These Happy Golden Years: Literary Overview

these Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder considered ‘These Happy Golden Years’ the end of her ‘Little House’ series. The book was published in 1943,
14 years before her death in 1957.
She submitted no more manuscripts to Harper & Brothers, nor to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who died in 1968,
25 years after “These Happy Golden Years’ was published.
The book is essentially a coming-of-age and a courtship novel.
Laura becomes a successful school teacher, wins the heart of heroic young bachelor, and at the end of the book is set to
embark on her new adventure as a married woman.
The courtship and coming of age threads in this book are interwoven right from the beginning.
Although Pa takes Laura to the Brewster school in the first chapter,
Almanzo is the one who rescues her at the end of the week,
and he takes on this responsibility throughout the opening chapters of the novel.
In the opening chapters of the book, Laura’s experiences are neither happy nor golden,
and given this period in American young adult literature,
was unusually dark and edgy, as dark and edgy as ‘The Long Winter’ had been.
Laura’s first evening at the Brewster school is unsettling,
even disturbing.
After supper, Laura tries to strike up a conversation with Mrs.Brewster, “but she did not answer.
The silence grew more and more dreadful.
Laura felt her face grow burning hot.
She went on wiping the dishes blindly.
When they were done, Mrs.Brewster threw out the dish water and hung the pan on its nail.
She sat in the rocking chair and rocked idly, while Johnny crawled under the stove and dragged out the cat by its tail.
The cat scratched him and he bawled.
Mrs.Brewster went on rocking.”
The Brewster family is dysfunctional, the marriage precarious, and Mrs.Brewster makes no attempt to conceal this from Laura.
Laura has barely stepped foot into the family’s home when she’s caught up in this conversation:
“‘Nowadays breakfast is so late we eat only two meals a day,’ Mr.Brewster explained.
‘Whose fault is that I’d like to know?’ Mrs.Brewster blazed out, ‘as if I didn’t do enough, slaving from morning to night in
this-‘
Mr.Brewster raised his voice. ‘I only meant the days are so short.’
‘Then say what you mean.’ Mrs.Brewster slammed the high chair to the table, snatched the little boy, and sat him in it hard.”
The image of lonely, isolated, and sometimes suicidal women
living reluctantly in claim shanties or sod houses on the Great Plains is a recurring image in early 20th-century
American literature.
One of the most notable examples is a character of Beret, who follows her husband into Dakota Territory in O.E. Rolvaag’s
‘Giants in the Earth.’
“Had
they traveled into some nameless abandoned region?
Could no living thing exist out here in the empty desolate endless waste of green and blue?
How could existence go on? she thought desperately, if life is to thrive and endure it must at least have something to hide behind.”
For the most part, Wilder’s work, like Willa Cathers, counterbalances this image.
Ma is a sometimes reluctant pioneer woman, for example, but she is also capable, resilient, and courageous. In her own way,
she brings civilization with her wherever she goes,
and it’s women like Ma who ultimately tame the West.
But Mrs.Brewster in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ is Ma’s antithesis.
Indeed, the entire Brewster family is diametrically opposed to everything the fictional Ingalls family represents.
As Laura struggles to cope with her new environment at the Brewsters,
she looks out from that miserable claim shanty at the prairie beyond,
and imagines herself back home.
“The road went straight across the snow and far away out of sight.
Twelve miles away was home. Ma was getting supper now.
Carrie was home from school.
They were laughing and talking with Grace.
Pa would come in and swing Grace up in his arms, as he used to lift Laura when she was little.
They would all go on talking at the supper table.
Later they would sit in the lamplight, cozily reading while Carrie studied.
Then Pa would play his fiddle.”
But during that first week, Laura can’t imagine away the unpleasant and unsettling experience of living in the Brewster
household. It presses in around her.
“Before Laura could hurry into bed in the cold dark, Mrs.Brewster began to quarrel at Mr.Brewster.
Laura tried not to hear.
She pulled the quilt over her head and pressed her ear tight against the pillow,
but she could not help hearing.
She knew then that Mrs.Brewster wanted her to hear.”
So this is gritty, edgy stuff, and it was especially so in the early 1940s, before the YA category had been invented, and
before writers for young readers tackled darker subjects that we now associate with the genre:
physical and verbal abuse, dysfunctional families, sex
violence, and suicide.
