When I was about nine, a friend of the family gave me my first Little House book. I was immediately captivated by the stories within and read them over and over through the years. The copy I had contained wonderful illustrations by Garth Williams to accompany the story. Eventually, I was given all of the books in the series, plus a few other collections of Laura’s writings. I gave my set to my oldest daughter and it soon became scattered in their room. I ended up purchasing another set.
About a year ago I wanted to read the books again for myself. Unfortunately, my daughters could no longer assemble a complete set between them. I wanted a set of books for ME now that would be hands-off to the rest of the family. When we traveled to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri I saw exactly what I wanted.
These Happy Golden Years begins subsequent to the events at the end of the previous novel, Little Town on the Prairie. Laura has accomplished what she set out to do – become a schoolteacher to help her family. At a time when teachers had to be sixteen, Laura was granted a teaching certificate a little more than a month shy of that birthday. Pa is taking Laura to the home of Mr. And Mrs. Brewster, who will house her while she teaches school nearby.
For Laura, this marks her first time away from home. Mrs. Brewster seems to have an inconsistent mental disposition and her erratic behavior at times makes Laura fear for her life. Three of the five students she is teaching are older than her. Laura is challenged to try to find a way to teach one student who is intent on making her job all that difficult by refusing to study the lessons she assigns.
To mitigate all of the difficulties Laura finds away from home, she finds herself being whisked home on Friday afternoons by Almanzo Wilder. Laura doesn’t know what to make of the attention he’s giving her. Almanzo has a great deal of patience and gives Laura the room she needs to realize her own affection for the young farmer.
These Happy Golden Years is really the story of Laura and Almanzo’s courtship. Although there are other events, such as Laura teaching school two other times, Mary’s visits home, terrible storms that come across the prairie, and even another terrible encounter with Nellie Oleson, the main focus of the book is the courtship between the two. Laura’s written this in such a way that it’s not overt; it’s not like every page I read talked about romance or had Laura gushing over Almanzo. Over the course of the three years, the book covers the relationship is always there, whether it’s Almanzo coming by on a Sunday afternoon to take Laura for a buggy ride or her receiving a special, surprise gift at Christmastime.
Laura’s also grown into a young woman, and even like the girls of today, she’s become more concerned about fashion. She takes a job sewing in town to earn money to have some nicer clothes. Another time, she spends part of the summer with one of the seamstresses she’s worked for helping her to hold down a land claim. At the end of each harvest season, though, Almanzo comes back around.
Reading about Laura riding with Almanzo either in the buggy or the cutter sleigh is fun, especially when they are trying to break the unruly horses. Laura writes of this time with such a distinct fondness I could tell this was a very positive memory for her.
With my own daughter about to turn fifteen, it’s hard to think of her in terms of being a schoolteacher and doing some of the things Laura does in the book. I think most teenagers would really be in awe if they read these passages and sat down and thought about them. Laura never once thinks of asking her family for money for clothes and the like and is very eager to contribute to the family when she can.
There are familiar people in These Happy Golden Years as Laura and Almanzo go on buggy rides with Mary Powers and Cap Garland, Ida Brown, and the previously-mentioned Nellie Oleson. Almanzo’s sister Eliza Jane doesn’t make an appearance but is the primary reason behind the hasty wedding between Laura and Almanzo at the end of the book.
I spent several weeks reading These Happy Golden Years at night before bed with my daughters the first time we read it through together. Laura’s descriptions of the setting and events are excellent and come with years of practice being the “eyes” for her blind sister, Mary. I don’t find her descriptions to be overwritten and bogged down, but fascinating. The way she describes the trip she takes with Pa across the prairie to her first teaching job is so detailed I could just picture the two of them in the bobsled together, even without the illustration which accompanied it. This is true of many of Laura’s descriptions. The story of Almanzo and her racing to escape an impending storm is done so well that I could picture the clouds building in the sky and the amazing energy gathering all around them in their awesome expanse of the prairie.
My new edition of These Happy Golden Years is a paperback-bound book with the same beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams that I grew up with. The difference is that they are now in color, rather than the pen-and-ink style drawings I first saw all those years ago. Sometimes I think a bit of extra color was added – after all, when you have a brown sled against a stark, snow-covered prairie it’s nice to add a lavender blanket to the mix. However, illustrations such as the drawing accompanying the story Laura’s Uncle Tom tells about being run out of Indian Territory are very well done as the illustration now shows the bright orange flame against the brown of the stockade walls. I loved the illustration of Mary’s first trip home after being away at college. For some reason the color really brings out the drawing here more, especially seeing Mary’s light blonde hair against the blue of the dress she’s wearing.
In any of the earlier books, I noticed an increase in the font size with the new editions. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this edition of These Happy Golden Years. When I read the story with my girls, the chapters were the perfect size to read one each night at bedtime.
If you’ve never read the books, I definitely feel they are worth it for adults as well. I am enjoying reading them again just by myself for the first time in years. If you have children, it’s a wonderful experience that will spark lots of conversation and questions about life so many years ago.
Previous book in the series (link): Little Town on the Prairie
Next book in the series (link): The First Four Years