She’s Heeeeeeeere. . . .
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: Country Girls
Airdate: September 18, 1974
Written by Juanita Bartlett
Directed by William F. Claxton
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Laura and Mary start school, where they’re mocked by cruel Nellie. Mrs. Oleson declares Egg Wars on Caroline. Laura learns to read in like three days.
RECAP: We open on Jack the dog drinking out of the creek to an easygoing seventies jazz flute piece. It’s really a standalone song, with a proper ending and everything.
[UPDATE: It has come to my attention that in this opening, Charles is shirtless and wearing his stripper suspenders, but when he comes back into the house in the first scene, a shirt has magically materialized over him.]
One name stands out from the credits: Juanita Bartlett, who wrote this one. I noticed it initially because of the Latina name, but from her bio it’s not clear if she actually had Latinx heritage or not. (Bartlett was apparently the surname she was born with.) Well, even if she didn’t, it sounds like she was a cool person. Rita Moreno described her as “a lady who really knows how to write for ladies,” later strengthening that statement with “at a time when nobody gave a shit.”
One thing is clear, though, she was not the fictional Juanita Bartlett from the early 2000s indie movie/TV phenomenon Sordid Lives (which I somehow managed to miss). Some people online seem to have conflated the two.
In the Little House, Ma is cooking and trying to keep Carrie off the ladder again. “Mary, Laura, come to breakfast!” she calls out Britishly (we didn’t have to wait long this time). Her accent wavers through this entire scene; I actually think Karen Grassle seems a little stoned here, but there’s no way to tell for sure, of course.
Upstairs, Mary is brushing her hair while Laura hides under the covers because she doesn’t want to go to school. Pa comes in with his bucket of milk while Ma is dumping something beige out of a skillet.
(“Is that scrambled eggs?” my wife Dagny asked. “Nah, must be popcorn,” I said, thinking of the many late-night popcorn rendezvous Charles and Caroline will share on this show. But in the end we agreed it was probably oatmeal.)
When Charles hears Laura doesn’t want to go to school, he climbs up to talk to her. His hair is really shiny blue-black here.
Charles responds to Laura’s anxiety by throwing Caroline under the bus, saying the only reason he’s sending them to school is because he promised Ma. That’s nice, isn’t it? Laura finally agrees to go, climbing out of bed and frightening the censors with how high her nightgown rides up.
Once dressed, the girls line up for fingernail inspection. “Ma, you think they’ll like us?” asks Mary. “I think they’ll like Laura,” Ma says. Just kidding – if only! Obviously having read last week’s recap, Caroline notes the girls’ dresses are getting a little short. Laura asks, “How long is all this learning gonna take?” and Ma says, “We start learning when we’re born, Laura, and if we’re wise, we don’t stop until the Lord calls us home.” On that cheery note of death, she summons the girls to her bedside and produced a box from hiding. “Popcorn stash,” said Dagny, but no, it’s Caroline’s old schoolbooks from her teaching days. Do you think she ever regrets giving up her job to follow this madman around the Midwest?
The girls finally head out, with Laura hugging Ma, Pa and Carrie in turn. “A lot of goodbyes from somebody who’s going to be home for supper,” says Charles, but then he missed Caroline’s learn-till-you’re-dead speech.
On the way into town, they pass Walnut Grove denizens including Mustache Man, who’s shoeing a horse, and Nels, who’s sweeping the Mercantile porch. They approach the school, in front of which a huge number of kids are playing. Everyone stops and stares at them. And for all her professed nervousness, Laura surprises us by insulting her new schoolmates at once, smirking and declaring they sound like a bunch of prairie chickens.
A hideous red-haired child emerges suddenly from the group and starts screaming, “Snipes yourselves, long-legged snipes!” He takes control of the crowd and soon they’re all shouting, “Snipes! Snipes! Long-legged snipes!” This scene is right out of the book, incidentally.
There is a bird called a snipe, so maybe the kid is simply fighting bird metaphor with bird metaphor, but it seems more likely he’s using it in its slang sense of “fool” or “blockhead.” (“Long-legged just means their skirts are too short,” said Dagny.)
This horrible creature (the redheaded kid, not the snipe) is briefly challenged by his sister Christy, but he tells her where to get off. Seriously, he’s a pretty repulsive customer.
