Mother’s Milk . . . or Murder?
or, You Couldn’t Wear a Floppy Bonnet in a Serious Situation Like This
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: The Lord is My Shepherd [Part 1]
Airdate: December 18, 1974
Written and directed by Michael Landon
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Ma has a baby boy, but Laura prays for him to die, so Doc Baker kills him. With special guest star Dr. William Worrall Mayo, the fruit of whose loins was the Mayo Clinic.
RECAP: Arguably the best-known story of Season 1, this is one of The Big Classics. IMDb TV presents the two parts edited into a single “omnibus” movie, but I’m going to recap them individually. I’ll save my verdict for the second part, though.
Before we began, my stepson Roman informed me July 1st was the thirtieth anniversary of Michael Landon’s death.
A sad date for any Little House fan. But surely he would rather we watch the show and have fun than feel sad about anything, so let’s get to the story. There’s a lot of ground to cover this week.
Oh, one more thing: Given its tragic nature, I asked my family TO REFRAIN FROM MAKING JOKES OF ANY KIND DURING THIS EPISODE. We’ll see how that goes.
As we open, a bird lands on a nest full of eggs. “Oh, does one of the babies fall out and die?” said my wife Dagny.
At the Little House, Charles pops through the door and demands lunch. He tells Caroline he’s carving a cupboard for a “Mrs. Johnson” (Johnny’s aunt?).
Like me, you may have thought we were through with British Caroline, but she’s back with a vengeance in this episode. She notes Charles has never made any carved furniture.
DAGNY: What about their headboard? And the mantelpiece?
WILL: I’m sure they got the monogrammed mantel at the Mercantile. You know, like the keychains you can get today with your name on them.
Charles says “that doll I carved for Carrie” turned out so well he’s expanding his repertoire. If he’s such a great doll carver, I don’t know why he didn’t do one for poor Laura when Janet died, but whatever.
Caroline asks how much he’s charging Mrs. Johnson, but he basically says he didn’t think of that. Caroline points out he’s a hopeless businessman (which I’ve also noted in the past).
Charles sits down to lunch, which looks like corned beef hash out of a can.
Caroline says she’s not hungry, but not to worry, she’ll be gaining weight soon. Charles quickly realizes this isn’t just the show’s usual fat jokes but rather indicates Caroline is pregnant. (“You can’t eat popcorn every night and expect nothing to happen, Charles,” said Dagny.)
Charles reacts with delight . . . though Roman said, “He seemed more excited about Jasper being alive.”
That night, Shirtless Charles sketches the Little House floorplan to figure out where to put the crib.
Anyways, Caroline snuggles up to Charles and notes he’s been referring to the impending arrival as a boy. She talks in a whispery over-enunciated voice here that got us doing impressions of Mrs. Garrett from Deadwood.
Charles says a boy is a matter of simple probability. Caroline reminds him of a couple they knew in Wisconsin who had eleven girls. I never understand why people go on having kids until they have one of each. I mean, unless you’re the Earl of Grantham or something and have a title to pass on.
But maybe that’s just me. I have a friend in Nebraska who has five daughters and counting.
Anyways, Caroline says “I’ll do my best” to have a boy to please him. Like many other sexist remarks on this show, this is treated as a “joke” by the two of them . . . and they never notice there’s a joke like that every week.
Upstairs, Laura is keeping Mary awake with her views on the same topic. She’s not as keen on the idea of a boy as Pa is. Mary tells her to go to sleep.
Then we see the birds in the nest have hatched and grown to full size, WHICH INDICATES THE PASSAGE OF TIME.
Caroline is watering the cow. (Does it have a name?) She’s now visibly pregnant. (Caroline, not the cow.)
“What is she wearing?” said Olive. “She looks like a kid in a choir concert.”
House finches take about a month to hatch and leave the nest, and since Caroline implied she was about three months along, I suppose that works timing-wise. She doesn’t get much bigger after this, but of course some women don’t.
Caroline hears noise in the barn and finds Charles working some kind of pedal-operated lathe. She’s now quite British again.
You’d think the place would be permanently blackened from Mary’s fire, but it looks fine. Charles must have replaced every smoke-damaged board one by one.
Charles reveals he’s making a bassinet. Caroline laughs that it’s too big, but it seems the right size to me.