And of course, ‘These Happy Golden Years’ gets even grittier.
There’s that unforgettable chapter entitled “A Knife in the Dark” when Mrs.Brewster threatens her husband with a butcher knife.
“The moonlight shone through the calico and thinned the darkness, so that Laura saw Mrs.Brewster standing there.
Her long white flannel nightgown trailed on the floor, and her black hair fell loose over her shoulders.
In her upraised hand she held the butcher knife.
Laura had never been so terribly frightened.” This was dangerous stuff for readers in the early 1940s,
and it was essentially unprecedented in young adult literature.
Wilder’s literary agent George Bye informed Wilder that her editor, Ms.Nordstrom, “is suggesting that Mrs.Brewster’s
butcher knife incident be cut out.”
Although Wilder had compromised with Ursula Nordstrom on the title for ‘The Long Winter,’
she refused to cut “The Knife in the Dark” from “These Happy Golden Years.”
But it’s interesting to note that the original addition of “These Happy Golden Years,” illustrated by Helen Sewell and
Mildred Boyle,
does not include an illustration of Mrs.Brewster and that butcher knife.
The incident was autobiographical.
Wilder included it in all versions of “Pioneer Girl.” Here’s how she described it in her original draft of her autobiography:
“I peeked between the curtains. I was so terrified, I must see. Mr. Bouchie lay on his back on the bed with one foot out
from under the covers.
He seemed to be lying quietly, but I could see that every muscle was tensed.
Mrs.Bouchie stood beside the bed with a large butcher knife in her hand.”
Notice here, however, that the couple’s name is Bouchie, not Brewster.
And in her correspondence with Lane about the last two novels in the ‘Little House’ series, Wilder continued to use the surname
Bouchie.
But at some point Wilder changed her mind, and gave these characters a similar but fictional name.
Bouchie became Brewster.
Perhaps to shield the real people Wilder remembered
or to protect herself as a novelist.
Wilder was keenly aware of the history behind her fiction.
She knew when she was taking literary liberties and when she was not.
It was an issue that she felt compelled to reinforce with Lane as they worked together on both ‘Little Town on the Prairie’
and ‘These Happy Golden Years.’
As Wilder pointed out to Lane:
“Unfortunately we have used real names in these books and must stick close to the facts
than otherwise we would need to.”
In the case of the Bouchies, however, Wilder stuck to the facts but changed their names.
But what do we know about the real Lou Brewster and his wife?
He was Louis Bouchie, a man in his early 20s, born in Canada, and according to the 1880 federal census, was living in Grundy
County Iowa,
working as a cattle herder.
In 1882, he filed two homestead claims in Kingsbury County,
not twelve miles south of De Smet, but six miles slightly south and almost due west of town.
The real Laura Ingalls went out to the Bouchies the first of December, probably in 1883, as we discussed in the last lecture.
As for Mrs.Bouchie herself, she was Olive Delilah Eisenberger Morrison. She moved to Kingsbury County in Dakota Territory
shortly after Lewis Bouchie arrived, and filed her own claim on land adjoining his.
Like Louis Bouchie, Olive Morrison had moved to Dakota Territory from Grundy County, Iowa.
She brought her two-year-old son with her.
It is unclear whether Olive Morrison was widowed or divorced,
but in 1880, when the federal census was taken, she was a married woman living with her parents and siblings in Iowa.
Presumably, her son had not yet been born.
In ‘Pioneer Girl,’ Wilder writes: “Mrs. Bouchie was never pleasant. She was always sullen and seldom spoke. Breakfast was a
silent meal,
and I was glad to be gone all day.”
Historical records are unclear. Louis Bouchie and Olive Morrison were either married in December 1882 or December 1883.
In either case, they hadn’t been married long when the real Laura Ingalls boarded with them.
Both the real Laura Ingalls (and the fictional one) decide to keep the butcher knife incident a secret from her family.
Laura is determined to finish out her term. As Wilder wrote in ‘Pioneer Girl’:
“This is one thing I didn’t tell when I went home, for badly as I hated to go out there again,
it was only one more week,
and I wanted to finish my school.”