The bell rings, and the kids all start rushing indoors. Before they follow, Laura and Mary are given the up-down by a pretty, unsmiling girl dressed in ribbons and lace, with blond ringlets and a terrifying air of authority. Yes, it’s Nellie Oleson! She considers them coldly for a moment, then delivers her verdict in a clipped voice: “Country girls.”
It’s a pretty horrible start to their school experience, but they eventually make it into the schoolroom, where the thin, somewhat weary-looking teacher, introducing herself as Miss Beadle, invites them to the front of the room.
“You must be the new girls from Plum Creek, aren’t you?” she says ungrammatically. (It’s not clear to me if Plum Creek is its own municipality or what. Isn’t Plum Creek the river that runs through town? In real life there is no river that runs through Walnut Grove, Minnesota, so that’s no help.)
Laura sort of looks like she has chewing tobacco or something in her mouth as they walk down the aisle; a relic of Mr. Edwards?
The other students all gawk at the Ingalls sisters; it’s a pretty scaly-looking crew even if you ignore Nellie and the red-haired monster.
Speaking of Nellie, she hasn’t let up either, staring down the newcomers with eyes as hard and cold as a rattlesnake’s.
Miss Beadle commences the entrance interview, asking about their education levels. Mary tells her they’ve never been to school, but notes she can read. Laura whispers that she can’t read yet, but knows her letters.
Now, why is it Mary can read but Laura can’t? We discussed this question at some length in my house. I suppose if you go by the Ingallses’ real-life timeline it makes more sense, since they were on the road for years between their original departure from Wisconsin and ultimate arrival in Walnut Grove. But in the world of Little House the TV show, that journey seems to have taken a year, two at most. (The characters’ ages aren’t given, but at the time of filming Melissa Gilbert would have been ten, Melissa Sue Anderson eleven, and the Greenbush twins four. Alison Arngrim was twelve.)
Plus, Mary says neither of them have ever attended school, so it can’t be that she went to school back in Wisconsin. This means Caroline must have taught her at home and/or on the road. Why wouldn’t she have done the same for Laura? As a former teacher herself, you’d think she’d make it a priority; in fact, lack of access to a school was one reason she hated Kansas. In real life, Caroline likely quit teaching when she married Charles (she would have been nineteen at the time), but that doesn’t explain why she taught one school-aged daughter to read but not the other. (“She must be easily bored,” said Dagny. “Probably that was true at her school too and they sacked her.”)
Anyways, Miss Beadle formally welcomes them to the class. The mean, lunkheaded kids just mutter under their breaths, so Beadle forces them to loudly greet the girls in unison. (Nellie refuses.) Seems like a pretty awful classroom dynamic.
In this scene, we also get our first good look at Willie Oleson in the front row, who looks like he’s about three and a half years old.
Miss Beadle asks them where their slates are, but they haven’t got any. “Country girls,” Nellie says again from the gallery, earning a look of hatred from the Bead.
Class commences, and soon Willie is doing math problems at the blackboard. “Ma’am,” asks Laura, “how’s he ever going to get all those numbers off again?” and the kids go off in gales of laughter. Miss Beadle, who has had enough fucking around by this point, smacks the desk with her ruler and yells “Silence!” The kids shut up, but keep smirking. Beadle sure seems like she hates her job in this scene. No wonder she’ll try to murder everyone in a couple years.
Willie erases the board, which astonishes Laura; Nellie says “country girls” once again, and truthfully it’s starting to get a little repetitive. Come on, Nellie, you can do better than that. Well, maybe it’s good enough; certainly Miss Beadle takes the bait. She hisses Nellie’s name and looks about to lose it.
That night after supper, Charles smokes a pipe and helps Laura with her reading. She spells cat, bat, mat, pat and rat, which is pretty good for a kid who professes not to read at all. Then she surprises us by telling Pa she loves school. Things must have improved as the day wore on, because what we just saw of it resembled a prison just before the riot starts.
Apparently Miss Beadle made a strong impression on Laura, right down to her scent, which Laura found out is called lemon verbena.
“She’s the most beautiful lady I ever saw!” says Laura – “except for Ma of course.” “She must be something special to be even close to your ma,” says Charles. (Caroline was the clear favorite in a straw poll of my household on this question.)
Speaking of Ma, while this conversation is going on, she and Mary are winding up some yarn. (Dags, a talented crochet-er, said, “That is very thick yarn! What on earth are they going to do with that?”)