DAGNY: Most of the time in those days people put babies in drawers.
DAGNY: No, they did. My mom said all her siblings were kept in a drawer. I mean, they didn’t close it or put underwear in or anything.
(I found anecdotes about this practice online, but nothing much concrete. There is this article about specialized drawers used in hospital maternity rooms in the mid-Twentieth Century.)
Anyways, Caroline again pooh-poohs Charles for referring to the baby with he/him pronouns (I use he/him myself), then does the same thing when the baby kicks.
At dinner that night, Mary says Christy Kennedy said babies hatch from eggs their parents break open with rocks. Christy so far has been kind of an idiot, so this is in keeping with her character, but since Mary is supposed to be a Brainiac it’s inconsistent with hers.
Laura reminds her sister that they’re farm girls who’ve seen mammals give birth with their own eyes. So did we, one year at the Minnesota State Fair. Quite remarkable!
Laura goes on to brag how she won a game of Two O’Cat against boys including Johnny Johnson (who’s been missing for the past eight episodes). She goes on and on about how she’s proud to be a tomboy and is as good as any boy.
To which Ma, sounding British-ish, replies that’s hardly ladylike, and Pa says shut up and eat your supper.
WILL: Nice, guys.
DAGNY: Well, she is quite annoying here.
Then Voiceover Laura tells us time has passed again. Ma is seeing the girls off for their school day. (“I love Yellow Bonnet,” said Dagny. “It’s my favorite.”)
Then Caroline touches her bump and beams as she experiences her first contraction.
OLIVE: No way that feels good.
WILL: If you think this is an accurate depiction of pregnancy and childbirth, your illusions may be shattered someday.
Caroline heads inside, where Charles is finishing breakfast and Carrie, face covered with jam, blinks weirdly.
Carrie looks like Ronald McDonald here.
Caroline offers Britishly to make Charles some more eggs. When he declines, she nonchalantly asks him to stop by the Post Office and tell Grace Snider to come out to the house.
Charles starts to leave, then suddenly rushes back in and goes into Ricky Ricardo histrionics. So I guess this means Grace is a midwife?
Then we cut to Caroline giving birth in her bed. You know, my mom, who grew up in a country family in Wisconsin, was also born at home, but in the bathroom.
DAGNY: I don’t think at this phase in history women gave birth in a supine position. I think they squatted. Giving birth in a bed came from medicalizing childbirth, which was in the early Twentieth Century, I think.
Actually, while her overall point is right, this interesting history of Western childbirth positions suggests by the 1880s giving birth whilst lying flat was the usual practice in the United States.
I’ll just say it, Karen Grassle’s childbirth acting has to be among the most orgasmic ever committed to film.
Contrary to stereotypes about the old days, Charles is in the room, and Grace Snider stands behind him, the strap of her dress hanging off one shoulder. (“Seductive!” said Olive.)
Caroline says the supreme moment has arrived, and Grace gives Charles the boot. We see they’ve hung a quilt over the door for privacy.
Grace says Charles shouldn’t worry, because she’s “spanked the behinds of half the children of Walnut Grove.” (“And three quarters of the men!” said Olive.)
But seriously, what about Doc Baker? Here Grace implies she delivers all the children, but we’ll see Doc imply the same thing in “Doctor’s Lady” (a doozy of a story that’s coming up soon). “It’s more accurate to have Grace do it,” said Dagny. “Unless there was a problem, Doc wouldn’t have been involved.”
OLIVE: Don’t they name their other baby Grace?
WILL: All the others are adopted pre-named, as older kids.
OLIVE: . . . Um, no they aren’t!
Oh yeah, I forgot her. Hey, I never said I was a Little House expert!
Charles climbs up to the loft to update the kids. Laura asks if childbirth hurts. Pa says it does, but that Caroline calls it “a joyous hurt.”
OLIVE: Nobody ever described it that way.
DAGNY: Yeah, you can tell this whole scene is to make people think childbirth is a walk in the park.
WILL: But the baby dies!
DAGNY: Not during childbirth.
Mary says she’s not sure if she wants to have a baby, and Pa says, “When you get married, you’ll change your mind.” Gee whiz, Charles, that isn’t a prerequisite, nor does it guarantee she’ll change her mind.
