If I Had a Remembrance Book . . .
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: Little House on the Prairie
Airdate: March 30, 1974
Written by Blanche Hanalis
Directed by Michael Landon
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: The Ingallses drive from Minnesota to Kansas, make friends with Indians and Mr. Edwards, then get kicked out by the damn guvmint. Ma and Mary are racists, Pa and Laura not so much. A double episode.
RECAP: The first two notes of the intro music tease us, but no, it’s not the theme yet. We open on a woodsy snowscape, soon revealed to be Wisconsin (which, if you’ve never visited, is a barbarian country). Two horse-drawn wagons have pulled up to a house not too different in its design from the one we’ll come to know so well on this series . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.“If I had a remembrance book,” the famous remembrance-book writer Laura Ingalls Wilder says in a voiceover, “I would mark down how it was when we left our little house in the Big Woods to go west to Indian territory.” (I’ve never read the books myself, but I did pick up a copy of Little House on the Prairie to help with this recap, and was surprised to find Laura doesn’t narrate it in the first person. Who knew?)
“Too many people have come to the Big Woods,” Laura tells us. Said woods look empty enough to me, but oh well, at least the snow looks real for once. Food’s become scarce, so Laura’s family is about to begin a quest for a better life. We see Charles and Caroline Ingalls for the first time as Charles loads the wagon and Caroline says goodbye to family members. We aren’t told anything about the origins or ancestry of these pioneers, and the relatives’ names (Ruby, George and “Dosey”) don’t help much. (Apparently Charles was a native New Yorker [!] of English descent whose family traced back to the Mayflower. How the mighty have fallen!)
(Less is known about Caroline’s family history, though she was born in Wisconsin.)
Suddenly we have a shocking shot of the Ingalls daughters. Shocking to longtime fans, that is, because here Mary looks like she’s six years old and Laura about four.
Weirdly, Carrie looks exactly the same as she will the rest of the series.
The Ingallses pack up and depart. As you can see above, Mary and Laura are wearing quite elaborate crocheted hats, but Carrie’s head is uncovered – Caroline just carries her wrapped up in a blanket. Come on, Ma, most of the body’s heat is lost through the head. (Sorry, apparently that’s untrue.)
When the wagon starts moving, we hear the full opening phrase of the theme for the first time, very grandly arranged. (Apparently the tune was lifted from a Bonanza episode.) Laura’s narration takes on a Biblical rhythm as she anticipates the journey: “And I was glad,” she tells us, “for this is a fair land, and I rejoiced that I would see it.” (I thought maybe this was a direct quote from the book, but I guess not.)
And off we go! When the title comes, we sense the ambition of this little TV movie, an ambition that more or less will continue through the first season: to be epic, and somehow above the realm of ordinary middlebrow TV entertainment. The theme (opening phrase only) thunders from the screen over a gorgeous cinematic shot: trees, wagon and Jack the family dog silhouetted beyond a field of black earth.
Then the credits continue with no music whatsoever; the contrast is sort of grim, actually. There are some random shots showing the difficulties of the road: Caroline on a windy day struggling to keep the wagon’s cover on, the family stopping at night in a heavy storm. Poor Jack – they don’t even let him into the wagon in the rain?
As fans know, the twins who played Carrie, Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, are credited throughout the series as a single entity, “Lindsay Sidney Greenbush,” but here their names appear as follows:
I’m tempted to call this a mistake, but the whole business is complicated because “Greenbush” is apparently a mushing together of their father’s surname, Bush, and his nickname, Green. That’s showbiz for you.
(Here he is: Billy “Green” Bush, at right, with Henry Blake:)
(Having paused the video, I also notice that whoever the hell that woman in the wagon is, it’s not Karen Grassle.)
The family stops to trade their burnt-out horses for new ones. They keep referring to the horses as “ponies,” but they seem full-size to me.
Laura laughs at the male horse’s penis (unshown . . . this time anyway); Caroline tut-tuts her but Charles thinks it’s fine for kids to look at horse penises. Also in this sex-ed interlude, he delights Laura when he tells her the female pony is pregnant. (Note: In this scene, he calls Laura “Half-Pint” for the first time.)
