Guest post by Wendy Corsi Staub
Poor Laura, just fifteen and far away from home for the first time, newly settled at the Brewster homestead as the district’s schoolteacher for the term. Brave Laura, attempting to make the best of a grim situation with characteristic pluck.
As the chapter opens, we see her trying to draw sullen Mrs. Brewster out of her miserable mood, trying to keep homesickness at bay, trying to study, trying, trying, trying….
When I first read this chapter about thirty years ago, I wasn’t much younger than Laura. Having grown up in a joyful, loving small town household myself, with happily married parents and siblings who loved and supported me in every way, I could easily imagine myself in Laura’s shoes, plunked down in the midst of someone else’s misery, and longing for the comfort, safety, and familiarity of home.
Over the years, I’ve re-read THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS more times than I can count, each time gleaning new insight courtesy of age, wisdom, and perspective from my own career as a novelist.
Now, Laura’s plight breaks my heart in a different way. I lost my mother somewhat unexpectedly, far too young. Despite being happily married with children of my own, I sometimes find myself homesick for my parents and siblings and a childhood home that is long ago and far away. I wonder how the adult, bereaved Laura felt when she wrote these scenes, and I suspect that the process was cathartic for her grief over her by then dearly departed parents and sisters. She wrote about longing for home and family when she was, most likely, doing just that in mining her memories.
As I reread this chapter now, I wonder too about the Brewster household and what might have lain beneath the surface. As a child, I hated Mrs. Brewster for her cruelty to my beloved Laura—how dare she call Laura, of all people, a “hoity-toity snip”?! Excuse me, Mrs. Brewster, but we have all met a hoity-toity snip, and its name is Nellie Olson. Not Laura Ingalls.
Now, however, I’m inclined to wonder whether Mrs. Brewster might also have been battling demons that we—and Laura—did not comprehend at the time. Was she really merely, as Laura decided, a “selfish, mean woman”? Surely her actions as depicted here would indicate that, but looking at her circumstances and behavior, I have to wonder. This is clearly a helpless, desperate woman. Why? Was she suffering from clinical depression? Anxiety? Seasonal depressive disorder? Was she bipolar? Psychotic? Was her husband abusing her? Had she perhaps even recently lost a child, as did so many mothers in this era?
From a purely literary standpoint, as a fellow author studying the characterization and structure of these scenes, I can appreciate the interesting parallel drawn here between Mrs. Brewster’s homesickness, which is hinted at as being at the heart of her misery, and Laura’s own homesickness. Laura and her enemy share a common plight; here are two young(ish) female characters who just want, more than anything, to go back home.
Mrs. Brewster, arguably the grown woman here, is far less capable of coping with “the flat country and the wind and the cold; she wanted to go back east,” and she takes out her misery on everyone around her.
Laura, by contrast, is barely more than a child herself, but equipped with sufficient coping mechanisms and far more mature than her years and experience would indicate. She won’t allow herself to forget that the sun is going to rise again tomorrow and life will go on. We will never forget that she’s the hero and Mrs. Brewster is the villain in this chapter; it’s just interesting to note that they’re fighting virtually the same battle with drastically different weapons.
As I write this from my cozy home office in the New York City suburbs, a Saturday snowstorm has dumped about eight inches of snow today and I cringe to think about venturing outside shortly to run errands and go to dinner with my husband and friends. I try to imagine what it would be like to endure endless months of harsh weather in complete isolation, without modern conveniences, and—worst of all—without a thermostat.
Laura frequently uses the word cold in this chapter. We can sweep right past it—or stop and consider what it really must have been like. Cold. We’re talking bone-chilling cold both outside and indoors. We’re talking huddling to absorb what little heat a stove might give off. We’re talking cold from which there is never really a reprieve. If we stop and consider the implications, we can feel empathy not just for Laura, but for every character we meet. We can’t under-estimate the havoc this harsh winter chill wreaked on every part of their daily lives, not just physically, but emotionally.
If Laura is our heroine, then who is the hero of the chapter? Certainly not weak and spineless Mr. Brewster. Certainly not sly Clarence. Is it Pa? The chapter appears to be set up that way, with Laura actually saying, “Oh, Pa, I can’t,” when she thinks about getting through another day, and again when she speculates that Pa might surprise her and come to take her home. But interestingly, after half a dozen books, the tide has turned and it won’t be Pa who comes to Laura’s rescue this time. His ongoing role as Laura’s hero and chief protector is about to be usurped for the first—but not the last--time. More on that in a moment.