Then the conversation turns to Nellie. Laura says she’s a nasty piece of work who shamed them for being country. Pa and Ma present a unified front as members of the Remember the Golden Rule League. They actually lecture the poor kid about it, which is a bit unfair since she hasn’t really done anything, just said she didn’t like Nellie. But then Pa softens and gives them what appears to be a dime (it’s been the same size since the early Nineteenth Century).
The dime is for school supplies. It’s worth $2 in today’s money, and Charles seems to think that’s ample for a slate and a notebook. I guess we’ll see about that. I’ve heard the lady who sets the prices at the Mercantile is quite the horse-trader.
Then he tells them to go to bed “quicker’n I can say . . .” and the girls join him on “Jack Robinson!” It’s kind of a cute moment and a nice period touch.
“It’s hard to believe that’s the same little girl we couldn’t get out of bed this morning,” Charles says when they’ve gone up. It is a little, but hey, Michael Landon, it’s TV. Then he starts on about if you think Nellie’s bad, you should meet the mother, and one thing I do love about Charles and Caroline is how they’re always gossiping and chit-chatting whenever they’re alone together at any time of day. They’re the real deal as a couple. It’s kind of the opposite of the Strong Silent Man and Silent Obedient Woman images we have of the pioneers, and that’s one thing that makes Little House special.
On the other hand, now we get to what I’d say is fair to describe as an unpleasant thread in Little House history. “H – A – T, hat!” Laura shouts down, indicating her nightcap. “B – E – D, bed!” Charles replies.
And then it happens: Laura gets ready for bed, and Mary puffs her cheeks out and goes, “Fat, F-A-T, fat!” The girls laugh uproariously, and a “humorous” guitar and flute in the orchestra tootle in to chase us to the commercial break.
I’m not going to say much about it at this early juncture, but there are going to be a lot of fat jokes on this show. This is the first of ’em. We’ll keep track.
Now we get another scene out of the book. The next morning, Laura and Mary stop in to the Mercantile before school. Nels doesn’t have his tie on yet. I think whenever he doesn’t, he looks like he’s given up on life and should be watched for suicidal ideation.
Laura asks Mary if she brought the money, and Mary replies Ma pinned it to her dress. Pinned it? How do you pin a coin to cloth? Is this something I don’t know about?
Suddenly Nellie and Willie come clomping downstairs; when Willie sees the Ingalls girls, he starts screaming “Snipes! Snipes! Snipes! Snipes!” You know, in my opinion Jonathan Gilbert never gave a performance that wasn’t funny, and it all begins here. He and his sister immediately raid the candy jars, ignoring their father’s weak splutters. Nellie even brags about their access to candy: “It’s all ours, anyway!” (Alison Arngrim doesn’t throw her head back, yell “Ours, ours, ours!” and laugh like Divine in a John Waters movie, but you can feel the gloat nevertheless. And I remember from my kids’ elementary-school days that access to candy does indeed equal power.)
Mary gets out her dime to pay for the slate and tablet – oh, I see, it was wrapped up in a hankie and the hankie was pinned to the dress. The dime does cover it, but sales is Nels’s line, and he’s quick to point out they also need a scratcher or some such accessory to go with the slate. This costs a penny (20 cents today).
“I don’t think the country girls have another penny,” says Nellie – okay, that’s four times now, and the whole country girls thing is getting a little old. Hilariously, she then asks Willie for his opinion on the matter. Nels starts ineffectually yelling at them again, and they just kind of laugh at him pityingly and depart. You know, it’s easy to criticize Nels as a milquetoast of a father and husband, but I found myself in similar position with my kids at times over the years and handled it just as wimpily. Milquetoast solidarity, Nels!
Weirdly, Nels doesn’t apologize to the Ingalls girls for his kids’ rudeness, though he may be like those people who pretend their kids don’t exist the minute they’re no longer in view. Nels says you go ahead and take the scratcher, he and Charles will settle up down the road. To his credit, he doesn’t even look to see if his wife is around to prevent this deal, but I guess we are just talking about a penny. Still, if she suddenly swooped in I bet he’d jump three feet.
“No, sir,” Laura says firmly. “Cash on the barrel. Pa makes that a strict rule.” Wow, Charles started indoctrinating them young.