The journey relaunches, this time to an aggressive arrangement of the theme that’s somehow both waltzlike and marchlike. They approach a river, which presents a problem. One thing that’s notable about this pilot compared to the rest of the series is it leans less on character melodrama and more on primal conflicts. In other words, here the plot is “the Ingallses have to cross a river” where later it will be more like “Nels Oleson is ashamed of his sister the circus fat lady.”
Charles decides the horses can pull the wagon through the river. He and Caroline don’t bother to tell the kids the plan, and when Laura looks out, they bite her head off and tell her to get back inside. (Is it safer in there somehow? Isn’t there a risk of overturning? Or if the horses drown, will they just float happily downstream till they make land?) Pa very gruffly goes “Hyah!” about two hundred times, then the wheels get stuck mid-river and he has to free them. Michael Landon does his own stunts here, leaping into the water and submerging himself under the wagon. Caroline shrieks, but Charles gets them through, and then (not for the last time) makes light of his wife’s worries.
But Jack the dog has been left behind on the other side. Pa assures Laura he’ll just swim across and catch up with them. I grew up in the country, and we used to take the family dog swimming in the lake, but it seems odd to me Charles would assume a dog Jack’s size could swim across a fast-flying river.
And sure enough, Jack does not catch up with them. Pa goes out to look for him that night, but returns empty-handed. He’s very grumpy about it, snapping at Laura and generally being a surly jerk.
Oh, and Carrie makes a bizarre face when he comes back.
The next day, Laura’s independence, and her rage, make their first appearances as she refuses to ride in the wagon after Jack’s loss, instead marching along silently on foot. Caroline tells Laura to get back on board, and then Charles bites her head off. When they stop again, Laura and Charles sulk in opposite corners of the camp (it doesn’t actually have corners, it’s just a figure of speech). Caroline insists to Charles they need to stop soon, for good, but he shuts her down and says he’ll know the damn spot when he finds it. (No, he doesn’t really say damn, but you can tell he’d like to.)
But guess what? Jack reappears, having apparently simply taken the long way to get there. He is embraced by Laura and by Charles, who offers a prayer of thanks for his return. That night, there’s a nice (and beautifully lit) scene where he and Laura reconcile (he being Charles, that is, not Jack).
We also get to see Michael Landon’s fake fiddle-playing for the first time.
The next day they continue on their journey. The land looks pretty flat, and actually sort of resembles the Midwest for once. They see some birds, and Laura and Mary bicker about whether they’re called “dickcissels” or “dickie birds.” (Here’s a picture of one:)
Caroline says she wants to go to a civilized place like Independence, Kansas, which pisses Charles off again.
Pa stomps up a ridge . . . and then has his Blaine Fabin moment.
He’s awestruck by the view and says it’s the perfect place to settle. The landscape isn’t much different from what we’ve seen before; if anything it looks hillier and therefore maybe less suitable for farming? (But what do I know.) Anyways, he describes it as “green and rich” (in truth the grass has a yellowish tinge that’s pure California). “There’ll be water in those foothills, and trees!” he cries; none of the above can be seen, so I’m not sure why he assumes that. No matter: “We’re home!”
The family immediately begins building a cabin, to a just-slightly-funky 70s jazz version of the theme. Soon, however, Charles realizes he’s working Caroline too hard. She’s irked when he says housebuilding isn’t woman’s work, but takes a more traditional line re gender roles when Charles says he regrets taking her from her family. “My home is where you are,” she says, “and you and the children are my family.” Pa’s choked up; “Caroline Ingalls, I love you!” he says.
The next day (or maybe later the same day, I don’t know), Pa comes back from a reconnaissance mission. He comes with news – he’s made a friend, another settler who’s offered to help build their cabin. “He’s a wonderful man,” he says, “you’re gonna like him!” And of course, this new friend turns out to be Mr. Edwards! Boy, Victor French looks young. Or maybe it’s just that his beard is shorter?
