Reading after a dance weekend: Laura Ingalls Wilder

My mom still has an old Singer sewing machine. In disuse, yes – as a sewing machine; it makes a great table – but I loved playing with it as a child. Lifting the lid to pull the machine out, pumping the treadle, watching the wheel spin…I love that machine. It is indelibly linked in my mind to These Happy Golden Years (THGY), as Garth Williams’s illustration of Pa’s surprise gift of a sewing machine reminds me of my mom’s machine. Ma, never a fan of hand sewing, longs for a sewing machine. Laura is delighted to learn she shares that trait with her ma, as she has always felt that Ma and Mary have much more in common than Ma and herself. (I understand this feeling.)

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The mismatched editions bother me so much.

Why did I choose to reread these well-loved – the tape up and down the spine attests to that – books? I had many other new books lined up to read after finishing Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS). Well, I finished WSS on the last day of a contra dance weekend. When I finally got back home (in the wee hours of the morning), I was still too wired to sleep. I needed a book I could fall asleep to. THGY fit the bill – I can quote this book, open to any page and immediately know exactly where I am. Every few rereads I like to start with the prior two, as they also contain pinches of Laura and Almanzo meeting, a dash of character development for Almanzo. What can I say, I like backstory and a good romance. So I pulled all three off my bookshelf, curled up on my bed, and started reading. Two new things jumped out at me upon this reread: Laura’s relationship with her younger sister Carrie, and Laura’s composition on “Ambition.”

Laura & Carrie

Due to my own relationships with my two sisters, sister stories tend to jump out at me. My assumption going into this passage is that most people think the sister relationship central to the story is Laura and Mary’s. I don’t believe I’ve ever given it much thought before, but this time Carrie kept jumping off the page for me, waving her hands, grabbing my attention. Perhaps it is because of the books I chose to read, perhaps it has to do with how Laura speaks of Carrie. To point one, Mary is blind by the time of The Long Winter, and goes off to college in Little Town on the Prairie (LTOTP). She doesn’t feature much in these three books (though she continues to exert her off-the-screen influence over Laura). To point two, Laura characterizes Carrie as fragile, smaller than she should be at her age, never fully recovered from the hard winter – basically, the Mama Bear big sister part of my brain’s console was lighting up like crazy. (It should be noted that while I am actually the youngest in my family, my middle sister has Down syndrome, and I was often put in an older sister role.) I’d argue the stronger and more dominant relationship of the later books is Laura and Carrie’s.1

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Mama Bear Big Sister is off screen, defending someone most likely

 

Pa and Ma and Laura were worried about Carrie. She had never been strong, and she was not recovering from the hard winter as she should. They spared her all but the lightest housework, and Ma coaxed her appetite with the best there was to eat. Still she was thin and pale, small for her age and spindly. Her eyes were too large in her peaked little face. Often in the mornings, though the walk was only a mile and Laura carried her books, Carrie grew tired before they reached the schoolhouse. Sometimes her head ached so badly that she failed in her recitations. Living in town was easier. It would be much better for Carrie. (LTOTP)

Despite this characterization of her, Carrie grows past it – even before the above passage, Carrie steps up and assists Laura when she decides to clean the house from top to bottom while Pa and Ma take Mary to college. After Laura begins teaching, she comes home for weekends to discover Carrie has transferred into that eldest sister role, much in same way Laura herself did after Mary contracted scarlet fever and lost her sight.2 There are some sweet moments sprinkled throughout the three books I reread that showcase the bond that develops between Laura and Carrie.

While Laura and Mary’s relationship dominates the first four books (understandable, as Carrie and Grace are babies or very small during these books), Laura and Carrie’s becomes central to Laura’s development in the later books. Growing up, Laura constantly felt like she was in the shadow of her perfect big sister, a fact that Mary acknowledges:

“I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said. “It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.” (LTOTP)

Mary’s illness, loss of sight, and beautiful recovery of independence (there are three wonderful scenes in THGY that highlight this) allowed Laura to grow. She became the second breadwinner in the family – blossomed from a shy fourteen-year-old who didn’t want to work in town to a working girl of 15-18 years old who craved working and earning money. Perhaps she didn’t enjoy teaching, but working in town, being amidst the hustle bustle of a growing city excited her. Carrie became her treasured younger sister who she defended, protected, and was able to impart her own wisdom on. Carrie’s own shyness, and speaking of it to Laura, enables Laura to face her own fears and realize she grew out of her own timidness.

Laura’s relationship with Mary still remains a driving force in the series – Mary going blind is the impetus for Laura becoming a teacher at fifteen, after all, a choice she would not have made had she been able to think only of herself. But it is her relationship with Carrie, and stepping into the role of eldest sister that cements her growth into the independent, confidant young woman of LTOTP and THGY.

Ambition

Ambition.

            Ambition is necessary to accomplishment. Without an ambition to gain an end, nothing would be done. Without an ambition to excel others and to surpass one’s self there would be no superior merit. To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so.

            Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger of our being ruled by it, then I would say in the words of Shakespeare, “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.” (THGY)

Before Hermione Granger, Laura Ingalls (and Jo March) were my feminist, bookish heroines. Unapologetically studious, they inspired me, a bookworm since the moment I picked up a book. When starting this blog, I was reflecting on the definition and connotations of “ambition,” as I applied the word to my decision to combine five reading challenges. Ambition is one of my favorite words, and I embrace it and all of its stupidly and unnecessarily gendered undertones.3 Rereading THGY, Laura’s composition on Ambition naturally spoke to me.

How Laura Ingalls is linked to Pride & Prejudice

Just as my mom’s vintage sewing machine is indelibly linked to THGY, so is Pride and Prejudice (P&P). Upon reading P&P for the first time, I immediately drew parallels between Elizabeth’s,

“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

and Laura’s refusing to give Almanzo an answer until she saw the ring, and Ma not knowing whether Laura accepted for the man or his horses. “‘I couldn’t have one without the other,’ Laura answered shakily.” (THGY)


1 My sudden interest in Carrie prompted me to do some brief research on her. Carrie Ingalls Swanzey was a fascinating, independent woman. Read more here and here.

2NPR (and others) ran a story three years ago on how scarlet fever likely wasn’t the cause of Mary going blind.

3The Washington Post ran a great opinion piece on ambition and the 2016 presidential race on February 19, 2016: Our impossible expectations of Hillary Clinton and all women in authority.

 


Reading challenges:

Modern Mrs. Darcy & PopSugar: read a book you can finish in a day.

 

Dates read: January 18, 2016

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