Of course, the person who rescues Laura from the misery and danger of the Brewster/Bouchie household
is Almanzo Wilder. Out of the misery of the Brewster household, Laura finds romance, and the courtship theme in ‘These Happy
Golden Years’ moves center stage.
As we’ve seen in previous books,
Laura comes to the idea of romance and marriage
reluctantly.

By the shores of silver lake

In ‘By the Shores of Silver Lake,’ Laura and Lena find the idea of marriage very unsettling.
Laura concludes that she’s not ready for the responsibilities of marriage:
“‘I don’t want to be so responsible. I’d rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet.'”
She is surprised and confused by the attention she receives from Almanzo Wilder
in ‘Little Town on the Prairie.’
“It was an odd thing for him to do, but he was grown-up. He’d been a homesteader for a few years, so he must be at least 23-years-old.
And he was Pa’s friend more than hers.” Even when Almanzo begins to drive her home from the Brewsters in ‘These Happy Golden Years,’
Laura won’t admit he’s her beau,
even to her good friend Mary Power.
“‘Oh, no, he isn’t my beau!’ Laura cried out. ‘It isn’t like that at all!
He came for me as a favor to Pa!'”
Laura even tells Almanzo directly that she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever.
“‘I am going with you only because I want to get home.
When I am home to stay, I will not go with you anymore.
So, now you know.
And if you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can.'” Laura’s reluctance to pursue romance brings realism
and tension to her love story.
And as we’ve seen earlier in the class, tension always makes a story stronger and more appealing to readers.
Even when Laura accepts Almanzo’s proposal later in the novel, she seems somewhat tentative.
“‘I was wondering,’ Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura’s hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned
hand closed gently over it.
He had never done that before. ‘Your hand is so small,’ he said. Another pause, then quickly, ‘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,’ Laura answered, and drew her hand away.” Laura’s reluctance,
and in fact her entire romance with Almanzo, seems very tame and relatively passionless to modern readers of young
adult fiction.
Contemporary YA novels are more direct and explicit.
For example, John Green’s award-winning novel ‘Looking for Alaska’ includes a very candid,
descriptive, and
humorous scene about oral sex.
Old-fashioned courtship, and a proposal that doesn’t even include a kiss seems quaint,
even in a historical novel like this one. But in the early 1940s, Wilder was once again blazing a new creative path for
young adult fiction. In fact, what’s now considered the first young adult romantic novel was published in 1942, just a year
before ‘These Happy Golden Years.’
‘Seventeenth Summer’ by Maureen Daly, contained scenes showing teenagers drinking and smoking unrepentantly, and thinking openly
about sexual attraction.
But like ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ the scenes in ‘Seventeenth Summer’ also seen prim,
dated, and quaint. “It’s funny what a boy can do. One day you’re nobody, and the next day you’re the girl that some fellow goes with.
Going with a boy gives you a new identity, especially going with a fellow like Jack Deluth.”
The emotional underpinnings of this passage don’t seem radically different from Wilder’s depiction of Nellie Olsen and
her interest in Almanzo Wilder.

Little town on the prairie

In ‘Little Town on the Prairie,’ Nellie compares Cap Garland to Almanzo.
“‘He isn’t such a much.
It’s that chum of his I want to know, that young Mr.Wilder with the funny name.
You’ll see. I’m going to ride behind those horses of his.'”
And as we’ll see in the next lecture, Nellie continues to pursue Almanzo in ‘These Happy Golden Years.’
Explicit sexual content simply wasn’t part of mainstream American fiction in the early 20th century for young readers,
or for adults.
Only a handful of literary authors were experimenting with sexual content in the early 20th century, and only for adult readers.
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence, was published privately in 1928, but it’s complete and unabridged version
wasn’t published until the 1960s.
‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, published in the early 1920s, faced obscenity charges because of its sexual candor.
In the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine a world where writers were unable to openly portray the sexual feelings of their characters,
but mainstream American publishing expected authors to ignore the physicality of their characters,
or to write discreetly about it. One reason Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ was so popular in 1938, was because she
found a way to write about sexual attraction in what for the period seemed both candid and passionate.
And although the book is now considered a YA novel,
Mitchell wrote it for adult readers.
But Laura and Almanzo’s courtship in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ isn’t without passion,
it’s just that their passion appears indirectly in the novel.