WILL: Besides, Mary isn’t going to have the best luck with babies.
OLIVE: I just am waiting for Adam to come into the story.
Then we hear a slap and a cry. Grace makes a stupid joke to make Charles think it’s another girl, then reveals it’s a boy. Caroline is fine, and declares the baby’s name is Charles Ingalls, Jr.
Mary, Laura and Carrie peek around the quilt, and Pa invites them in. “Now, I don’t want germs all over this baby!” says Grace.
This actually is one of the scenes that inspired me to start this blog, because on a previous viewing I wondered if the germ theory of disease existed by the 1870s. It did, but apparently was considered an alternative theory at the time, and wasn’t well known until quite a bit later.
I doubt it would have been on the lips of a humble midwife among the Minnesota peasantry, but who knows. Grace also works at the Post Office, so maybe she reads Doc’s peer-reviewed journals before he picks them up.
You can tell Laura’s grinding her famous teeth at the baby’s name . . . because of course she is Charles Ingalls, Jr.!
Cut to Charles and Laura exiting the Mercantile with the latter carrying a bag of flour or some such. Blah blah, I’m as strong as any boy, blah.
Nels steps out and makes a bunch of comments about how great boy-children are. “A son,” he says. “You got everything a man could want now.” (“Is that how you reacted when you found out Dagny had boys?” asked Olive.)
DAGNY: Do you think that’s how Nels actually feels about Willie? He’s the worst kid in the world.
WILL: I love Willie. I would not want him for a son. But I love him.
That night, Caroline rolls over in bed and finds herself face to face with feet.
No, the feet of course are Charles’s. He’s inverted so he can look at Junior in his cradle at the foot of the bed. Caroline joins him and the two marvel at the miracle that is a baby. The mood is snuggly once more.
DAGNY: Don’t have sex again!
WILL: No, she probably has all those little tears . . . what are they called?
DAGNY: Ouch. They’re called ouch.
Then we hear Reverend Alden baptizing the baby offscreen, which is followed by a cut to an after-church picnic.
Mrs. Oleson and Nels approach the Ingallses to offer formal congratulations. Mrs. O pretends not to remember how many kids they have, and then says, “I suppose that’s the way it is with country folk. Sort of like being a broodmare!”
It’s insulting, but some “country folk” did have large families in the old days. My mom, for instance, is the youngest of ten . . . all raised in a house not much bigger than the Ingallses’.
Mrs. Oleson goes on to say “Nellie and Willie are more than enough” for their family, and Caroline replies, “In the case of Nellie and Willie, I couldn’t agree more.” The writing ain’t exactly Lady Windermere’s Fan, but it’s not bad for this show.
It’s worth noticing Mr. Hanson is flirting with Miss Beadle again in the background. He seems to be giving her something to eat, and even holds her hand briefly!
Suddenly the girls come running up with Mr. Edwards and Grace. Mr. Edwards has grown his hair and beard out somewhat (which looks great), and they’re all laughing and eating bags of popcorn. Even Sourpuss Grace seems to be having a jolly time. We learn Edwards is the baby’s godfather.
From the schoolyard, Doc yells that the ball game’s about to start, so I guess he is there after all. He implies only men are allowed to play.
There appears to be some kind of pagan stone circle in town that I never noticed before.
Laura asks if Pa is going to play, but the only thing he wants to play with is the baby’s feet. He says soon enough the kid will be playing baseball himself. I thought this was an anachronism, but apparently the term baseball has been around, sort of, since the late Eighteenth Century.
The game they play in Walnut Grove likely would have been called “town ball,” though. Amelia and Olive once got to play town ball at a historical farm in Minnesota, on a very hot Fourth of July years ago. The “Old Cat” or “O’Cat” game Laura and her friends play is a variation with fewer players and bases.
Anyways, Laura gives the baby a look of contempt.
Later, Doc is doing a home wellness check on Caroline and the baby. Caroline worries the baby isn’t growing as fast as he should be. Doc isn’t concerned and says switching to cow’s milk will resolve the issue.
“Cow’s milk!” Dagny exclaimed, shocked; but this article states that through the end of the Nineteenth Century, cow’s milk was in fact the default choice for babies who struggled to nurse. (And this one suggests the practice brought about terrible results before pasteurization.)