“Strict rule!” Nels says. “After he came in here begging to finance a plow, a harrow and seed!” No, of course Nels doesn’t say that. He shrugs and keeps Charles’s secret. I’m sure he feels the poor kids have been through enough after seeing their father publicly humiliated at the Feed & Seed.
Rather than head directly to school, the girls sit on the Mercantile steps and have a weird little conversation that starts out recapping basic plot points (We hate Nellie, e.g.) and ends with them deciding to use the pennies they got as Christmas presents to pay for the scratcher. (Now, though I didn’t mention it in my recap, in the TV movie pilot, the girls each got a penny in their Christmas stockings, so does this mean it’s definitely 1871 now? Not necessarily, I suppose, since they might get pennies every year.)
Cut to Laura at the blackboard doing multiplication problems. Now, wait just a second here. We’re supposed to believe Laura can’t read beyond C-A-T but she knows 5 times 7 is 35? Have many months passed or something? (“Maybe Caroline had her majoring in math,” Dagny said.)
Then we see her and Miss Beadle reading from a book called Dicky Bird Land. We know from the pilot they’re the kids’ favorite birds, so this must be the source of their dicky fervor. It’s a real book, too, by the German-Anglo children’s book creator Ernest Nister, though its use here is anachronistic (it was probably published between 1900 and 1906). (Also, while “dicky bird” refers to the dickcissel, I would point out the cover of Dicky Bird Land depicts not that bird but rather the common kingfisher. WTF, Ernest Nister?)
Anyways, Laura still can’t get past the three-letter words in Dicky Bird Land. She guesses like is “licky” – ha! I actually think Melissa Gilbert is really pretty good here, but they probably should have put this bit before the advanced multiplication scene in their The Education of Laura Ingalls Wilder montage.
Cut to Laura outside, apparently being tutored by Jack in front of a waterfall. Everybody playing the first-season drinking game does a shot when Voiceover Laura says “If I had a remembrance book, there’s one thing I’d want to put in it about school,” viz., that it’s fun, but writing is hard. That’s actually two things, Math Genius.
Laura’s voiceover continues as the scene changes to the schoolyard. Voiceover Laura complains Nellie the Schoolyard Queen has the student body in such a grip, all they ever do at recess is play “Ring Around the Rosie,” Nellie’s favorite game. “Can’t we play something else?” Non-Voiceover Laura asks, though in a sound-department error her voice still has the echoey voiceover effect.
There is an old urban legend that the “Ring Around the Rosie” chant is a coded reference to the Fourteenth-Century Black Plague in Europe, but that’s been debunked. In fact, the first appearance of the rhyme in print didn’t come till the 1880s, but one source from 1884 does suggest it had been around about 100 years at that point.
Anyways, Laura remembers the Golden Rule and declines to tell Nellie to go stuff it. This time.
New plot thread: Egg Wars! We cut to the Mercantile, where Nels is selling something for 60 cents ($12) to a quite lovely little old lady named Mrs. Grandy. “Give my best to Eli,” he says to her as she departs.
Enter Caroline, who introduces herself to Nels and says she’s here to sell some eggs. “I do the buying,” comes the deep sinister voice of Mrs. Oleson out of nowhere. She shimmers into the room with a smirk. She’s wearing a green dress (a flattering color on Katherine MacGregor) and in an interesting touch is putting an earring in.
WILL: Is Mrs. Oleson a late riser?
DAGNY: No, I’m sure she spends her whole morning doing Nellie’s hair before school.
Nels introduces Caroline to Harriet with a rather hopeless expression on his face and moves off to cut the cheese. Literally, that is.
Mrs. Oleson lays it on pretty thick with Caroline. She interrupts her, ignores her when asked if her kids liked Laura and Mary, and recoils in theatrical shock when she discovers the eggs Caroline’s come to sell are brown. She appears to be one of that strange breed of people who have no interest in making others like them. But I suppose her monopoly on boughten goods means she can torture customers all she wants with no fear of losing them.
Caroline is taken aback that Mrs. Oleson doesn’t like her brown eggs. “They don’t bring as much as white,” explains Mrs. O. Caroline protests that “seven of them are double-yolks!” Mrs. Oleson is firm, saying “Brown eggs get four cents less a dozen.” Reluctantly, Caroline agrees . . . and at the cheese-chopper Nels makes a furious face and slams the chopper down.