Think about Almanzo’s horses. From the very beginning, they attracted Laura.
Remember that first glimpse Laura had of Almanzo and his horses in ‘Little Town on the Prairie’?
“Now that she had seen the buggy, more than ever Laura wanted to ride with Almanzo.
How could she prevent such thoughts when those horses were so beautiful, and the buggy so swift?”
I think an argument can be made that those horses are more than horses, that they serve as a kind of metaphor for the
attraction, and even sexual tension, between Laura and Almanzo.
In scene after scene, Laura is drawn to those horses and their beauty.
In fact, they bring Almanzo and Laura together.
When she feels lonely and forgotten after her return to town from the Brewster school, Prince and Lady pull up to the
door and Laura jumps into Almanzo’s cutter.
“Together they speed away up Main Street, and around in a circle to the north and back again and again. Laura was so happy
she had to sing.”
Think about Laura’s wild leaps into the buggy pulled by Barnum and Skip, or how she learns to control the reins herself.
“Laura’s arms took the force of Barnum’s pull. His strength flowed up the lines with a thrill she had felt before.”
And then there are those long, slow, buggy rides on summer Sunday afternoons, as Laura and Almanzo’s romance deepens.
And it’s on one of those Sundays when Laura accepts his proposal.
“Then, driving with one hand, with the other Almanzo lifted Laura’s, and she felt something cool slip over her first finger,
while he reminded her,
‘You said it would depend on the the ring. How do you like this one?'” Laura admires the ring and accepts his proposal.
Later in this scene, she and Almanzo stand beside the buggy.
She holds up her face to the faint moonlight.
“‘You may kiss me good night,’ she said.” And after their first kiss she went into the house, while Almanzo drove away. By the
way, not all contemporary YA romances are sexually explicit.
A prime example: ‘Scorpio Races’ by Maggie Stiefvater.
The book also uses horses as a metaphor for the attraction and sexual tension between her two main characters.
Of course, ‘These Happy Golden Years’ isn’t only about courtship. As a coming-of-age novel, it also deals with Laura’s new
maturity, her career choices, and ultimately her independence.
We’ll discuss these subjects and more in our next lecture.

Laura’s success as a schoolteacher is a significant thread running through ‘These Happy Golden Years.’ She learns to manage a classroom
and inspire difficult students.
Although she had dreaded becoming a teacher, Laura finds the work professionally challenging and satisfying.
She takes pride in her students’ work.
“Never had she been so happy she was that spring.
Her pupils were happy too,
everyone as good as gold, and eager and quick to learn.”
Laura’s commitment to education for her students and for herself marks her growth and maturity as a young woman,
and illustrates the important role Ma has played in shaping Laura’s character.
It’s not that Laura has abandoned the values of freedom and independence she has inherited from Pa;
it’s that in this novel, Laura begins to embrace her role in society as a young woman.
Ma’s influence
balances Pa’s.
Ma, for example, helps Laura resolve the crisis with Clarence at the Brewster school early in the novel.
“‘If I were you,’ Ma gently began, and Laura remembered that Ma had been a schoolteacher,
‘I’d give way to Clarence and not pay any attention to him.
It’s attention he wants, that’s why he cuts up.
Be pleasant and nice to him,
but put all your attention on the others and straighten them out.
Clarence will come
around.’
‘That’s right, Laura, listen to your Ma,’ said Pa.
‘Wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove.'” Notice that Pa affirms Ma’s wisdom here.
It’s not surprising then that Laura places an increasing value on her own education.
She continues to study even while she’s teaching at the Brewster school, and happily returns to school in De Smet after
her term is finished
with the Brewsters.
Laura is relieved to learn that she is still sailing at the head of the class with flying colors.
Perhaps because decades later, Wilder continued to value education,
she included a bittersweet scene in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ between Laura and the schoolteacher she most admired, Mr.Owen.
Laura has agreed to marry Almanzo at the end of the summer, and has accepted a teaching position to earn more money
before the wedding.
On the last day of school she bids Mr.Owen farewell.
Until that moment he hadn’t realized that Laura wouldn’t return to school in the fall.
“‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Not sorry you are going to be married, but
because I didn’t graduate you this spring. I held you back because I . . .
because I had a foolish pride.
