Laura has to stay in that house 12 miles from home, I remember reading somewhere (don’t remember just out of which book or how I figured it out) that Mrs. Brewster was probably mentally ill. Is there any evidence to back that up?