If I was feeling a tad bit bereft upon finishing Little Town on the Prairie, I have to say I am feeling downright sad to have finished These Happy Golden Years. They are happy years and of course the story ends on a most satisfying and happy note, but that is essentially the end of the story of the Ingalls family and their many adventures. While I am now reading the last book, The First Four Years, it is somewhat different in tone, which I will explain in greater detail when I write about it. At the end of These Happy Golden Years, Half-Pint is an eighteen-year-old young woman, earning money, betrothed and then married. This series of books is so immensely endearing and they really do feel like a life lived (and lived well and happily), but so many changes occur in the last two or three books, it is a reminder of how time flies by and how the world changes and what growing up does to a person and a family. Or maybe as the year winds quickly down, I am just feeling a little maudlin.
Both Mary and Laura left their childhoods, those years of simple work and simple pleasures, behind them several stories ago. Mary is away at college, and will she ever permanently return? Perhaps. It is alluded at, yet she has a new life in Iowa where she is attending college and learning how to be self-sufficient despite being blind. Laura is both still a schoolgirl and studying and going to school, but she has also earned her teacher's certificate and at the beginning of the book she has been offered her first teaching position. And oh my, what an eye-opening experience is that.
The world of these books is mostly idyllic, but every once in a while the reader is shown the harsher side of life on the prairie. It was an opportunity for so many people to come west. There was the possibility of starting a new life, a life of adventure and the possibility to build a new place to live and to have many acres of land. There was a real freedom in coming west, but there was also a cost. The weather was unreliable. Winters might be long and harsh and quite deadly, and then there is the chance of losing crops and the livelihood and putting an entire family in danger. Laura's first teaching position is not a happy one. She has a small schoolhouse with few students, but she must live in an unhappy situation. What happens when a husband brings his family west and his wife, so used to Eastern ways, finds the difficulties and the solitude too much? Laura experiences some harrowing moments in this new environment.
What saves her, no, who saves her, is Almanzo Wilder. It's a nod to Laura's humility and earnestness that she doesn't quite realize that she is being wooed by the young man. She wishes more than anything when she is away that Pa will come and bring her home for the weekends, but it is too far to come and too hard for the horses. But not so for a bachelor and fine horseman like Almanzo. She never complains or lets on entirely of her unhappiness but they know and each week Almanzo comes for her--horse bells jingling each Friday announcing her reprieve--no matter how cold. She is both ecstatic to go home but slightly mortified to think she is taking advantage of Almanzo, so one weekend she tells him he needn't come for her--she wouldn't go riding with him otherwise. And then is mortified that she says so in such a direct way.
Part of the loveliness of this story is the gradual understanding by Laura of what sort of person Almanzo is and that she would indeed like to spend time with him. And he is really her perfect match. His passion and abilities are working with horses. Not so very long ago Laura found herself galloping away on a horse bareback and it was exhilarating for her. Not just once does Almanzo show up on her doorstep with a new pair of horses that need to be broken and Laura is a willing partner in his work and escapades. Even while Ma is inwardly cringing and Pa just trustful enough of Almanzo's talents to keep the horses restrained and Laura safe. She learns just how to carefully jump into his buggy between those wheels without tilting the seat and upsetting the horses. And on more than one occasion (and with increasing deftness) she even takes the reins. They are surely a match made in heaven.
So Laura is coming into her own--still learning and teaching and sewing. She earns enough to keep Mary at school and is even able to help buy an organ for when Mary returns so she can practice her playing. Carrie and Grace must help pick up the slack and Carrie comments that surely they can and are just old enough--Mary and Laura had already been helping out long before when they were little.
Some moments of surprise for me--surely this is not the first book (though I think it is) where something akin to a tornado is experienced. Laura is most decidedly not suffragette material but she balks at the idea of having to say "obey" (and Almanzo agrees) in a marriage ceremony. The book covers not just one year but three. Whereas Christmas holidays were always so special, they seem to be less so (maybe because Mary is not there to celebrate with the family?), but the Fourth of July is happily celebrated. There is still hints of Ma's delicious meals--popcorn balls made with molasses, fresh bread and eggs and new potatoes, and just what exactly is a pieplant pie and what does a two-egg cake taste like anyway?
I don't want to give all the best bits away, though I don't think you need to have read the books to know how the story will end. I will just end with one thing. I had to smile when Laura had this conversation with Mary:
"I [Mary] am planning to write a book some day," she confided. Then she laughed. "But I planned to teach school, and you are doing that for me, so maybe you will write the book."
"I, write a book?" Laura hooted. She said blithely, "I'm going to be an old maid schoolteacher, like Miss Wilder. Write you own book! What are you going to write about?"