Edwards makes a questionable impression when the first thing he does is teach young Laura how to spit. Ma gets her pantaloons in a bunch about this – she’s a real stiff this first season, isn’t she? In a private conversation later, Charles wittily suggests Mr. E.’s loutishness results from not having “the refining influence of a good woman.” Then he literally commands Caroline to be “civil and friendly”; she resentfully agrees, but continues to kvetch, saying she suspects Edwards is no churchgoer. (The show will go into that question in a few episodes.)
Mr. Edwards comes back to work the next day . . . and excuse the digression, but here’s one odd thing I’ve noticed. In the first season, Karen Grassle sometimes uses an odd, stagey, sort of Britishy accent she won’t have later (a product of her theatrical training?). Here she says, “You cahn’t make a roof in a day!” It’s quite bizarre, and more examples are to come. (And no, it isn’t a Wisconsin accent.)
(This is a Wisconsin accent:)
Seeing as he’s building them a house and all, Caroline begrudgingly invites Edwards to supper. He accepts, immediately makes a reference to vomiting, then spits. (Michael Landon appears to break character briefly and laugh at this.)
After supper, Pa fiddles while Edwards performs a rather elaborate dance, inviting the girls to join in. It actually looks quite fun. Of course, if it happened today, the kids would just politely decline and keep staring at their TikToks. Despite this lifting everybody’s spirits for the first time in a long damn while, Caroline frets about it for some reason. Lighten up, Ma!
And then, with a little fiddle intro by Pa, we get my favorite of this episode’s firsts: Mr. Edwards sings “Old Dan Tucker” for the very first time! His version here is a little different than the one he’ll sing later in the series, and both of them are a little different from any other version I’ve heard, but here’s Bruce Springsteen singing it:
(The song is a direct reference to the book, incidentally.)
Anyways, the day after the party, Ma is not happy. Rather, she’s pissed because she’s realized they’re in a shitty pit in the middle of a wasteland, with no access to schools or anything else that will help set the girls up for successful lives. Charles guesses her mood when he sees her furiously sweeping the floor and they don’t even have a floor yet. Weirdly, this tense moment just sort of defuses and they start giggling together . . . but you can’t deny Landon and Grassle have a great chemistry, even this early on.
“There’s another thing,” Caroline says . . . and who else thought she was going to say she was pregnant? But no, it’s just she’s concerned there’s no church nearby either. Charles gives a little smirk/shrug combo (shmurg? Shmrug? – no matter, Landon makes the rude gesture look charming). He says there’s no place closer to God than this shitty pit in the middle of a wasteland (paraphrase). Rather than question that logic, Caroline just continues grinning. Charles grins back, and the mystery of their good moods suddenly becomes clear, because oh my God they’re horny and finally alone! They mash their faces together, but have barely even touched when the girls and Jack burst back into the cabin and start squirreling about idiotically.
That night, pregnant Patty the pony is poorly (try that one five times fast). “What if she dies when she has her foal?” asks Mary. Wow, Mary was a doom-hag even before enduring the deluge of horrors this show would rain upon her. “You mustn’t even think such a thought!” says Ma sharply. “We couldn’t get along without the ponies!” An odd reaction – does she think Mary thinking/saying it will make it happen or something? Caroline then makes the first serve of the very long game of racist ping-pong this show will play with American Indians.
Charles (sensibly enough, it seems to me) suggests Caroline should wash their clothes down at the creek “like Indian women do” rather than have him lug tubs of water to the cabin every day.
CAROLINE: If I wanted to live like an Indian, I’d live in a tent.
CHARLES: I’d wager it’d be the cleanest tent in the territories.
LAURA: When will we see some Indians, Pa?
MARY: Never, I hope!
CAROLINE: My sentiments exactly. Don’t even mention Indians, I hope I never see one.
Now, already at this point it’s clear the show is setting up Caroline to learn a lesson about her bigotry, just like she will in her dealings with Mr. Edwards; however, the show, as we’ll see, will sometimes try to have it both ways on the race issue. Keep paying attention and we’ll see where the score winds up in the end.
Anyways, that night we hear wolves baying outside.
