We’re reading our way across America…one romance at a time.
South Dakota: These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These Happy Golden Years is a study in contradictions. A love story with no shy glances, no trembling lips, and no tender declarations, it’s briskly and unsentimentally told. It’s a story that has charmed generations of girls, but if you’re an adult reader, you may notice a darker tale lurking around the edges. A lot happens, but what’s really interesting is what Wilder chooses not to say.
The story begins in 1882, when the Ingalls family has staked a claim near De Smet, South Dakota. Feisty young Laura Ingalls, then fifteen (!) years old, has accepted a two-month contract as a schoolteacher in order to earn the money to help her older sister, Mary, who is attending a school for the blind in Iowa. The school is located some distance away from De Smet, and Laura will be boarding with the Brewsters, a family living near the school.
The Brewsters—taciturn husband, unfriendly wife, and grubby little boy—turn out to be deeply unhappy people; in fact, in one memorable scene, Laura awakens in the middle of the night and witnesses Mrs. Brewster standing over her husband with a knife in her hand, appearing perfectly ready to use it. (Mr. Brewster talks her down, but it’s a very tense moment.) On top of that, Laura is new to teaching and somewhat unsure of herself, particularly when she realizes that some of her male students are both older and bigger than she is.
Her only respite from all this stress is the weekly appearance of a friend from back home. Ten years older than Laura, and also a local hero due to his bravery during the Long Winter of 1880-1881 (when he and a friend ventured out through the deep snow to obtain food for the starving townspeople), Almanzo Wilder takes it upon himself to travel behind his fast horses to the Brewster homestead and retrieve Laura every Friday afternoon. He then drives her back to the Brewster place on Sunday. At first, Laura is somewhat suspicious of Almanzo, even going so far as to tell him that she’s only going with him because she wants to see her family. But stalwart Almanzo only comments “I see,” and then continues to show up on schedule at the Brewster homestead.
At the end of her eight-week teaching assignment, Laura triumphantly returns home, richer by forty whole dollars, and assumes that she’s seen the last of Almanzo. But he swings by the following weekend to invite her on a sleigh ride around town, and regular sleigh rides soon give way to regular buggy rides. Laura impresses him with her eagerness to handle even the fiercest horses, and although the text is notably silent on Laura’s state of mind with regard to all of this, Laura does put her foot very decisively down when her arch-nemesis Nellie Oleson starts hanging around and begging buggy rides from the nonplussed Almanzo.
After three years, Almanzo apparently decides that it’s time to fish or cut bait. The proposal scene is short and sweet. The two are driving home from summer singing school together, and…
“I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.”
“That would depend on who offered it to me,” Laura told him.
“If I should?” Almanzo asked.
“Then it would depend on the ring.”
By this time, we understand that the proposal is in keeping with what we know about Almanzo and Laura; these are not people who would be making long-winded declarations to one another. But several nights later, Almanzo produces a ring—a gold ring set with garnets and pearls—and Laura admits “I think…I would like to have it.” And they share their first kiss, after only three years of courtship.
Laura’s Ma and Pa are thrilled, even though Ma is not entirely joking when she observes that Laura is only marrying Almanzo because she likes his horses so much. In the following chapters, Laura’s trousseau is described in loving detail, along with the dresses she sews in preparation for married life. (When I read this book at the age of ten, this was my favorite part of the book. I mean, who doesn’t want a fitted lawn dress replete with tucks, ruffles, and tiny pearl buttons?) The couple also plans their wedding:
“Almanzo, I must ask you something. Do you want me to promise to obey you?”
Soberly he answered “Of course not. I know it is in the wedding ceremony, but it is only something that women say. I never knew one that did it, nor any decent man that wanted her to.”
“Well, I am not going to say that I will obey you,” said Laura.
“Are you for women’s rights, like Eliza?” Almanzo asked in surprise. [NB: Eliza was Almanzo’s “strong-minded” sister.]
“No,” Laura replied. “I do not want to vote. But I cannot make a promise that I will not keep, and Almanzo, even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”
“I’d never expect you to,” he told her.
In the end, they wind up more or less eloping—the redoubtable Eliza is planning a blowout wedding for them that they neither want nor can afford, so they decide to take matters into their own capable hands. The book ends with the newly-married pair in the snug house Almanzo built with his own hands, looking happily forward to a future that can’t possibly be other than bright.
And so we come back to what Wilder doesn’t say. Just as she alludes to but doesn’t dwell upon Mrs. Brewster’s crushing loneliness and (apparently) incipient madness, she makes no mention of what lies immediately ahead for Laura and Almanzo—the years of poverty and loss and mounting debt, the crop failures and the catastrophes, the debilitating illnesses, the baby boy who lives only a few weeks, the fire that destroys their home. Instead, we leave them snug, happy, and hopeful. And that’s probably as it should be. These Happy Golden Years is, after all, a children’s book, but it’s one that adult readers can appreciate as a relic of our own happy golden years, when life was an adventure and love was the greatest adventure of all.
Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.