I wanted to graduate the whole class together, and some weren’t ready. It’s not fair to you. I’m sorry.”
He tells Laura.
In the novel she responds, “‘It doesn’t matter. I’m glad to know I could’ve graduated. In ‘Pioneer Girl,’ Wilder wrote that
“I was very much disappointed, but didn’t fuss.” In fact, in ‘Pioneer Girl’,’ Wilder provided more additional details about this
incident, one that clearly remained important her all those decades later.
She had apparently talked to Mr.Owen about graduating from high school before the last day of school.
“As spring drew near I talked to Mr.Owen about graduating.
He said he would have no graduation exercises that spring.
The class was not ready, as I was the only one who could pass the examinations.”
Following this conversation, Wilder took her second teacher’s examination and signed a contract for the Wilkins school,
not before
as it happens in ‘These Happy Golden Years.’
When Mr.Owen learns that Wilder won’t return to school in the fall,
“the tears came in his eyes and he begged me to give up teaching that spring and finish the term. He said he had not been
fair to hold me back for the rest of the class, as he had done all winter, and if I would stay he would graduate me from high
school by myself, that we still had time and I can do it.”
Wilder refused because there was not time for the Wilkins school to find another teacher.
“I had signed a contract, and school began next Monday.”
Wilder dropped out of school to fulfill her professional commitments as a teacher. The De Smet schoolhouse also
provides the setting for a scene that gives readers the first intimation of Laura’s ambition to write.
In the novel, it occurs just after Laura returns to the De Smet schoolhouse after her successful term at the Brewster school.
She feels self-confident in her studies, only to learn that Mr.Owen had assigned the class to write a composition
on ambition.
“Laura was in a panic. She had never written a composition, and now she must do in a few minutes what the others had been
working at since yesterday.”
Laura works on her composition during recess, writes it quickly and efficiently, and when she reads it aloud
Mr.Owen tells her,
“‘You should write more of them.
I would not have believed that anyone could do so well the first time.'”
Laura received a grade of 100 % on her composition, and looked forward happily to writing more.
This was an important moment for the real Laura Ingalls as well.
Wilder write about this episode in ‘Pioneer Girl,’ and perhaps, even more significantly, she kept that composition all her life.
Here’s the real essay Wilder wrote for Mr.Owen.
It’s in the archives of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield.
I discussed this composition earlier in the course, but let’s return to it within the context of Wilder’s last ‘Little House’ book.
The real composition differs slightly from the text in the novel.
Here’s the version as it appears in ‘These Happy Golden Years’:
“Ambition is necessary to accomplishment.
Without an ambition to gain an end, nothing would be done.
Without an ambition to excel others and surpass oneself, 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.'”
Wilder writes in ‘These Happy Golden Years’ that Laura wrote quickly, and felt miserable because she didn’t have time to
rewrite and polish her composition.
The fictional Laura Ingalls, however, wrote perfectly the very first time.
The real Laura Ingalls, on the other hand, took time to revise ‘Ambition.’ The original scrap of paper shows she wrote two
drafts, and used the second one to correct spelling errors, add new content, and end with that quotation from Shakespeare’s
‘King Henry VIII.’
Here’s the original draft, written (according to Wilder’s handwritten note on the original)
in 1883.
“Ambition is like other good things (and then a word or two is illegible) a good only when used in moderation.
It has worked great good for the world, and great evil also.
Alexander is an example of a man completely carried away by ambition, so much so that when he had conquered the whole world,
which one would suppose was enough to satisfy ambition,
he wept, because there was no more world to conquer.
Ambition is a good servant but a hard master, and if you think it is likely to become your master, I would say to you in the
world
(there’s a mistake here) of the immortal Shakespeare:
‘Cromwell,
I charge thee, fling away ambition!
By that sin fell the angels.'” Obviously, Wilder rewrote her original composition for ‘These Happy Golden Years.’
But based on her recollection in ‘Pioneer Girl,’ the real Mr.Owen, and the fictional one, had the same response to her work.
He told Laura Ingalls that she should write more, and his advice apparently meant a great deal to her.
Otherwise, why would she have kept that single composition for a lifetime?
Later in ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ Wilder adds one more subtle grace note to her fictional counterpart’s future ambitions as a writer.
