27 January 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 35

How I'm ever going to finish this before February without backdating, I'm not sure. But enough about me . . . Let's see what's up these days with naughty Laura . . .

"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.

Chapters 18 to 24

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


Sullivan McPig said...

On that last question: I grew up in a small, Protestant village and at school they tried to teach us that Catholics were bad people. My parents noticed and asked us: "Well, your aunt and uncle are Catholics. Are they bad people?"
It taught me to think about things before believing what other people told me about it and to be more open minded. I'm still not sure that was the lesson my parents wanted me to learn though.

mrsdarwin said...

I think many children have had the experience of being talked down to in a fairly insulting way, and I love how Laura captures a child's struggle to stay polite while thinking the adult is rather an idiot.

Mary is her mother's daughter, and Laura is her father's daughter. That comes out so many times over the course of the series. Laura has Pa's wanderlust, and there are times when the two of them would love to keep going over the hills and setting up new homesteads, but know that Ma and the family need (and deserve) stability.

Nellie Oleson is such a type, but she's a delicious type, the kind you love to hate. I think Laura was really tapping into archetypes here. Nellie is one of those enduring characters in literature -- the kind you remember long after the other girls (the ones you'd really rather know in person) have faded away.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully -- Thanks for sharing that! I think it's a great example! =D

Mrs. Darwin -- Carrie is starting to show some personality now. But it will be a while before I see which parent she takes after--or whether she turns out to be a "sport"!

Every time I read about Nellie Oleson, I think that she thinks she is the main character . . . and that if she ever got a chance to step out of the book and learn the truth she'd be mortified--not because of the way she comes across, but because that country girl Laura Ingalls is the real protagonist!

Darwin said...

Now, if you keep reading as far as Little Town on the Prairie, I can tell you that Nellie Oleson shows up again in her teens. :-)

Enbrethiliel said...


I'll read it for Nellie, but probably not blog about it . . . unless it inspires a Character Connection. =P I can totally imagine Nellie doing that!

Sheila said...

But you will find that by that point, Laura has outgrown Nellie and has a new arch-nemesis ... someone so much worse ... oh, how I envy you getting to read these books for the first time!

1. For the most part, yes. Says the mother who has spent all day keeping her children from smashing each other's faces in. When they're very little, you have to manage a lot. As they get bigger, you have to take the training wheels off, bit by bit, and let them find out the consequences of making a friend angry. But some supervision is important, because kids can dream up some pretty dangerous pranks ...

2. My favorite first-grade student. The one I was warned about because of his terrible behavior problems, my only non-reader, whom I suspected of a learning disability. It became clear to me after awhile that he was working twice as hard as any other kid in the room, and though he didn't see results for a long time, eventually it all clicked and he read to me! One of the happiest days of my life!

3. God provides. We were so poor growing up, it seemed we'd never be able to get by for another month. But we always, always did.

Enbrethiliel said...


There's another arch-nemesis?!? And she's worse than Nellie?!? =D

Now may I confess that I'm a little surprised that this series got a Josie Pye before it got a Diana Barry? Laura is pretty independent--and she already has a sister--so she doesn't really need a "bosom friend," but Nellie tips the balance in a totally new way!

And that's a great story about your favourite student, Sheila. =) I'm so glad you were able to look past his reputation and see what was really going on!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

On that first point... I've been wondering that too why didn't Ma just teach Laura herself? What was it that she saw school giving her girls that she felt she couldn't do? Is it that school has more structure or that she thinks Laura will mind a stranger better than she will Ma? Or is it one of those assumptions that Ma never thinks to question?

This time through I was actually surprised at how brief the Nellie episodes are. She looms so large in my memory, but they were over so quickly. I guess it is that archetypal quality to her.

And oh yes Pa's sacrifice is one of those great moments.

I'm working hard on finding the balance between playing referee and letting the kids work things out on their own. Right now I'm having to do a lot of very pointed redirection: "Mama, Ben is doing x" someone complains. "Well, why are you telling me about it? If you don't like it, tell Ben." Sometimes the training wheels have to be removed rather forcefully.

Enbrethiliel said...


Those are great questions, Melanie! Based on my impressions of Ma, so far, I'd say that she felt that going to school was as necessary to the girls' character as practicing good manners. But there must have been other factors as well.

I had to smile when I read about the redirection you've been doing lately. =) When I was in uni, the manager of my hostel had to do a bit of that, too. If someone went to her to complain about a resident, she'd tell them that the one they really needed to speak to first was the fellow resident. Of course, if cases got serious, she would step in.

I personally agree with this sort of training, which is why I was intrigued by a blog post I read recently, which suggested these lessons are actually being discouraged in a lot of schools. The writer's thesis was that any "zero tolerance policy" means that children are not taught to stand up for themselves, but instead trained to appeal to a higher authority over and over again. So not only do they never get to interact with each other without training wheels, but they also crash and burn pretty badly when the higher authority of the moment proves inadequate to the task . . . which is often.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I refer to "zero tolerance" policies as "zero brain". They tend to mean that teachers and administrators have no leeway for prudential judgement or even common sense. There's no way for them to be sensitive to context or discerning of character. Yet another reason I'm for homeschooling.