The next day, Mr. Edwards returns and entertains Laura with a story about an encounter with a bear. Caroline quips to herself that Mr. E.’s stink must have scared it away, then yells when she catches Laura trying to spit again. Boy, I’m glad this arch-villainess version of Caroline doesn’t stick around long, because it’s really hard to like her.
That night, Patty’s preparing to deliver. Caroline says it’s too late for Laura to stay up and watch, but Pa smacks her down (not literally of course), saying, “It’s a fine thing to see a new life come into the world.” (I saw a calf delivered at the Minnesota State Fair a few years back, and you know, it is kind of a kick in the pants! Oh, and well of course I guess I saw my kids born as well.) Unfortunately (?), the show doesn’t go full arm-up-a-beast’s-ass like its British contemporary All Creatures Great and Small, but just skips ahead to morning, with Laura smiling down at the newborn foal. Everybody seems cheered up by the new arrival.
Later, Pa preps to head off on a hunt (on Patty’s male counterpart Pat, presumably – in the book his name’s “Pet” but it does seem Laura’s saying “Pat” here), loading up his saddle while Laura holds his rifle. He dodges several questions about whether Ma hates Mr. E., and, when Laura says she wants to join him, says, “One of these days I’ll sweet-talk your ma into lettin’ you go hunting with me.” (At which faithful fans will think forward to Season 3’s “The Hunters” and begin screaming in horror.)
Some time later, Charles and Pat trot through the forest, accompanied by no music whatsoever, which as I suggested earlier really adds to the realism in my view. But terror music suddenly explodes on the soundtrack as a pack of wolves appears and gives chase. For my money, they’re not as scary as the feral hellhounds in Season 4’s “The Wolves,” but the sequence is well filmed and quite exciting. The wolves run like hell, and in the end Charles throws the complete contents of his game bag to distract them. (It’s kind of like the hobbits escaping from the Nazgul in The Fellowship of the Ring by throwing a bag of carrots for them to chase. More believable than that, I guess.)
So, a whole day’s hunt was wasted, but Pa escapes with his life, and he and Pat head home . . . across a landscape I notice is crisscrossed all over with wagon tracks. Seems funny, given it’s supposed to be such a terribly remote area and all. But whatever.
Anyways, Charles, feeling depressed, arrives home late. He falls asleep before Caroline can fetch him some supper, and she strokes his face gently. Michael Landon looks young too.
In the middle of the night, Laura wakes up and realizes Pa and Jack are missing. She leaves the cabin and finds the two of them sitting around a roaring fire. Pa’s got his gun – and the wolves are circling. Pa tells Laura the whole story about his hunting trip – one of a number of scenes showing the special relationship the two have. Laura says she assumed pas never get scared; he corrects her on this point, but they (sexistly) agree mas get scared worse.
The next day, Pa installs a fireplace, complete with a carved mantelpiece with his and Caroline’s initials and the date, which appears to be 1870. (Note: This is not the similar mantel that will appear over the fire in their Walnut Grove house.) As he departs for another hunting trip, he ties Jack to the fence, with a warning to the girls to leave him there . . . and literally seconds later, two Native men come jogging out of nowhere and walk right into the cabin. They will later be identified as Osages, who resided near Independence until they were driven from the region in 1870. They are credited as “First Indian” and “Second Indian.” (According to the IMDb, the actor playing “First Indian” is of Greek/Mexican heritage; the other actor’s ethnicity is unknown.)
Outside, Laura tries to release Jack; Mary screams “Pa said not to!” over and over again and shoves Laura to the ground. They then rush into the cabin, where “Second Indian” is reaching out to touch Ma’s hair. (Karen Grassle plays this moment well, as Caroline’s initial stiff anger degenerates into terror.) The intruders’ motives don’t seem to be sexual, though; when “First Indian” grabs a pillow off the bed and rips it open with his knife, Second joins him and the two laugh and throw feathers around the room. Caroline seizes Charles’s box of pipe tobacco from the mantel and hands it to First. He smirks and moves forward menacingly, so she shoves half a loaf of bread at him as well. This seems to satisfy him, and they both leave as suddenly as they came.
