What Jenny's Reading

{November 9, 2014}   Review: These Happy Golden Years: Mean Girls on the Prairie Part III: The Reckoning, Pt. I

No Swatch Saturday this week, I’m afraid.  I had to cut my nails pretty short this weekend because one of them just snapped right off.  So I have the first part of the last Little House book today.  Pioneer Girl comes out in just a couple of weeks!!

The first part of the book is pretty bleak, and I get worried we’re going back to the days of Plum Creek, where they lived in a hole in the ground and scraped to get by. Actually, the hole in the ground was probably more pleasant than living at the Brewsters’, now that I think about it. Mrs. Brewster is very unpleasant and possibly mentally ill. I guess we don’t know her life or her circumstances, and it seems she was brought unwillingly West by her husband, and would’ve been happier to stay East. That sucks, and it’s a commentary on how women of this age had to do what their husbands said. But there are better ways to deal with it than fighting about whether your husband is boarding his mistress and pulling knives on people in the middle of the night.

School isn’t much better, at least at first. She only has a few students, but most of them are older and taller than she. She has a bit of a hard time with them at first. They ask her to play a game with them, and she does, and Clarence, the oldest boy, starts acting up after that. I think he likes Laura, and is acting out to get her attention. But Laura doesn’t play those games. Especially since Almanzo shows up to take her home for the weekend! She’s accidentally rude to him about bringing her home, but recovers by saying she’s excited to ride in the little sleigh. See, here is where social skills, which can only be developed by interacting with other people, rather than being forced to sit home and study to become a schoolteacher, would have come in handy.

The next week is worse; all the kids argue and fail to learn their work. Clarence refuses to even read. She despairs that she can’t whip him or really punish him, because he’s so much bigger. Have you tried standing on your school desk, girl? That might help. He also embarrasses her when Almanzo comes back, announcing to everyone that her boyfriend was there. Almanzo could hear that, you know! Yeah, I think he knows, Laura, and I think it probably made him pretty happy to hear it, honestly.

Lucky for Laura, over the weekend Ma and Pa give her a little advice on dealing with her students, and things are easier from then out, at least at school. Also, Laura has FINALLY realized that Almanzo is being so nice not as a favor to Pa, but because he wants to be her boyfriend. In true Laura fashion, she fucks it all up royally and feels like a jerk and thinks he’ll never come back, especially when the weather turns really bad. But he does, because he knows how miserable she is there. See, he’s a good guy, even if he didn’t compliment her history retelling that one time. And also a crazy one, considering it’s so cold that day that THE WIND FREEZES THE HORSES’ NOSES AND HE HAS TO THAW THEM SO THEY CAN KEEP BREATHING.

Anyway. They get through it and even talk about the awkwardness from before. Laura tries to be more entertaining. They talk about horses, and Almanzo tells her about his first horse, from when he was a kid. That horse is now “out to pasture.” Okay then. Probably with all of Almanzo’s pets from when he was younger, too, is what I’m thinking.

You know what’s fucked up? After the knife thing, Laura is understandably terrified to sleep, but she refuses to tell anyone what happened, because she knows they wouldn’t let her stay if she did. No matter that Brewster doesn’t bother to try to make things better. But Laura thinks if she leaves, she’ll never be able to teach again. And remember, she only wants to teach to raise money for Mary’s schooling. Nice job on warping your kid, there, Ma.

And of course she’s not back from teaching for more than a week before they’re putting her to work again. At least this time it’s in town, and the work and company is pretty pleasant. Oh, and Almanzo does come back to take her on sleighing rides, because he figures if she sees everyone else doing it, she’ll want to as well. And she does.

Later on, Uncle Tom comes to visit. Remember him? I sure don’t. He tells a long and irrelevant story about traveling further West and being taken prisoner by the government. Okay so, the important thing is that Uncle Tom is still there when Almanzo comes by to see if Laura wants to go for a buggy ride with him, Cap, and Mary Power. Interestingly, Laura knows his knock. How does he knock? Is it more dashing and/or braver than other peoples’? Anyway, of course she goes with them, and Almanzo is all quiet and brooding because he is jealous of Uncle Tom. I guess Uncle Tom is pretty young. But he’s cheerful again when he finds out he’s her uncle.