Okay. Let’s unpack this exchange. Mrs. Oleson claims she can’t sell brown eggs for as much as white. This seems dubious, since today brown eggs sold in supermarkets cost more than white. I couldn’t find anything about historical brown vs. white egg-pricing, though I did learn brown eggs, despite their high cost, today actually outsell white eggs in New England. In 2006, NPR ran an interview with the author of a book about eggs in which the author says white chickens lay white eggs and brown chickens brown. I actually think I heard it at the time; at any rate, this is the understanding I had in my head, one way or the other.
But this claim has since been debunked. While there is apparently a correlation between feather and egg color, chickens that lay the “wrong” color egg are not unknown, and the real reason for colored eggs is simply genetics. Chickens that lay brown eggs have just developed that trait through generations of breeding. The same is true for white-laying chickens, only with them, the egg skips the pigment-adding phase of its development. As far as cost goes, adding color is an additional drain on the body’s resources, so chickens producing brown eggs require more feed than other kinds – hence the additional expense at the market. Pretty simple.
Now, on to the matter of double-yolks. Caroline doesn’t mention how many total eggs she’s brought, but she does point out there are seven double-yolks amongst them. How does she know? Because she’s candled them – literally, she’s held a candle up to look at the inside of the egg before bringing them to sell. Why? Well, candling is first and foremost a way to tell if the egg has been fertilized – a fertilized egg is a “winner,” meaning an egg that will produce a baby chick, whereas a nonfertilized egg is a “yolker,” in other words an egg for eating. (A fertilized egg that for whatever reason doesn’t develop properly is a “quitter,” and will go rotten if not discarded.)
During the candling process, Caroline also would be able to see if there were any small cracks, blood in the eggs . . . or extra yolks. Double-yolk eggs are quite rare – most of the sources I looked at estimated they occur in one out of every thousand eggs – so for Caroline to find seven is pretty remarkable. (On the other hand, Doc Baker only gave them three or four chickens, so this surely isn’t a single day’s laying – it’s probably a week’s worth. If one of the Ingalls chickens has the right biological “formula” to produce a double-yolker every day – age and size are factors – it would be possible.)
Finally, Caroline seems to think double-yolk eggs should be more attractive to the buyer. I’m not sure why – though today some specialty food stores do offer them at a high price, the nutritional content of a double-yolk egg is the same as a single. Maybe she believes the various superstitions about them – that they bring good luck or fertility to people?
The idea that they’re a lucky charm is a Neopagan one, so that one’s unlikely.
Then again, ancient Norse mythology says a double-yolk egg means a member of one’s family will soon die. Given the density of Scandinavian immigrants in Minnesota’s population at the time, maybe this is information Caroline should keep to herself.
Why Mrs. Oleson would try to cheat a new supplier is another matter . . . but as we shall see, the Olesons are probably the wealthiest family in town, and they clearly didn’t get that way by accident.
Now we get a Ma and Pa scene that’s cute or annoying, depending on your point of view. That evening, Charles lights up – he’s hitting the pipe pretty hard in this story – and Caroline rocks the shit out of her chair while doing needlepoint or some such. Charles says “Pretty quiet tonight,” which Caroline interprets to be a comment about the girls. “I was talking about you,” he says.
Caroline, you see, is still steaming mad about the egg battle with Mrs. Oleson. She keeps falling silent, then suddenly barking out angry comments like “If Nellie’s anything like her mother I can see why Laura’s been so upset,” and “She told me brown eggs bring less than white!” (I’m exactly the same way. I got into an argument with some drunks at the Minnesota State Fair two years ago and I still get worked up and start ranting when I think about it.)
She tells him the whole story, adding that later she overheard Mrs. O selling her brown eggs for egg-zactly the same price as white, a ha ha ha ha ha! (Sorry, that’s the way I’m choosing to hear it.) Charles says don’t worry, he’ll speak to Nels and the men will settle things like, well, men. (“He’s kind of dismissive here,” I said. “He’s always dismissive!” said Dags. “Kind of! He’s constantly dismissing her.”)
“No!” says Caroline. “If you do that, she won’t buy any eggs. . . . I’ll handle it.” “You want to fight your own battles, huh?” says Smirky Charles, clearly finding it a preposterous idea. “This one,” says Caroline; “and Charles, I intend to win!”