This chapter has always appealed to me—and continues to—in part because of its darker-than-usual undertones and nightmare sequence. I was a budding suspense novelist when I first read it, and upon rereading—now that I write suspense novels of my own--I’ve always appreciated the subtle notes of foreboding. I shudder at the “Knife in the Dark” scene that I know is coming soon. I marvel that it seems so incongruous with the sanitized drama of the Little House books.
I can’t help but think of the Ingalls’ real life brush with the Bender family, prairie serial killers whose clutches, we later learned, Pa himself might have narrowly escaped. (http://www.prairieghosts.com/bender.html) Laura left the Benders out of Little House on the Prairie; yet she included Mrs. Brewster and the knife in These Happy Golden Years. Why? Was that because this book was more sophisticated, or targeted toward an older audience, or because she had sufficiently grown as an author and included it as a perhaps sensationalistic device, to raise the stakes for her heroine? Is this dramatic license or a based on a real event? In any case, I have to wonder, again, about what was going on with Mrs. Brewster, and whether she was mentally ill.
But back to the chapter at face value: we learned early in the series that Laura had always been a homebody, leery of strangers; now she was living among them and her worst fears seemed to have come to fruition. Strangers are harsh and not to be trusted.
Ah, but not everyone. Here, we again meet Clarence, Tommy, Ruby, Martha and Charles. As a child, I really appreciated the introduction of all these new characters to a literary world that could at times be rather insular. In so many books, for chapters on end, it was Ma, Pa, Laura, Mary, and Carrie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it was always fun to meet a new cast. Incidentally, that’s why Little Town on the Prairie remains my favorite among all the books. Little Town is rife with new characters, most of them young people like Laura (and like me when I first read it).
It’s interesting to note that these Brewster School students of Laura’s were also her contemporaries in many ways; interesting to watch her in action as a teacher. Now, as when I first read ONE WEEK, I can’t help but feel dismayed over Laura’s almost unfair (in my 21st Century opinion) insistence on marking tardy students who had walked miles through deep snow to get there. Come on, Laura, I find myself thinking. Give the kids a break! But once again, my own unsettling dismay is erased a few paragraphs later when she goes out with her students for a hardy snowball fight at recess. There’s our feisty half pint, still alive and well beneath the prim 19th century schoolteacher’s façade.
Oh, and am I the only one who detected an undercurrent of not just friendship, but perhaps flirtation with Clarence, who she pegs again here as “trouble”? She was prim and proper, but he was older than she was, and handsome. His character seems to be drawn in similar strokes to Cap Garland’s, and we all know, thanks to Laura’s memoir notes, that she was secretly attracted to Cap. This Clarence fellow could have been trouble, all right. Laura doesn’t—thus, nor will we—go there. No, but we are told that our feisty half-pint made a big mistake in letting down her guard and playing with her students. Now they’re acting up, and she risks losing control over them, particularly Clarence. Compelling tension has been set up here, and we wonder how it will play out in the chapters ahead.
As the week wears on, homesick-but-coping Laura builds up hope that Pa will appear on Friday to whisk her back home for the weekend. I find this somewhat surprising and rather uncharacteristic of her, particularly under the circumstances that had been deliberately drawn just pages earlier. When she bid Pa farewell, we were told that she knew she wouldn’t see him again for two months. And that was before she even grasped how horrible her life with the Brewsters would be. Pa had no way of knowing this. So her hope that Pa might show up seems based on nothing more than pure longing. The author in me has to wonder whether this apparent incongruity is an error stemming from editorial changes in a later draft.
Regardless, the author(s) (plural here referring to Laura and Rose, but that’s another topic) have expertly set up the conflict and resolution in this chapter. Laura misses home and her family; at this point, we do, too. We pity her being stranded in this strange, cold, hostile place and we’re rooting for her to find her way back to her parents and sisters and little house in DeSmet.
When it happens, it’s an almost magical scene:
It seemed to her that the wind had a strangely silvery sound. She listened; they all listened. She did not know what to make of it….
The silvery sound of sleigh bells heralds the arrival of Laura’s hero; this is a device that will be used time and again throughout their courtship, and a romantic one, if I do say so. Because, wouldn’t you know it: Laura’s hero isn’t Pa after all, it’s Almanzo Wilder. Talk about foreshadowing! Talk about payoff!
After enduring this hellish, but ultimately uplifting, week with Laura, we are gratified when this chapter ends with three simple words of dialogue uttered by our triumphant and relieved heroine, “School is dismissed.”