Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sleepless in Summer

The other night I couldn’t sleep so I turned on my light and opened my beat-up copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, which I keep by the bed for such occasions.

Although I’ve read this last “Little House” book at least 20 times (that’s a conservative estimate), I was still surprised when I got to chapter 19, “The Brown Poplin,” which struck me, on this reading, as being an inordinately long and loving paean to a piece of clothing.

Laura has earned the money for some new clothes by working as a teacher and as a seamstress, and now Ma has finished sewing her a dress. The next day, Laura rises early and begins to prepare for church, brushing her “shimmering brown” hair until it’s “satin-smooth” and then pinning it all into a “mass of braids” and taking the curlers out of her bangs.* Next comes the arduous process of putting on all her underthings, including various petticoats (I lost track of how many there were) and her new hoops, which were “the very latest style in the East.” After a page and a half of this description, we finally get to learn about the titular brown poplin itself, which we read, isn’t “plain poplin, but striped with an openwork silk stripe” and has long smooth sleeves, small brown buttons and a band of silk around the bottom.

Once Laura is ready for church, Carrie, her younger sister, says in awe, “When I’m a young lady, I’m going to earn me a dress just exactly like that.” Now this is where the story really gets interesting because when Laura hears those words, she’s surprised. “She had not thought that she was a young lady,” we’re told. “She was not sure she liked being a young lady.”

By this point, we realize that all those previous pages of description were not just details about material things – they tell us about Laura’s feelings about leaving childhood, and how she’s both daunted by and eager for her transformation into womanhood. In fact, as we read on, Laura can’t stand to take off the new dress when she gets home from church even though it’s time for everyone to put their old clothes back on and get on their chores. She’s restless too, looking out at the sky with its floating clouds and then at the new trees that Pa has planted, which are now “spreading their slender branches and rustling leaves.”
At the peak of her restlessness, she looks across the prairie toward the little town, and when she sees a buggy approaching, we know darn well just what she’s been waiting for and why she wanted to keep on that splendid dress. As a narrator, Laura doesn’t use many adjectives to describe Almanzo Wilder, the buggy driver and the man who would become her husband. She does, however, describe his buggy here, which is so new that the “sun flashed and sparkled from its wheels and top,” confirming for us that Almanzo is pretty dashing too.

Almanzo, who once helped saved the townspeople from starvation during a blizzard and who has a fine pair of horses, has been courting Laura for more than a year, but this is the first time we can see that she is also courting his attention. When he drives up, Carrie’s eyes are shining. She whispers to Laura, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t change your dress?” and Laura responds by whispering back, “I am.” Laura, we now know, is not just interested in Almanzo’s wonderful horses; she wants to be with the man himself.

The day after I read this chapter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and how Laura Ingalls Wilder describes her younger self getting dressed in a way that almost sounds like a holy ritual. To me, the loving details she relates – the flounce, the ribbon, the shiny trim – are all expressions of reverence, almost as if Laura is dressing herself for a rite of passage, which will take her into the arms of Almanzo and away from cheery life of helping Ma in the kitchen and singing to the music of Pa’s fiddle-playing.

One of my adult students has said that creative writing classes aren’t just exercises in writing. They also, he says, challenge us to become better listeners as we take turns reading our work aloud. I agree. I have to pay close attention if I’m going to fully appreciate all the little bits of information in a student’s piece. Is that the sun shining on a character’s palm or a cloud hovering so close that he or she can almost cup it? When we’re wide awake, we can follow the clues to the heart of a story. We can understand that a dress is more than a dress. We can get that a character is conflicted without an author coming out and telling us that. At the end of “The Brown Poplin,” Laura, the character, says, “I like buggy rides.” Laura, the writer adds, “Then suddenly she felt shy, and hurried into the house.”

*Wilder, Laura Ingalls. These Happy Golden Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1943.