Doc says Caroline’s milk may be deficient in some way, but that she shouldn’t take it personally. “It’s just body chemistry, that’s what they call it,” he says. I wasn’t able to confirm the term body chemistry was actually used at the time.
“I’m not worried, just so long as you say everything’s all right,” says British Caroline.
“Everything’s fine,” Doc says, then says he has to go attend to a “Miss Arnold.” (A lot of names we’ve never heard before get dropped in this one.) He says Miss Arnold’s complaining of a sore throat, and jokes that she just likes “the kick of that big-city cough medicine” (which is probably laudanum).
As he makes to go, Caroline gives him a half dozen eggs – “all double yolks.” Doc laughs that she’s trying to make him fat.
Caroline says she feels “so foolish paying you in eggs, since you gave us the chickens.” I’d say she should feel embarrassed giving him something worth eighty cents in exchange for a medical house call.
“You know, they never laid double yolks for me!” he says. Well, of course they didn’t: His and Mr. Hanson’s household is an all-rooster one.
Later, Ma is boiling milk, telling Mary that will kill the germs. Pa jumps in, saying germs are invisible to the naked eye but can be detected through the miracle of microscopy. I get it, Grace Snider reads The Lancet, but enough already!
Pa says he “hears tell” they have one of these microscope machines in the fabled city of Mankato. It’s quite odd this show makes Mankato rather than Rochester the medical capital of Minnesota, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Ma shakes boiling milk out onto her own and Mary’s wrists, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. The pioneers were not fucking around, were they?
Mary refers to the baby as “Freddie,” apparently a nickname bestowed by Mr. Edwards. Ma makes a sour face and says Mr. Edwards uses a lot of expressions they shouldn’t emulate. I don’t actually know, but I’d guess this was one of the earliest episodes they filmed for this season. Karen Grassle’s accent is all over the place, and there are other elements from the first couple stories that come back in again (e.g., Caroline’s distaste for Mr. Edwards, the double yolks, and we’ll visit Doc and Mr. Hanson’s “frenemy” thread again in a bit too).
Laura comes down to show Pa a homework project she’s been laboring on (as it were). But Caroline interrupts to tell Charles that the baby loves drinking boiling-hot cow’s milk, and Pa abandons Laura mid-sentence.
Laura watches her parents cooing over Freddie, her lips curling in disgust.
ROMAN: She should be holding Pa’s gun.
WILL: Yeah. It should be like a Jacobean revenge tragedy, with everyone dead from murder or suicide at the end.
Then Laura marches down to the creek and throws her assignment in.
WILL: Throwing Homework Away Without Turning It In: The Alexander and Roman Story.
That night, Mary prays earnestly whilst Laura brushes her hair. Mary makes a special appeal to God to help Freddie recover. Then she turns to Laura and says “Your turn.” We’ve never seen them formally take turns like this before, but apparently their nightly prayer ritual varies quite widely.
Laura kneels down and briefly prays. She pointedly omits any reference to Freddie. Mary freaks out and calls her on it. Laura says since God didn’t listen to her prayer for a sister, she doesn’t care what happens to Freddie.
WILL: That’s Edwards talk.
ROMAN: No, because Laura believes in God. This is worse! This is a murder scene!
Next, while the strings shimmer ominously in the orchestra, Doc Baker visits again. “The California weather must really disagree with him,” said Dagny. “Chapstick, my friend.”
Doc says he has no idea why Freddie is struggling so, and advises Charles and Caroline to take him to Mankato to see experts. Obviously depressed by his limitations, he curses himself and walks out.
DAGNY: Way to make it about yourself, Doc. He didn’t even close the door!
WILL: He should take his copy of The Lancet and throw it in the creek.
Caroline despairs, but Denial Charles starts readying for the trip to Mankato.
WILL: A lot of sack-totin’ in this one. Seriously, what is in that huge sack? Is he taking a hundred pounds of corn to pay the hospital with?
OILVE: Duh, it’s for the horses, Dad.
Caroline brings out Freddie, and we see Grace will be staying with the girls.
Cut to Mankato, where a doctor in a lab coat talks to them in a darkened room with candlelit microscopes. I wondered if doctors actually wore white coats in those days; looks like the 1880s is about the time the practice started.