He gives her a kiss, but then adds, with a twinkle in his eye, “Just remember, do unto others.” And then Caroline gives him her best “Time spent being angry with you is such a waste” worshipful smile. I’m sorry to say, that’s just typical of this show: male superiority with smiles all round. Little House on the Prairie, putting the Pa in patriarchy.
We cut to a funny shot of the schoolyard girls playing “Ring Around the Rosie” again while Laura stands by staring at them furiously.
In a direct reference to On the Banks of Plum Creek, she then starts loudly singing “Uncle John is Sick Abed,” which breaks up the game. Apparently this is a real song, but one that wasn’t first published until 1916. (Remember, the books weren’t published until the 1930s, so it may be Real-Life Laura’s memory was a little rusty by then.) The lyric is sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” but (somewhat weirdly) Melissa Gilbert sings it to the “B” section of the “Yankee Doodle” tune (“Yankee Doodle, keep it up!/Yankee Doodle dandy!”) rather than the main melody, which apparently was the correct way to do it. (“Uncle John” apparently has some similarities to another folk song called “Cockabendy” – presumably the boys of Walnut Grove are playing that one, ah ha ha.)
Anyways, here are the lyrics Real-Life Laura gives in the book:
Uncle John is sick abed.
What shall we send him?
A piece of pie, a piece of cake,
Apple and dumpling!
What shall we send it in?
A golden saucer.
Who shall we send it by?
The governor’s daughter.
If the governor’s daughter ain’t at home,
Who shall we send it by?
[INSERT CHILD’S NAME]
TV Laura doesn’t get that far, though, because after “A piece of pie, a piece of cake,” Nellie shouts “You stop it, Laura Ingalls!” and shoves her to the ground. Laura bounces right back up and tries to continue, but Nellie shoves her down again. When this happens a third time, Laura knocks Nellie on her ass and yells, “You wanna fight? I’ll fight! You wanna play, we’re playing UNCLE JOHN!” The shot heard round the world, folks.
That night, Laura confesses all to a sternly standing Charles and Caroline. Charles, who goes so far as to say he thinks she did the right thing, makes her promise not to do it again and lets her off with that. Caroline gives him a doubtful look but doesn’t interfere. Laura says she won’t have to do it again, since “Nellie’s scared of me now,” and heads off to bed.
“Charles, you were much too easy on her,” says Caroline. “She’s not the least bit sorry for what she did.” “You heard what the child said, it was Nellie’s fault,” he replies. (“Charles would never have made a teacher,” said Dagny.) “The Bible says turn the other cheek,” Caroline says. “Well, I think that’s sometimes easier said than done, or we’d all be wearing halos instead of homespun.” He doesn’t yell “Hyah!” to indicate that’s the final word on the matter, but he might as well.
Then he starts to fake-play his fiddle sweetly and sentimentally. At the tune, Caroline suddenly turns around and laughs, “You’re as bad as she is!” But I don’t recognize it, and Soundhound was no help this time, so the joke is lost on me. Anyways, the orchestra slowly comes up under the violin solo, and it is quite lovely.
Now comes another skirmish in the Egg Wars. Caroline enters the Mercantile, where she’s pleasantly greeted by Nels. Mrs. Oleson rises, witch-like, from where she was concealed under the check-out counter. She wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter, saying, “I expect you’re here to apologize for what happened yesterday at the school.” “I’m here to sell eggs, Mrs. Oleson,” says Caroline. They stab at each other a bit before getting down to business.
Mrs. Oleson is surprised to see Caroline has brought no brown eggs today. Caroline tells her she’s already sold them to “the men at Hanson’s mill” for a better price. (I can’t really picture how this came about, but whatever.) “That’s gratitude,” says Mrs. O. “No,” says Caroline, gritting her teeth, “that’s good business.” “Maybe they’ll buy your white eggs as well,” says Mrs. O. Caroline says she expects they will and wishes her a good day.
Then Mrs. Oleson suddenly relents and says she’ll pay full price for Caroline’s eggs, whatever the color, while Nels smiles in the background. Why does she? It’s a mystery. Are eggs such a rare commodity in Walnut Grove? Doubtful, considering chickens are apparently the people’s currency there.
But whatever, the battle seems to be over. Only then Caroline stops to look at some blue fabric; Harriet immediately says it’s far too fancy for common folk like the Ingallses, and tries steering her towards what looks like burlap instead.