Elsewhere, Michael Landon is showing off his horse-riding abilities, charging Pat through a river. He arrives home, where Caroline and the girls greet him cheerfully, giving no indication whatsoever of the ordeal they experienced. Apparently, Ma has instructed the kids not to tell Pa about what happened, but of course Laura blabs immediately. Caroline is cool as a cucumber, saying it was no big deal. “Laura wanted to untie Jack when they came, but I didn’t let her!” is apparently Mary’s number-one takeaway of the experience. Charles surprises us by furiously chiding Laura for this – wouldn’t he have other questions first? What was the significance of tying up Jack in the first place? Caroline sends Laura outside and gives Charles an earful about speaking to her that way. I am the man and I will be obeyed! is essentially Charles’s response, but Caroline just rolls her eyes and turns away. Why doesn’t he want to hear the whole story from her? Am I missing something?
True to form, Charles follows Laura outside and immediately begins confiding things in her he won’t talk to his own wife about. The reason he wanted Jack tied, he says, is he’d seen Indians in the area and thought Jack might follow them if they came near. Seems an odd thing to fear, and besides, we already know Jack has nine lives and miraculous finding-his-way-home powers. (In the book, it’s clearer he’s afraid the Indians would kill Jack if he attacked them, and possibly Caroline and the girls as well.)
The next day, Charles finds a part-time job helping to drive cattle, saying he’ll be paid partly in beef. Caroline practically has an orgasm, because she hasn’t “had a piece of beef in ages!” (A naughty joke for the grownups? Because as we’ve seen, she really hasn’t.)
But when he returns, instead of a box of steaks he’s towing a cow and a calf. Both Pa and Ma seem kind of disappointed, though I think that would be an extremely good deal for such a valuable commodity. And in fact Caroline soon comes around when she remembers cows make milk and milk makes butter. Charles is a sweaty achy mess after the drive. “Pa’s a cowboy!” slurps Carrie.
Summer changes to fall, and Charles heads off to Independence for a week to mail some letters and the like. “Have a good trip,” Caroline says, again in a sing-song fake-British accent. (There’s just something about her rhythms. . . . Puts me in mind of Keanu Reeves’s “I say, is the cahstle fah?” acting in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
But maybe it’s fitting, since the goodbye scene has an air of European cinematic-ness about it, kind of a Dr. Zhivago-y-ness, with the wind blowing and Caroline’s hair done up in a red scarf.
While he’s gone, Caroline sits inside, spins, and looks gorgeous in a brown dress with her hair down. (According to the IMDb, to those in the know the wheel is clearly fake and Ma’s technique wrong.)
The three Ingalls ladies (er, four . . . sorry, Carrie) all seem to be very sad and bored without Pa. Is Charles Ingalls really the only spark that brings this family to life? I kind of wish Laura would pull a deck out of her apron in this scene and go, “So, how about a game of cards?”
Then, one windy day (the show often uses wind to foreshadow disaster), Caroline spots two Indians, on horseback this time. Even at a distance, they don’t appear to be First and Second. (I’m gonna pass on evaluating the accuracy of the Native designs and costumes here, since I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but I’ll just say they look like generic Hollywood “Indian” costumes to me. In the book, the Indians who visit the Ingallses are described as naked except for skunk-fur loincloths.)
Here’s a real Osage, apparently, pictured around 1870:
Caroline has a strange half-smiling look on her face for a second – it puzzled me – but then suddenly she runs in terror back to the cabin.
But then . . . nothing happens and it’s suddenly night? I guess so – Little House is a whiplash ride sometimes. And what a dark night it is! For what do we find but Ma at midnight, rocking and singing a hymn slowly and insanely like a serial killer, with a rifle on her lap. (The hymn is “There is a Happy Land,” apparently a reference authentic to the book:)
It’s a great Karen Grassle moment; we get to see she’s capable of an intensity of which the show wouldn’t take enough advantage, in my view.
The neighing of a horse is heard, and fortunately before Caroline has time to go shoot first the girls and then herself (you never know, she almost cut her own leg off once), the door opens and it’s Charles. She doesn’t shoot him either, thank God.