DAGNY: What a handsome doctor! Is this Mad Men?
Actually, although the doctor’s name is not spoken in this episode, he appears in the end credits as “Dr. Mayo.” So presumably this is William Worrall Mayo, whose practice in Rochester, Minnesota, would grow into the Mayo Clinic. (His sons, the famous Mayo brothers, were still kids in the mid-1870s.)
I don’t know why this story locates him in Mankato; by 1874 he was established in Rochester. At times he lived in several other places around the state, but never Mankato . . . though he did attend the infamous mass execution of Indigenous people there that we discussed previously. (And dissected one of the bodies afterward.) But that was in 1862.
Anyways, Dr. Mayo says it’s hopeless. Freddie’s “red cell count” is “dropping drastically” – in other words, he’s anemic. Charles’s voice breaks as he asks if he’ll be in any pain. Dr. Mayo says he won’t, but will “just go to sleep.”
On cue, a nurse appears and summons Dr. Mayo away. Caroline walks to the window and says, “I never noticed before what a hurry everybody’s in.” (“Well, it is Mankato,” said Roman.)
The door opens again, and Dr. Mayo comes back with an “uh-uh” look on his face. He takes Charles into the other room, and when he returns, Caroline turns around and says, “He’s gone to sleep, hasn’t he?” Charles blinks away tears and nods.
He comes over and holds her as she sobs, then begins to recite the 23rd Psalm. After a while, she joins him.
It’s a little convenient that Freddie dies mere seconds after the conversation with the doctor, but Karen Grassle’s crying is good, and it’s a powerful scene.
DAGNY: It always bothers me they don’t rush to be with the baby.
WILL: Well, in the Nineteenth Century dead bodies were so common they were just thought of as garbage.
WILL: Probably. Anyways, that’s kind of a stiff bonnet to press your face against. I bet he wishes she wore her floppy.
ROMAN: You couldn’t wear a floppy bonnet in a serious situation like this.
Today the Mayo Clinic (which obviously used Freddie’s case as a catalyst to get to the bottom of this problem) lists a number of different conditions resulting in anemia.
WILL: Oh my God. . . . Laura didn’t kill Freddie. Doc Baker did.
DAGNY: Oh my God!
WILL: I can’t believe they didn’t follow that thread through in the script.
DAGNY: Are you going to write about it?
WILL: I don’t know.
DAGNY: You have to! You can’t be part of the cover-up!
WILL: But it’s Doc Baker!
DAGNY: What would Ronan Farrow do? He wouldn’t just ignore this. You could become the takedown journalist of Little House on the Prairie!
In the next scene, Caroline and Charles return home. The girls and Grace come out of the house and see Ma and Pa standing empty-handed. Everyone looks at each other for a long time.
DAGNY: This is just like the “Erlkönig.”
WILL: Yeah, that would be a good musical reference for David Rose to bring in.
ROMAN: Yeah, all the Schubert fans in the audience would turn to each other and go “Mm-hm.”
Mary asks where the baby is, and Pa swallows hard and says, “In Heaven, child.”
Mary rushes forward crying, while Laura stands back in disbelief and whispers “No, no!”
DAGNY: Why didn’t they bring the baby home to be buried?
WILL: They must have buried him in Mankato.
DAGNY: I don’t believe that. They brought Caroline’s mother to be buried in Walnut Grove, and she didn’t even live there.
WILL: Better question: Why doesn’t Charles build him a stone tower in the wilderness like Jason Bateman?
ROMAN: Yes! Where is Charles Ingalls Junior’s stone tower?
Pa strokes Mary’s hair, and Ma says, “It’s all right. It’s God’s will.”
Realizing the Deity was involved, and likely influenced by prayers or the lack thereof, Laura turns tail and runs away. Jack follows her down to the creek.
ROMAN: Even Jack’s grieving.
DAGNY: Is that the same dog?
WILL: Yes, he’s just clean for once.
We go to commercial, and when we return, Rev. Alden is preaching in church. It clearly isn’t Freddie’s funeral, since nobody’s wearing mourning clothes and the Ingallses are sitting towards the back, but Alden’s remarks still seem aimed at comforting a community reeling from a loss.
DAGNY: Aldi’s gotta love this. Gets his creative juices flowing.
