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Laura as a townie teenager
on July 2, 2010
First let me say that I read this in the full-color collector's edition, and it was lovely. Thick, glossy pages that could withstand much "love" and Garth Williams' lovely drawings enhanced with color. Very nice.
In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura is about 15 and the Ingalls family spends most of the narrative in the town of DeSmet, South Dakota. Laura has adapted to town life (compare her discomfort at being surrounded by strangers in By the Shores of Silver Lake) and is experiencing life as a young lady in frontier society in the 1880's. The period detail is rich and rewarding in this book, and in its own way, Little Town shows Laura struggling with the need to "fit in" with her peers, just as every teenager experiences today. For Laura, it's having a chance to select her own printed "name cards" and exchange them with her friends. ($0.25 for a dozen cards, a princely sum by Ingalls' standards). She also experiences a bit of evil glee at seeing the tables turned on Nellie Oleson, who is now the poor country girl. On the other hand, we see Laura work steadfastly at a hated job of sewing sleeves on men's shirts, because of her dedication to giving Mary a chance to attend college for the blind. She also dedicates herself to studying for a teacher's license so she can further supplement the family's income, and at the end of the book achieves her goal, via a lie of omission (something that Ma surely would have disapproved!).
In a remarkable section, Laura describes sewing an elegant winter dress for Mary to wear at college, and then casually tosses in that they made a hat to go with it! How on earth does one make a hat, and isn't it remarkable that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't think hat-making merited any special mention?
We also see the intellectual side of Ma and Pa, as they go head-to-head in a fierce spelling bee competition. Pa is primarly a businessman in Little Town, which is a delightful contrast to his handyman skills that were so prominently on display in the earlier Little House volumes. Pa also delights in creating Literary Society productions for Friday nights in town. There is a queasy-making (by modern standards) chapter describing a blackface show, which may provoke some important discussions between parents and children. Ma is ever the conscientious molder of young women's behavior; it's a thankless job but someone has to do it.
Finally, Little Town is where Laura begins to be courted by Almanzo Wilder. He walks her home from the Literary Society several times, and gives her a sleighride behind his glorious team of horses. Tame stuff by modern standards, but Ma and Pa's tightlipped and cautious acceptance of this much-older man in Laura's life tells us everything we need to know.