The next morning Charles is brushing rabbit pelts outside while he and Caroline factor the value of the fur into their family budget. With no warning whatsoever, the two horse-riding American Indians we saw earlier appear from around the corner of the cabin. Caroline starts having PTSD, but Charles whispers for her to cool it.
One of the Native men dismounts. He’s young, but we can tell he’s a big deal because he wears his hair up rather than down. He’s played by Victor Mohica, a handsome actor of Puerto Rican heritage who apparently was typecast in American Indian roles.
The other, credited as “Brave,” is played by a Singaporese actor using an Italian name, “Cal Bellini.” (Gee whiz, the contortions Hollywood forced minorities to perform in those days.)
Charles warily approaches the leader, who addresses him in French. Caroline, as the better educated of the two CIs, recognizes the language. (I took French in high school but never got beyond bistro-menu-ordering on the syllabus.) Charles invites him inside over Caroline’s protests. (We never saw her give Pa a full account of what happened with First and Second, and I’m a bit surprised she doesn’t mention these are different Indians from the ones who visited her. Perhaps she doesn’t realize they are?) Charles leads him in, touching him on the shoulder frequently, and invites him to take a chair.
The newcomer introduces himself as Soldat du Chene. (There was a real Osage chief called Soldat du Chene – pictured below – but he lived several decades earlier. Perhaps the one the Ingallses met was a descendent?)
Charles offers him his pipe right out of his mouth (without even wiping it off; a bit gross, but I guess that’s why they called it the Wild West). Pa guesses he’s Osage based on his language.
Fearless Laura asks him about some of his decorations; she is a cute kid in this scene.
To her surprise, S du C takes off a bear-claw necklace and gives it to her, saying in French it’s for good luck. (I gathered that much.) Then he suddenly departs.
“Thank goodness he’s gone,” says Caroline. Charles replies he thought he was “kind of nice.” “For an Indian,” Ma sniffs. What a hostess! Hope if I ever have dinner at Casa Della Ingalls I’m out of earshot before Caroline starts saying what she really thinks of me.
Charles then tells them how the federal government is continuing to drive Native people west. “I’m glad,” says Mary, who’s kind of a rotten puke in this story (among others). “I’m not,” says Laura, giving her a quick stink-eye. Laura’s quite upset by the injustice of the Indian Removal Act and leaves the cabin for some alone time. Caroline looks confused, like she’s considering the facts of the case for the first time. Charles just sort of shrugs and goes back to his pipe.
We suddenly switch to a wild turkey gobbling in a tree, and then, without a cut, Charles steps into the frame and shoots at it. Vegetarians, don’t get upset; I doubt the gun had real ammo, since he’s basically aiming straight at the camera.
Back home, Caroline is scrubbing the floor. (Crossover fans of Little House and Deadwood, and I know of a few, will smile and remember the many bloodstain-scrubbing scenes on the latter show:)
(Strong language warning, of course, for the preceding clip. Not for kids!)
Anyways, Laura is continuing her campaign against her mother and sister’s racism, to little avail, when Jack starts barking outside. She opens the door and whaddya know, it’s snowing – almost a full year must have passed since they left the Big Woods. Her thoughts turn to Christmas, which she notes Pa has invited Mr. Edwards to join them for this year; Caroline makes some more bitchy comments that I won’t bother quoting.
As if by magic, it suddenly becomes actual Christmastime, and Charles is glumly regarding the girls’ three stockings hung by the fire. It doesn’t take a fortune-teller to read his mind, since we’re as aware as he is that not only does he not have any money, the nearest store is God knows how far away in Independence, KS! Ma is revealed to be plucking a turkey (the same one? It’s not really clear if time passed or if it was Christmastime all along and nobody mentioned it till the snow started). Anyways, Caroline tells Charles not to worry about them not having any presents, reminding him the holiday is first and foremost a religious one. He gives her a warm “I love you, woman” look and steps out into the snow. (Honestly, even a mention of Jesus turns him on when it comes from her.) She sighs and goes back to her plucking. (My dad used to shoot game birds when I was a kid, and I can tell you it’s not a super-fun chore.)