Caroline basically says get bent, and this time Mrs. O huffs off for good. Nels kind of creepily sells Caroline the cloth; he seems to be fantasizing about what she’ll look like in it.
When she gets it home, Laura tries to touch it and Mary hilariously slaps her hand. Caroline is suffering buyer’s remorse, realizing she was probably manipulated by the crafty Mrs. Oleson into spending a ton of dough. But she get support from the whole family, including Charles, but we know he’s kind of a dope about money himself. Caroline shakes her head and says, “Pride goeth before a fall” – a misquote of scripture, but a common enough one. She says she’s going to return the cloth.
“Caroline,” says Charles, “why do you think the good Lord went to all that trouble of making you so pretty if he didn’t want you to have a new blue dress?” Not the most logical of statements, but then Charles is a regular Peter Cetera when it comes to telling the ladies what they want to hear. The girls chime in with their agreement, and Caroline cries and hugs them all with gratitude.
Cut to a shot of Caroline and all three girls climbing a hill with the Little House in the distance behind them. Okay, I haven’t mentioned the mountains yet, but anyone who’s ever visited our part of the country knows we don’t have this kind of terrain.
(“It looks like New Zealand in Lord of the Rings,” I said. “Yeah,” said Dagny, “you can almost see the fires burning on the mountaintop.”)
Voiceover Laura tells us Caroline’s egg compulsion has her gathering them two or three times a week at this point. We then see Laura at school struggling to learn to write, all the while doing bizarre things with her mouth.
That night, she and Mary run home excitedly, while the orchestra echoes the overture to The Nutcracker for some reason. They announce their school is having a visitors’ day, with each child to write and read an essay before the assembly. “You can wear your new blue dress, Ma,” says Laura. “You better get started on that, it’s the end of this week!”
The girls rush to the house, but Laura (hilariously) pauses to shout, “And wait till you smell Miss Beadle’s lemon verbena!”
That night the family gathers, with Caroline sewing her dress and the girls working on their essays. “You know what I wrote about?” Mary asks. “About Pa building the little house on the prairie, and the wolves and the Indians, and having to move on, and how we came to Plum Creek.”
“Hey, I’m the one with the fuckin’ remembrance book!” shouts Laura. No, of course she doesn’t. But I would note Mary’s description makes us sadly remember that the true “Little House on the Prairie,” both in the books and the show, is the Kansas house, not the Walnut Grove one. I hope the kind readers of this blog with pardon me if I continue to misapply that term to the second House That Charles Built.
Laura is embarrassed because she’s struggled to write her essay, and when asked says its theme is a surprise.
Then we get a nice Ma and Laura scene. You know, it may be just my impression, but I think Caroline has more frequent emotional scenes with Mary than with Laura, and I always feel they have a closer bond. Certainly they look more alike.
But here she and Laura bond, and there’s no real need to recap it in detail, but it’s nice. Laura admits she’s struggling with the assignment, and says she’s afraid to present in front of the class, and Ma comforts her. That’s about it, and it’s lovely.
Cut to Charles asleep at night, his face in the brightest freakin’ moonbeam you ever saw. Seriously, how could you ever sleep with a light like that on your face?
Notably, he’s in bed alone. He wakes up, and calls for Caroline. She comes in, but not before a creepy shape in the shadows makes us think there’s a freaking murderer hiding in the house.
Caroline comes in, and . . . her hair looks weird, doesn’t it? Is that a wig?
Well, no matter. She starts out by apologizing kind of voluminously for waking him (“Of course,” said Dagny), then says she’ll come to bed as soon as she finishes a project.
The next morning, something really exciting happens. WE SEE THE FOURTH WALL!
It’s Visitors’ Day, and everyone except Caroline is in the . . . common room getting ready for the day. Suddenly Caroline appears – holding two new dresses made from the fancy cloth, one for Laura and one for Mary. The girls are astonished; “We wouldn’t have minded wearing our calicoes,” says Mary hilariously.
“You’re quite a woman, Ma,” says Charles, giving her the we-are-gonna-do-it-for-sure-tonight eyes.
Then Carrie slurps, “I want a new dress for my dollee.” Pa laughs and says, “You’ll get one, sweetheart.” I love when you can tell Carrie is making Michael Landon laugh for real, it happens a few times.
Cut to a standing-room-only packed schoolroom. All the parents in town are there. I never understand how this room can be as equally full on a schoolday, when only the town’s children are there, as on Sunday, when everyone is.)