The next job that’s set upon Laura is staying with the McKee family while they hold their claim. See, the government required people to live on their claims for at least seven months of a year, and if they didn’t, they could lose them. The McKees didn’t have enough money to pay for seed and stock and so forth, so Mr. McKee wanted his wife and daughter to go out there on their own to stay while he worked to raise money. Mrs. McKee, understandably, is not thrilled by living out in the middle of nowhere with no one around for miles. Ma shades her a bit for it, like way to be a bitch, Ma. Remember how much you disliked it on Plum Creek when Pa would go away for weeks to work?

Mrs. McKee seems to think they’ll be safer if Laura stays with them. So now Laura might miss Mary’s visit, and she’s the actual reason that Mary can come home. Nice. She almost froze to death more than once, earning that money. You know, Ma, if you don’t like Almanzo, you should just say something. This passive aggressive behavior is getting tired.

Laura goes, because of course she does. It’s super boring and only broken up by Mrs. McKee’s talk of maybe, possibly, just a smidge, seeing a reason for women’s rights. They have nothing to do out there and no one comes to visit. I guess they don’t own books or anything else to read, which seems really weird, but whatever. Mr. McKee probably forbids books, since he’s described as a severe Presbyterian. He does come every week, but does he bring anything for the girls, like activities? Hell no.

Mrs. McKee knows about Laura and Almanzo, and mentions she thinks that Almanzo wants to marry Laura. Laura of course denies it, but inward she worries that Nellie may be riding in her place beside him now.

Finally, finally, her time on the claim comes to an end. Mary’s coming back, and Ma writes to ask if maybe Laura could come home. Because Mrs. McKee has already proven herself pretty awesome, she says that she can, and also that she doesn’t need to come back, since they’re used to it by now. I don’t know exactly how much money she made. Her wages were $1/week, and she must’ve stayed several weeks. Maybe Ma will use the money to buy Mary a handkerchief.

At home, Carrie finds a nest of kittens, which are Kitty’s grandkittens. This makes me wonder. Kitty was a kitten of a cat that was shipped in from back East, probably pregnant at the time. The whole talk was that there were no other cats around, that was why they shipped her in. So I assume that these are incest kittens. Great. I mean, I guess someone could’ve brought in a different cat from the East, too. But probably not.

Then Mary is home, and everyone is super happy. Laura gets another sewing job in town. See, I knew she’d be put back to work soon. She and Mary Power do run into Almanzo in town, dressed up for working his land. They’re both pretty grossed out by his clothes. Way to be understanding and adult, ladies. Laura rationalizes that he’s working. I assume the point of this interlude is so that Almanzo will know Laura is home again. I guess it’s not like she could text him. Sister Mary also bitches about Almanzo to Laura. Obviously Ma has been yapping. And Laura pretends to herself that she doesn’t care whether Almanzo is hanging out with Nellie now. Sure, Laura. I totally believe you.

Oh, and Pa won’t shut up about heading further West again, because if there’s anything he loves, besides exploring, it’s leaving things before he’s finished them. Ma shuts this talk down, and he agrees they won’t go – but he slyly leaves in a caveat: not till he’s won his claim from the government. Yes, this is the best time to leave. Right when you finally own it. See, I told you Pa’s not that bright.

A visit from cousin Alice and her husband Arthur brings out Laura’s weirdly xenophobic tendencies. Okay, that’s not exactly the right word, but I can’t think of the right word. She doesn’t like strangers, which is okay I guess, but she thinks of almost everyone except family as a stranger. She even mentions that she never got comfortable around Arthur, but Alice was okay because she was a lot like Mary. So was Laura being a bitch, or was maybe Arthur a bit of a creeper? I guess we’ll never know.

OH! Then Cap Garland shows up at Laura’s house, to ask her on a sleigh ride. Laura is horrified, because she likes Cap, but she doesn’t LIKE like him anymore, and she worries about Mary Power and Almanzo. Luckily before things get too awkward Cap says he’s asking for Almanzo, since he’s got new horses that are difficult to handle. Well, Laura is both relieved and excited, because she loves fast horses. I bet that if Laura was alive today she’d either be married to a race car driver, or she’d be one herself.

Ma doesn’t like Laura riding behind those wild crazy horses. Foreshadowing cackles in Ma’s general direction.

At Christmas, too, Laura receives an unexpected gift of a new comb and hairbrush kit. Pa tells her he thinks they’re from Almanzo, because he saw him buying them in the local drugstore. I guess the drugstore back then wasn’t like Walgreens or whatever, because I would probably be pretty insulted if my boyfriend bought me a hairbrush from Walgreens as a Christmas gift.