WILL: Death is the clergy’s bread and butter.
After some very heavy scenes, this gives us an opportunity to catch up on lighter matters; namely, who came to church today?
Well, it’s kind of a random grab-bag. Nels and Harriet are there, but without kids. Grace Snider and Mr. Edwards too.
WILL: Edwards is like, this is so effin’ boring.
ROMAN: He’s probably reciting “Old Dan Tucker” in his head to stay awake.
The Baker-Hansons are there too. Doc is scowling . . . maybe because he knows he murdered Freddie.
Or maybe it’s because his rival for Mr. Hanson’s affections, the Bead, is sitting right across from them.
Al Swearengen is in town.
DAGNY [as SWEARENGEN]: “Cocksuckin’ hooples, all of ’em.”
(The other AEK is sitting on the other side with their Ambiguously Ethnic Mom.)
Meanwhile, The Gray Haired-Dude is sitting as far away from Mrs. Foster as he can get, in the very back row next to the Midsommar Kid.
After the service, there’s another big picnic. I’m not sure if they always do this, or just when babies are born or die. Anyways, Charles and Mr. Edwards are sitting on a bench off to the side.
Edwards asks how Caroline’s doing, and Charles says quite well, considering. But he says he’s noticed Laura is struggling particularly hard with Freddie’s death.
Mr. Edwards tells him not to worry, because “time takes care of everything.” I don’t know what he’s talking about; he was so depressed about losing his family that he got drunk and ransacked a saloon years later.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hanson and Doc are playing cards and frowning at each other (presumably due to the Beadle factor).
Laura says she’s going back into church because she forgot her shawl. “Don’t run!” says Caroline. “Your shawl isn’t going anywhere!” She sounds British here, and possibly drunk or stoned as well. (Probably hitting the laudanum herself in her grief.)
Also, Dagny pointed out Laura runs everywhere, but whatever.
Inside, Laura slowly approaches Reverend Alden. Her hair is done Cloud City Princess Leia-style today.
Laura asks the Rev if praying very hard can bring about a miracle. He says sometimes it can. He’s pretty stupid if he can’t connect the dots here, but he doesn’t.
DAGNY: It’s like bangs. The closer your hair is to God, the closer you are.
Just like Ma did last week, Laura thanks him most sincerely and takes off.
Outside, we get a shock. Mrs. Foster is sitting on a blanket with a studly bearded stranger! This person, who we’ve never seen before and who certainly didn’t attend the service, is sprawled out as if he owns the place, and her. In fact, Mrs. F is getting stuff out of a picnic basket as if she’s about to hand-feed him. Good Lord, what must The Gray-Haired Dude think about this!
We find out a second later, for we see the Dude sitting several yards away with a glum look on his face. He’s with two younger people; we can’t see their faces, but presumably they’re his children, Cloud City Princess Leia and her brother Luke.
I don’t know what happened between Mrs. F and him, but it appears they’re dunzo. Boy, everyone’s experiencing tragedies this week. Well, except Mrs. Foster.
Laura happily runs back to her family and asks Pa to play some games with her. He and the girls run around for a while to the accompaniment of a waltz arrangement of “Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum.” Eventually they collapse, exhausted, in a field of big green plants.
ROMAN: Is this Walnut Grove’s Great Marijuana Field?
DAGNY: Nah, it’s opium poppies like in The Wizard of Oz.
Laura tells Pa that it was the best day ever, that she’ll always remember it, and that she loves him.
Now we come to a point that may be controversial. As I mentioned, IMDb TV edits this episode together with the next so the two parts make a single “movie.” But from what I can gather from the internet, THIS is where the first part ends. (If you know otherwise, please let me know.)
I informed my family of this fact.
WILL: Yep, that’s the end.
ROMAN: But it makes it seem like Laura’s problems are solved! Did they not WANT people to tune in the next week?
DAGNY: Wait, is this the first two-parter Little House did?
DAGNY: Well, they must not have understood how cliffhangers work.
ROMAN: It wasn’t the first two-part TV story in history!
Be that as it may, we’ll have to live with it for now. See you next week. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
STYLE WATCH: Charles and Mr. Edwards both appear to wear new shirts to church.
UP NEXT: The Lord is My Shepherd: Part Two