Willie, of all people, is reading his essay at the front of the room. It’s about horses, and he’s dressed like Edgar Allan Poe.
Mustache Man is in attendance, and Caroline is sitting next to Mrs. Foster, the Post-Office Lady, who makes her first appearance here. (Actually I looked it up, she was also in the previous two episodes – in fact she played a different character in the pilot – but I think this is the first good look we get of her. Her name was actually Foster in real life, too!)
Next up is Nellie, who delivers an excruciating humblebrag speech about what it’s like to live in the nicest house in town and have tons of expensive things. But while she’s talking, the hideous redhead from the “Snipes!” scene starts waving his hand to get Miss Beadle’s attention. Long story short, he has to go to the bathroom. It’s not super-funny and it goes on a long time, but I suppose they had to do something to distract us from Nellie’s speech, which is obnoxious enough to make the audience hang ourselves, or at least change the channel.
She follows up all this bragging with a comment about how Nels says it’s rude to brag; in the gallery he hangs his head in shame. Poor Nels.
Now Laura comes slowly to the podium. Her speech is so beautiful I’ll simply transcribe it here:
My sister Mary is going to tell you how Pa brought us west, and how hard he worked, and I don’t mean to take anything from him by telling you, Ma worked plenty hard herself. Still does! She cooks and sews and cleans, and takes care of the lot of us, Pa included. I remember once when I was little, coming up with a fever. Ma sat up next to me all night long. I slept some, but she, never. Anytime I’d open my eyes, she’d be there, smiling, putting a cold cloth to my head. Now with me and Mary sprouting up, which is what Ma calls it, if there’s the least littlest noise in the night, Ma would come climbing up the ladder into the loft to make sure we’re all right. I reckon there’s times she gets bone-tired, but you’d never know it. Her smile’s the last thing I see before I close my eyes at night, and the first thing I want to see in the morning. She’s been selling eggs to the Mercantile and saved enough to buy yard goods to make herself a new dress. This morning, Mary and me found out she made dresses for the two of us instead. That’s because she loves us. That’s the kind of mother Ma is, and that’s why we love her so much.
Juanita Bartlett, knocking it out of the park! Even Carrie’s dolly claps.
In the audience, Caroline is dabbing her eyes, while Harriet is unimpressed. (“She should throw an egg at her,” said Dagny.) Outside afterwards, Nels essentially tells Charles how envious he is of Charles’s nice wife and kids. Then Mary asks for a review of her essay. “You made me out to be a bit of a hero,” says Charles, “but I guess I can’t fault you for that.” (“Oh Gawd,” said Dags.)
Caroline, meanwhile, has tracked down Laura. Ma’s hip to her jive. “What you said today was beautiful,” she says, “and I’ll treasure it as long as I live . . . but it wasn’t what you had written down on the paper, was it?” Laura confesses that her performance was more in the Extemporaneous Speaking category. Caroline stands there grimly until Laura reaches the obvious conclusion: She must return and tell Miss Beadle all.
“I can’t believe she makes her confess,” I said to Dagny. “It’s 1870s one-room school, for heaven’s sakes.” “It’s consistent with Ma’s character,” she said. “She’s a hardass.”
Miss Beadle is all smiles, and compliments Laura on her speech. No one mentions the lemon verbena. Ma prods Laura to hand over the paper she pretended to read from, which has a few rudimentary phrases scribbled on it. Miss Beadle surprises Caroline by not giving a shit in the least about Laura’s deception. You half-expect Caroline the former schoolmarm to say, “What kind of teacher are you?” but I guess she’s had a stressful enough week because she just lets it go.
And we close on the Ingalls family walking home, with Voiceover Laura telling us Ma kept the essays in a special box or something, and blah blah blah. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
HISTORICAL NOTE: “Wouldn’t Miss Beadle have them reading out of the Bible?” said Dagny. You might think so, but according to this article the Bible was more or less phasing out of the U.S. public education system by the middle of the Nineteenth Century.
STYLE WATCH: The Oleson ladies’ outfits, surely they envy of all the town.
THE VERDICT: Best one so far. All the subplots are equally engaging, the Olesons are well-used, and the Laura/Nellie rivalry kicks off to a hell of a start. Grassle and Gilbert give great performances.
UP NEXT: 100 Mile Walk