Laura gets a job at another school, but this one is close enough that she can live at home and walk there. She is much happier here, because the students are good and it’s overall a far better experience than she had with the Brewster school. They pay her twenty-five dollars a month for three months. One night Pa asks her what she’s going to do with her money. Subtle, Pa. Real subtle. Of course she says she’s giving it to them, and he tells her he wants to buy an organ for Mary. Good God, will these people ever stop mooching off their daughter? The organ costs a hundred dollars, and Pa contributes a whole twenty-five dollars to this endeavor. I guess we know who the favorite child in this family is (hint: it’s not Laura). At least Ma does try to protest a bit at this, that Laura should use some of her money to buy some clothes for herself. But they get the organ, because of course they do. To get her needed new clothes, she goes back to work for Miss Bell and buys some brown poplin. Ugh. Of fucking COURSE she buys brown! These girls are KILLING ME.

I like the parts in the books when Laura describes their clothing, but it also makes me tired. These girls wear so much clothing, all the time. Underwear and petticoats and stockings and shoes and hoops and the dress. Personally I consider it a big day if I wear regular pants instead of yoga pants, but I’m not a frontier girl from the Western Expansion period. And I’m really, really glad I’m not. She dresses up for church in the poplin dress and a new hat, and when Pa sees her he says, “They say that fine feathers make fine birds, but I say it took a fine bird to grow such feathers.” I don’t know for sure, but I think he’s complimenting himself and Ma for raising such a good looking child. And then Ma has to shit all over Laura’s pleasure, reminding her that she might be pretty, but not to get a big head about it. Please remember this is the same woman who, in the last book, told Mary how wonderful and glorious and beautiful she is. The blatant putting down of Laura’s self-esteem is getting old. Also, she’s already teaching school and has been brainwashed into giving you all of her money, what the hell else do you want?

Laura gets back at her a little bit, though, by telling Carrie that when she (Carrie) is a young woman, she’ll probably have a prettier dress than Laura does. (In case you were wondering, Ma made Laura’s dress.)

Almanzo stops by later to take her on a ride. He also tries to put the moves on her, a little, or at least what the moves probably were back in those days. He puts his arm across the back of the buggy. I’m surprised he didn’t yawn and stretch his arm out. People, he was TOUCHING her shoulders! Gosh, they might as well have just taken their clothes off and did it right there in the buggy, on the prairie. Maybe that’s the adult part of Pioneer Girl? Or maybe the arm thing was the best they could do, considering the layers and layers of clothing Laura was wearing.

As an aside, I wondered how much older Almanzo was from Laura, with everyone calling him an old bachelor. So I looked him up on Wikipedia, and found some dates. I got confused when I was doing the math, and thought for a few minutes that he was actually twenty-eight years older than Laura. I was floored by this. I bet that would make him older than Laura’s mother! And her parents were totally fine with this totally old guy creeping on their teenage daughter. I was so grossed out by what in my youth I saw as a sweet romance becoming an episode of To Catch a Predator on the Prairie. Luckily I looked at the numbers again, and realized he was only ten years older. Still a little creepy, I guess, but in those times acceptable.
Laura spooks the horses on purpose, and when they settle down Almanzo starts telling her about his claim and little tree grove. Ha! He’s trying to tell her he’s ready to settle down and also explain why it’s been so long since he’s seen her (he sold his last buggy to pay for the horses). Why these people can’t just talk to each other, I don’t understand. It would save them a lot of time.

Then it’s a total disaster, people! Just when it seemed like Laura was starting to really like LIKE Almanzo, he shows up at her house with, of all people, Nellie Oleson! Laura is totally upset, but she comes with them anyway. The whole way Nellie talks about how great she thinks Almanzo is and blah blah blah, and she still manages to get in how much more awesome New York is than the West. Laura is totally pissed, and even more so because she thinks Almanzo is enjoying himself.

Dick move, Almanzo. Totally dick move. But Laura’s no shrinking violet, and resolves she will go next week with them, and fight for her man. I may have added that last bit, but you know she was thinking it.

They show up again, and this time Nellie gets down to flirting, big time. She even touches Almanzo’s arm. That’s the same arm that Laura touched! Man, Regina George has nothing on Nellie Oleson, right? It’s just a matter of time before she tells Almanzo his hair looks sexy when it’s pushed back.


Stephanie says:

I always thought differently about the fine feathers comment. I thought it meant that Laura herself was the cause of her beauty and not fancy dresses or hats.

Jenny says:

Honestly I think at that point of the book I was feeling especially uncharitable towards Pa, considering the piano thing. But I like your interpretation better. 🙂

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