Cut to this insane image: Mr. Edwards in long underwear, outdoors in the middle of a snowstorm, sliding down an embankment into a river. He’s carrying some parcels and a pair of snowshoes. He’s not wearing a hat or anything. Halfway across, he slips and falls in, but manages to keep his cargo high and dry. I’d give Victor French about a B for his “cold acting.”
At the cabin, the turkey is roasting over the fire. (It looks store-bought to me, but whatever.) Charles is holding Carrie in the foreground and pretending to talk to her, but you can tell Michael Landon’s just mouthing silently so we can hear the other actors’ dialogue. Suddenly the door opens, and who should appear but Yukon Cornelius!
Actually it’s Mr. Edwards, but you could argue they’re essentially the same character. He’s still in his red long-johns, and his beard is all frosted over with snow; of course Carrie slurps “Santa!” when she sees him. They sit him down to warm his buns before the fire and give him a cup of hot coffee. (If he explains why he’s still in his underwear, I missed it – maybe to keep his clothes dry when he crossed the river? Why did he come on foot? It isn’t really clear how far away his property is.)
French turns on the charm and spins the girls a tale about meeting Santa in a saloon in Independence. They eat it up, and the viewer smiles, thinking what a dull Christmas they’d have been in for if he hadn’t shown up and Caroline was left to run the proceedings. He gives the girls some tin cups and peppermints. (“We each got our own cups now!” says Laura, genuinely excited; what were they drinking out of till now?) Then he gives Ma some sweet potatoes, and to her credit she starts crying and thanks him very sincerely. You can tell she’s thinking back on her many horrific comments about him and is glad St. Nick wasn’t watching. Then it’s smiles all around, and Laura in a voiceover declares it the best Christmas ever. (Edwards also mentions he comes from Tennessee in this scene, for those of you who like to keep track of such things.)
Next thing you know it’s spring, and Charles is plowing the field to a rollicking “western” arrangement of the theme tune. Suddenly, a horrible sight stops him in his tracks: a wildfire! He raises the alarm and everyone starts dousing the cabin with water. Caroline takes Carrie to the creek and dumps her into it (poor kid). The barn catches fire and the animals start going berserk. (Fans of Canada’s Pioneer Quest may recall the infamous “dead pig” episode of that show and shudder.) Charles gets them out all right, but now the cabin has caught. Ma screams for him, really screams, and he leaps up onto the roof of the burning building. Fortunately, when it appears all hope is lost, it rains, instantly extinguishing the fire everywhere. Not sure it would happen that quickly, but hey, we’ve only got fifteen minutes left to the episode.
That night, they’re having dinner (it’s unclear what they’re eating – sweet-potato pie? Edwards didn’t bring that many. . . .) when they hear the sound of drums. Caroline says, “I knew it, the Indians started the fire to burn us out!” At least Mary comes by her doom-and-gloom attitude honestly. The drumming sound, clearly courtesy of the NBC Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section (a stock recording of real American Indian drumming would have been better), continues. Caroline, wild-eyed with terror, screams at Carrie when she starts imitating the drums.
The drumming apparently continues into the next day and night. Poor Carrie’s face is wet with tears; I know she can be a bit much, but I really hate to see her cry. Suddenly, the music stops, replaced by what sounds like the Riders of Rohan approaching.
Prepared for the worst, Charles grabs his rifle, and orders Laura and Mary into a corner (what an emergency plan!).
But when the door opens, holy crap, it’s their friend Soldat du Chene. Laura smiles up at him as if he’s . . . let’s see, what’s a 1974 celebrity reference that would work? Shaun Cassidy? Leif Garrett?
Anyways, S du C helpfully has brought along a translator this time. (Or maybe this is the “brave”? By my count we’ve seen five Native characters in this episode, but only four are listed in the credits. Then again, the translator stays hidden in the shadows through the entire scene, so maybe they just reused an actor and hoped nobody would notice.)
The mysterious translator tells them there’s been a great meeting of tribes at which S du C, as chief of the Osage, persuaded the other tribes not to massacre the white people but rather to go west; he knew to do otherwise would risk destruction at the hands of the U.S. government. Charles thanks him and shakes his hand. The chief looks down on Laura and repeats his earlier statement about the good-luck charm he gave her. Once again learning her lesson, Caroline thanks him too. “It’s over,” Charles says when they’ve departed.
Then follows a brief musical montage showing the Ingallses plowing, planting and weeding their crop, which appears to be corn. At the end of it, Carrie runs to the outhouse while Caroline watches and laughs her head off. This is the first in what will be an endless stream of privy jokes, most of them involving Willie Oleson.
Finally, Charles and Caroline stand together in the cornfield, embracing, smiling, and contemplating the long future they will share here in Kansas. But now comes the sting in the tail: Two white soldiers arrive, hand a paper to Charles, and leave. With a stunned look on his face, he approaches the family. “What is it?” Caroline asks. “We have to get out,” he says. “What?” Caroline says (and there’s no question she sounds British here; you can almost hear the teacup hitting the saucer when she says it). Charles explains that “the Kansas tribe” petitioned the federal government, who “drew a new line,” essentially evicting white settlers like them. He curses the “blasted politicians” (very strong language for Charles) and stomps off into a field for some alone time of his own.
So, with the help of Mr. Edwards, they pack up. Some things they have to leave behind; Charles tells Edwards he can keep the cattle, and the plow is simply too heavy to load. Caroline makes another very nice speech thanking Mr. Edwards too. Edwards shakes hands with Caroline and with Mary, then goes to say goodbye to Laura, who embraces him and tells him she’ll never forget him. The two cry together; it’s touching, but we know that in no time he’ll be reunited with the Ingallses, drinking, attempting suicide, adopting orangutans, and having all sorts of other wacky adventures in Walnut Grove. Victor French lays it on thick here, sobbing and snuffling through his plug of tobacky as he watches them drive away.
In a final voiceover, Laura gives us a second helping of the “fair land” stuff she said in the opening scenes. And off they go, as the credits roll over the “western” arrangement of the theme (not yet the closing theme they’ll have for the rest of the series – affectionately known in my house as “Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum.”) (The IMDb also notes that for a split second, you can see the feet of a crew member leading the horses in front of the Ingallses’ wagon.)
OBSERVATIONS: It seems unnecessarily nasty to make comments about little kids’ teeth, but wow, Melissa Gilbert’s are something else in these early seasons!
What they must do to child performers these days to make their teeth perfect – braces and whitenings starting at two, I suppose. Well, at any rate, her teeth are obviously historically accurate (both for the 1870s and the 1970s), even if they shock the modern viewer.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Although a precise date for the real-life Ingallses’ arrival in Kansas is unknown, it was likely in 1869, and they lived there about two years, longer than is implied by this episode. Moreover, Carrie was actually born there! Thanks very much to Pamela Smith Hill’s timeline at the official Little House on the Prairie website for the info.
BEHIND THE SCENES: While most fans are familiar with Blanche Hanalis’s name (since every episode credits her with developing the series for television), I was surprised to learn her only real involvement was writing the script for this episode. Apparently she and co-creator Ed Friendly wanted the show to conform closely to the story and style of the books, whereas Michael Landon wanted it to take it in a more “opportunistic” (read: crassly commercial) direction. Guess who won.
STYLE WATCH: The crocheted hats. Laura’s floral bonnet and dress combo.
The girls’ nice comfy quilt reminds me of the ones my own mom used to make. Then there’s Charles’s woolen trousers, plus his orange stripy shirt matches the wagon wheels!
Also, in some scenes he’s clearly not wearing underwear beneath his trousers (Landon’s preference for this “authenticity” is well-known to fans).
THE VERDICT: A fine start for a dramatic series – quite serious in tone and approach, with suspense and tense action throughout. Landon, Grassle and Gilbert are all immediately at home in their roles, even if Caroline is rather unpleasantly scripted. The American Indian storyline seems clumsy by today’s standards, but the intentions are good.
UP NEXT: A Harvest of Friends