"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 35
How I'm ever going to finish this before February
"Oh, Pa," Laura said, "do I have to go to school?"
"You will like school, Laura," said Pa.
"I like it better here," Laura said, mournfully.
"I know, little half-pint," said Pa, "but it isn't everybody that gets the chance to learn to read and write and cipher. Your Ma was a school-teacher when we met, and when she came West with me, I promised that our girls would have a chance to get book learning. That's why we stopped here, so close to a town that has a school. You're almost eight years old now, and Mary's going on nine, and it's time you begun. Be thankful you've got the chance, Laura."
A few meetings ago, Sheila said she found it funny that Ma and Pa never bothered to teach Laura how to read, despite Ma's having been a school-teacher--and now that I know about the three textbooks at Ma's disposal all that time, I find it curious as well. But Laura's temperament must have also been a big factor. Contrast her with the more sedate Mary, whom Laura says "looked like a good little girl who wanted to go to school": if I remember correctly, there is a reference to Mary's reading lessons with Ma in one of the chapters about Laura's exploring.
The biggest change is that story has suddenly filled up with people. So let's forget the creek for a few chapters--at least now that it's friendly again. Laura has a new nemesis to worry about, and she is not as cool as the creek.
Nellie Oleson was very pretty. Her yellow hair hung in long curls, with two big blue ribbon bows on top. Her dress was thin white lawn with little blue flowers scattered over it, and she wore shoes.
She looked at Laura and she looked at Mary, and she scrunched up her nose.
"Hm!" she said. "Country girls!"
Could Nellie be more of a type? She isn't quite a villain--more of a brat, really--but she's exactly the sort of character who'd be "bad" in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. As soon as she opened her mouth, I could feel Almanzo's mother's death stare all the way from New York State. LOL! It only intensified with the revelation that Nellie's father is a shopkeeper. And of course she turns out to be "naughty" as well, not minding him at all when he tells her to behave. It's practically a given that she'd be mean, too--not because "bad" characters have to be mean or else the conflict fails, but because children brought up to think they're more special than other children usually do turn out that way.
Nellie is also a great foil to Mary and Laura, which is probably why she gets so much space in this novel, not to mention a chapter named after her. It's like the time that one crazy fan claimed that Justin Bieber was the father of her baby, and he wrote a song about the experience, and his slightly less crazy fans were torn between lauding the song as the second coming of Billie Jean and wondering why his worst fan got a special song when none of them didn't. (I was LMAO.) Christy Kennedy is a much nicer girl who turns out to be a good friend, but she doesn't get a tenth of the text that Nellie Oleson does. Not even in this post.
What I find most interesting is not the contrast for its own sake, but the way Mary and Laura consciously measure themselves against Nellie in the same way Laura tested herself against the creek.
"My goodness," Mary said, "I couldn't be as mean as that Nellie Oleson.
Laura thought: "I could. I could be meaner to her than she is to us, if Ma and Pa would let me."
There's another deliberate contrast between the "Town Party" and the "Country Party" that makes me think of Roman mice. I don't think one type of party is automatically more fun than the other. In fact, Nellie's party would have been great if she herself hadn't ruined it. And come on, if it weren't for the party, how much longer do you think it would have been before Laura realised how wonderful reading can be?
Nellie's behaviour may not reflect well on her mother, but I like Mrs. Oleson anyway, just for giving Laura something to read. If I ever host a children's party, I'll make sure there are books there for those children who need a little more "down time" than the others.
I have mixed feelings, however, about Mrs. Tower, the Sunday school teacher. She tries to be kind, but only ends up underestimating Laura as much as Nellie does. Mrs. Tower would probably be stunned to know not that the little girl beside her has memorised whole songs and longer verses, but that the little girl once dared a flooded creek and won.
But Laura's full understanding of what it means to be part of a Christian community doesn't come from Mrs. Tower or Reverend Alden (whom she likes better) or even the other people at church ("They can't sing"--LOL!), but from her own Pa.
"Where are your boots, Charles?" [Ma] asked.
"Well, Caroline," Pa said. "I saw Brother Alden and he told me he couldn't raise money enough to put a bell in the belfrey. The folks in town had all given every cent they could, and he lacked just three dollars. So I gave him the money."
"Oh, Charles!" was all Ma said.
Pa looked down at his cracked boot. "I'll patch it," he said. "I can make it hold together somehow. And do you know, we'll hear that church bell ringing clear out here.
I felt my own throat hurt when I read that last paragraph. The memory must have seared Laura's heart like a brand. I can't wait until they install the bell and she hears it for the first time, ringing clear out to the banks of Plum Creek.
What are your thoughts on Chapters 18 to 24?
1) When children aren't getting along, should they get to work it out for themselves?
2) Have you ever really underestimated someone, only to find out that they could handle so much more than you thought?
3) What major lesson about religion did your parents teach you when they had no idea that they were teaching you anything? (Answers from agnostics welcome!)
Image Source: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder