Thursday, March 17, 2011

Still a Five Umbrella Read: These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

What was the very first Romance you read? How old were you? For me, I was ten or eleven, and I had long since read all the Little House Books except for this one, but my mother made me wait for this one (which considering the number of ten year olds reading all four Twilight books today, seems like a rather quaint notion). Anyhoo, I was home sick with nothing new to read, which for me was a plight worse than whatever yuck I was battling, and she brought These Happy Golden Years upstairs and read me the first few chapters aloud. It was to the be the first of dozens of re-reads for me. Even long after I won the right to peruse the adult stacks in the library, I returned to our dog-eared, pink copy copy of These Happy Golden Years again and again. It took up permanent residence on my bookshelf headboard. It sparked my lifelong love affair with Western Romances, and it led to my discovering the wide world of other Romance subgenres as I sought the same heady rush I felt witnessing the courtship of Laura and Almanzo develop.

My bookshelf headboard is long gone, as is my childhood room, but my mother's collection of Little House books remains. I was at her house earlier this week with a fussy baby and nothing to read while nursing, so I grabbed my old friend. It's been 15 years since I last read it, but unlike many books I read in my teens, it hasn't lost a bit of its charm. It has all the classic elements of a great romance: An older man. A young, spunky heroine who isn't at all certain that she likes him *that* way. A rival for his affections--the original Mean Girl Nellie Olsen. A harsh and unforgiving landscape. The subtle prose of Laura Ingalls Wilder infuses each glance and each greeting with layers of meaning. Those around Laura realize what is happening long before she allows herself to realize it.

The juxtaposition between her crippling homesickness as she begins her teaching career at the claim school, boarding with the terminally unhappy Brewster family, and her joy when she sees Almanzo's cutter emerge from the woods, sleigh bells ringing is one of the best moments of the book. From that moment on, readers root for "Young Mr. Wilder" to succeed in his slow courtship of the reluctant schoolteacher. I love the scene a few chapters later where Laura has to return to the school and wonders why Pa is not rushing to saddle the horses. He, and the readers, already know how Laura will getting back to school long before she hears the sleigh bells again. In all great Romances, the reader sees what the characters are blind to, and the wait for the characters to discover the inevitable is the best part of Romance reading.

Everything builds to what remains one of the best proposal scenes ever, when Almanzo finally, FINALLY touches her hand after dozens of buggy rides, and subtly asks if she might like an engagement ring. She cheekily replies, "It would depend on the man." Undeterred, he asks what if *he* were to offer one, and she says, "It would depend on the ring." The next week, he again takes her hand, and slips a ring on it, and even after all these years, my breathe still catches as we await her reply. The moment where she tells him, "You may kiss me goodnight," is just as fulfilling as love scenes spanning pages and pages. It's romance at its purest.

It is also comfort reading at its finest: the book that can never disappoint and that sucks me in even when I intended to only re-read a few paragraphs. Reading its yellowed pages, I will always be on the cusp of womanhood wondering about and longing for that magical first kiss.

What was the first Romance you read? What is your ultimate comfort read? Is These Happy Golden Years on YOUR keeper shelf?

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