When Mary returns from college for the summer, she and Laura take a walk together across the prairie,
while the wild roses are in bloom.
“‘Gather ye roses while ye may,’ Mary began, and she quoted the poem for Laura.”
Then as they walked on together in the rose scented warm wind,
she talked of her studies in literature.
“‘I am planning to write a book someday,’ she confided.
Then she laughed. But I planned to teach school and you are doing that for me,
so maybe you will write a book.’
‘I write a book?’ Laura hooted. She said blithely, ‘I’m going to be an old maid schoolteacher like Ms.Wilder. Write your own book.'”
And yet readers know that Mary’s prediction is right. Mary knows Laura better than Laura knows herself. In this moment, the
fictional Laura Ingalls and the real Laura Ingalls Wilder seemed to merge.
The writer’s past becomes a character’s unspoken future.
Time loses its meaning. Reality and fiction in this passage become virtually
indistinguishable.
As we discussed in the last lecture, ‘These Happy Golden Years’ gives Laura a life apart from her family:
boarding with the Brewsters, holding down a claim with Mrs.McKee, teaching at the Perry and Wilkins schools, sewing for Ms. Bell.
Her romance with Almanzo Wilder deepens as she spends more time with him, on those long buggy rides, the singing
school, breaking Skip and Barnum.
When Mary makes her final appearance in the ‘Little House’ series, the two girls talk about their futures, and how swiftly
time passes now that they’re older.
Mary hopes Laura will wait another summer before marrying Almanzo so she can attend the wedding,
but Laura is ready to embrace her freedom and doesn’t want to delay her marriage,
even for Mary.
“‘I’m 18 now, and I’ve taught three terms of school. That’s one more than Ma taught.
I don’t want to teach anymore.
I want to be settled this winter in our own home.'”
Despite Laura’s deepening maturity, self-confidence, and independence,
Laura remains consistent with her younger fictional self.
Wilder gives us another glimpse of this in Laura’s final scene with Nellie Oleson,
which inevitably involves Almanzo.
Still early in their courtship, Almanzo drives out across the big slough one Sunday afternoon toward the Ingalls Homestead
with someone in his buggy.
That someone turns out to be Nellie Oleson, of course.
She is typically Nellie: sickly sweet, complimenting everything she sees, including Laura. Everything is utterly “too-too!”
“Laura’s head ached. Her ears rang with the continuous babble, and she was furious. Almanzo seemed to be enjoying the drive;
at least, he looked as though he were being amused.”
The next Sunday, Nellie is riding with Almanzo yet again, and Laura manages to put Nellie in her place.
She intentionally spooks the horses and gets the desired reaction from Nellie.
“‘Oh,I never was so frightened! I never was so frightened in my life!’ Nellie chattered and gasped. ‘Horses are such wild things! Oh Manny,
why did they do it? Don’t let them do it again!'”
Laura’s approach works, and when Almanzo drives out the following Sunday, he’s alone.
He tells Laura with disgust that Nellie is afraid of horses.

On the banks of plum creek

This sequence reads like a variation on the bloodsuckers scene in ‘On the Banks of Plum Creek,’ when Laura lures Nellie out
into the creeks so the bloodsuckers will cling to her legs and feet. Nellie tried to kick one off and then she ran
screaming up on the creek bank.
“Then she stood kicking as hard as she could, first one foot than the other, screaming all the time.”
Now the girls’ reactions have changed slightly. They are a bit more subtle, befitting their age, but in ‘These Happy Golden
Years,’ Nellie’s essential character hasn’t really changed much,
nor, in this respect has Laura’s. Yet according to ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ Nellie’s scenes in ‘These Happy Golden Years’
really belong to a young woman named Stella Gilbert, who sometimes rode with Wilder and Almanzo on their Sunday
afternoon rides.
“Manly said the poor girl worked so hard, it would be nice to give her a good time.”
Wilder, however, knew Stella far better than Almanzo,
and realized from the beginning that Stella Gilbert was “trying her best to edge me out of those drives.”
The real Stella Gilbert was about three years older than Wilder, closer in age to Almanzo.
According to the federal census, Stella was one of seven children. Her brother Fred was for a time interested in courting
Wilder herself.
The family ultimately moved to Oregon.
