The first half of this book, covering Laura’s first teaching assignment, is just about the best sustained writing I’ve found in the all the Little House books: it has unity, not just episodes. The second half loses this unity but overall it remains a great book, one of my favorites of the series.
It seems to me that these books get progressively better, in the order that they were written and published. This late in the series, the writing is assured, the storytelling at its best; beautiful turns of phrases abound, and she can now easily make me laugh.
Much of “These Happy Golden Years” found its way into the TV series. The turnabout in Laura’s problem-student, Clarence, is very much in the spirit of countless storylines in the TV series.
As always I find the books at their least interesting when they go heavy on the details of domestic life, particularly clothing and food but also farm work. There was some of that over-heavy detail, to my eyes, in the later stages of this book.
Yet I’ve realized recently that the very details I get impatient with are the ones that illustrate the work involved in living back then. In short, without these details that I happen to find boring, they would leave the reader with an impression of 19th century life which is too easy.
Of course the Little House books, particularly because they were made for children, tend in that direction anyway, but that makes these details of life on-the-ground, so to speak, all the more important.
Incidentally, I have always suspected that the TV series gave the story of Mary’s blindness a “higher meaning” that may not have been true in the books or in real life. The TV series makes the argument that Mary went blind for a purpose, namely, Mary’s eventual calling to be a teacher for the blind, whereas in real life Mary Ingalls never taught.
So it was a pleasure for me to find that these books do have that theme. In the chapter “On The Pilgrim Way”, in “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Reverend Alden says, “Mary is a rare soul, and a lesson to all of us. We must remember that whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth” (a direct quote of Hebrews 12:6, “and a brave spirit will turn all our afflictions to good.”)
And in the chapter “Mary Comes Home”, from “These Happy Golden Years”:
“It is wonderful that you can write to your friends and they can read your letters,” said Ma. “I can hardly believe that you are really getting the college education that we always wanted you to have.”
This is very similar to that dramatic moment in the TV series when Ma falls into tears as she realizes that Mary’s dream of being a teacher was not extinguished by blindness. Of course, in the books, and in real life, Mary did want to be a teacher and she didn’t teach after she went blind, but it makes me very happy to see that this family regarded it as a dream and a triumph in itself that Mary gets a higher education.
In the books, Mary comes home from school a happy person, and though she doesn’t marry or have children as she does in the TV series, she seems healed and functional and happy. What a contrast with the TV series, which put Mary Ingalls through too many over-wrought episodes of tragedy, such as losing two babies.
In a very real way, Mary Ingalls’ story of overcoming is stronger in the books than in the TV series, despite the efforts of the latter to infuse that story with meaning.