As Wilder was planning the final books in the ‘Little House’ series, she explained Stella’s role to Lane:
“There will be Mary Power, Ida Brown, perhaps Stella Gilbert, so I think I’ll combine Genevieve Masters and Stella in Nellie Oleson.”
So, three models for Nellie Oleson: Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters and Stella Gilbert, but one consistent fictional character.
Stella Gilbert scenes are not Nellie’s last ones. Laura emerges victorious, but not without a moment of sympathy for Nellie.
“On the way back, they came into town past the Oleson’s claim. It was on the section line a mile east of Almanzo’s homestead.
Laura had not seen Nellie Oleson’s home before,
and she felt a little sorry for her.
The shanty was so small standing among the wild grass and wind.
Mr. Oleson had no horses, only a yoke of oxen
and the place was not improved as Pa’s was.”
It’s important to note that the Ingalls’ and Oleson’s fates have been reversed by the end of the series.
Pa owns horses, property in town, and has built a comfortable home for the family on the homestead.
The Oleson’s, however,
are no longer prosperous, wealthy shopkeepers as they were when readers first met them.
By the end of the series, the Oleson’s are living like the

Ingalls family

did on Plum Creek,
without horses, just a yoke of oxen and a small, unimproved claim shanty that lacks even the charm of the earlier book’s dugout.
The fictional Laura Ingalls may feel a little sorry for Nellie and her family,
but Wilder the writer has given the fictional family a kind of poetic justice.
Their fortunes have declined in keeping with the smallness of their spirits.
Wilder also reserves one last dramatic moment in ‘These Happy Golden Years,’ for Pa’s restless Western spirit.
Despite the family’s prosperity in Dakota Territory,
Pa longs to move on.
“‘I would like to go West,’ he told Ma one day. ‘A fellow doesn’t have room to breathe here anymore.’
‘Oh, Charles! No room? With all this great prairie around you?’ Ma said.
‘I so tired of being dragged from pillar to post, and I thought we were settled here.’
‘Well, I guess we are, Caroline, don’t fret. It’s just that my wandering foot gets to itching, I guess.
Anyway, I haven’t won that bet with Uncle Sam yet,
and we stay right here till we win it,
till I can prove up on this homestead claim.'”
Ma’s vision for the family has prevailed.
The Ingalls will set down roots in Dakota Territory,
and Pa will live out his life in a settled country.
Yet, despite the changes in Laura, her maturity, her independence, her new profession,
she remains closer to Pa in spirit
than to Ma.
“Laura knew how he felt, for she saw the look in his blue eyes as he gazed over the rolling prairie, westward from the open
door where he stood.
He must stay in a settled country for the sake of them all,
just as she must teach school again,
though she did so hate to be shut into a schoolroom.” Laura is changed and yet essentially the same.
The young woman she has become is consistent with the little girl she used to be.
And so the series ends. Even in marriage, Laura retains her sense of independence
by refusing to submit to conventional marriage vows. And perhaps, just as significantly,
she marries a man who doesn’t expect submission.
Laura tells him:
“‘I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.’
‘I’d never expect you to,’ he told her.” In fact, Almanzo himself is not a conventional bridegroom for the period.
He not only builds a house for Laura, but makes all the domestic arrangements as well, blurring the established gender
roles, not just for the 1880s
but for the 1940s as well.
Even their wedding is unconventional, a rushed and simple ceremony to avoid Wilder family interference.
The Rev.Brown and his radical ideas and that black wedding dress?
“Married in black, you’ll wish you were back,” Ma tells Laura.
Not surprisingly, Ma isn’t entirely satisfied with Laura and Almanzo’s wedding plans,
but Pa agrees with them wholeheartedly:
“I think it is a sensible thing to do.
You and Almanzo show good judgment.”
Laura has the blessing of her mentor and guide, even as she breaks free from his protection. While Laura’s story ends with
marriage,
it doesn’t seem like she has completely conformed. She has made mature and informed choices that remain consistent with the independent
pioneer spirit of her childhood.
And as the novel ends, readers sense that Laura is about to begin another adventure, and yet one that is informed by her past,
represented by the echo of Pa’s fiddle and the lines of a familiar song, lines that suggest not just the passing of
Laura’s childhood,
but perhaps the reader’s as well:
“Golden years are passing by,
these happy golden years.”

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