Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls
“Little House, Big Adventure” book by Heather Williams. Published in 2007 by HarperCollins. — Webster, 1882
Mrs. Oleson smiled a little smile. …”Living well is the best revenge, Nellie. Remember that.” – Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls, page 137.
Note. The following is a personal review of a book I read. Your mileage may vary.
I recently read the “Little House / Big Adventure” book titled Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls, written by Heather Williams (pseudonym for Tui T. Sutherland).
Sutherland’s take on Nellie is that “she would have to have had a pretty sad life to turn into such a brat.” (This from Sutherland’s blog dated 16 October 2006, no longer online. In that entry, Sutherland also wrote that she “never really watched the television show, Little House on the Prairie,” and that her Nellie is based on the “book character.”
Quite frankly, I never read book Nellie as all that odious; I certainly saw fictional Laura and fictional Nellie’s mutual childhood dislike for each other, and I saw it revisited in adolescence. I saw Nellie wrinkle her nose and sniff and call Laura a “country girl,” something that didn’t seem to bother the slightly older and more mature Mary Ingalls. “We are country girls,” said Mary. As a former teacher, I saw Nellie and Laura acting exactly as some little girls still act: competitive, overly dramatic, bossy, and sensitive – or insensitive – in turn. Quick to anger, quick to blow things out of proportion; quick to move on to something else. I certainly never saw pure hatred in Nellie; it was more the “meanness” of unrefined poor manners and bad behavior.
In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t dwell on the Nellie-Laura relationship. It consumed Sutherland’s book. I found that I didn’t really care about this “poor little rich girl Nellie” that Sutherland wanted me to find sympathy in, because I really wasn’t shown another side to her Nellie; when she’s good, I’m still reminded that she’s got reason to be bad, and that reason is Laura. Nellie’s redemption is too little, too late; the “meanness” in Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls isn’t just the bad manners of On the Banks of Plum Creek, it’s “spiteful and malicious,” definitions that weren’t even part of Webster’s Dictionary during the Little House years.
As almost everyone knows, the Nellie Oleson of On the Banks of Plum Creek was a composite character based on the personalities of the real Genevieve Masters (who was Laura’s age) and Nellie Owens (who was a year younger than they). De Smet Nellie Oleson is based, in part, on Gennie Masters, as Nellie Owens never lived in De Smet. The Nellie who goes riding with Almanzo in These Happy Golden Years is based on Stella Gilbert, who was not in school with Laura and Gennie.
I couldn’t remember how Laura Ingalls Wilder presented Gennie and Nellie in Pioneer Girl, so here is a glimpse of what went into the Nellie character:
Genevieve sneered at the other girls in school because they were westerners. She thought herself much above us because she came from New York. She was much nicer dressed than we were and lisped a little when she talked: if she could not have her way in anything she cried or rather sniveled. Everyone gave up to her and tried to please her because they liked to appear friends with the new girl. Every one that is except Nellie Owens. Nellie was still a leader among the girls when Genevieve came and did not intend to give up her leadership. She tried to hold it by being free with candy and bits of ribbon from her father’s store. So my crowd divided. …I would not be led by either Nellie or Genevieve but took sides first with one and then with the other as I had a notion, until to my surprise I found myself the leader of them all, because Genevieve and Nellie each being eager to win me to her side would play what I wanted to play and do as I said in order to please me.
In On the Banks of Plum Creek, we aren’t introduced to Nellie until Chapter 20: she’s pointed out to Laura, described and duly noted by Laura, and Nellie wrinkles her nose. In the next chapter, Nellie is rude in front of her father and snippy to Laura.
The Nellie-Laura struggle is the main story in three chapters, yes, but when it’s out of sight, it’s also thankfully out of mind and print. It returns in Chapter 30 for Nellie to show off her fur cape (seriously, what little girl wouldn’t be showing off a new fur cape?), and in the next chapter for Laura to “one up” Nellie yet again by receiving not only a fur cape, but a muff as well (and of course a little girl would be showing that off!). This is Laura’s story, of course, where rich little poor girl wins every time. There is no more Nellie – at all – for two whole books, and almost half of a third.
Sutherland’s Nellie doesn’t seem to have had a sad life. She seems to have been coached and trained at every turn to be nasty, snobby, and rude. Her mother tells her “…a lady of good breeding does not hold a grudge. She holds herself above her enemies and makes them feel small just through her actions.” (page 137)
It’s interesting to me, that for someone who “never really watched the television show,” Sutherland’s Mrs. Oleson seems to be completely channeling Katherine MacGregor’s portrayal of Harriet Oleson. I went through On the Banks of Plum Creek just now, and here’s all I was told about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Mrs. Oleson:
Chapter 22, “Town Party”: She invites the girls in; LIW implies that Mrs. Oleson must have talked to them a bit because Laura is too in awe to say more than “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.” (In the letters from LIW to RWL, Wilder wrote that she was in awe of the furnishings, which, not being hand-made, appeared very fine to her.) — “Go into the bedroom and leave your bonnets,” Mrs. Oleson said in a company voice. — Mrs. Oleson’s skirts went rustling among them… Mrs. Oleson said, “Now, Nellie, bring out your playthings.” — She made Willie be quiet when he talks back to Nellie.
After Nellie won’t let Laura touch her doll (the reader is seeing the doll for the first time, the same as Laura and the rest of the little girls), Mrs. Oleson approaches Laura, who is sitting by herself: Mrs. Oleson came in and asked Laura why she was not playing. Laura said, “I would rather sit here, thank you, ma’am.” — “Would you like to look at these?” Mrs. Oleson asked her, and she laid two books in Laura’s lap.
Laura is absorbed in the books. Suddenly Mrs. Oleson was saying: “Come, little girl. You mustn’t let the others eat all the cake, must you?”
Mrs. Oleson serves the children cake and lemonade. “Is your lemonade sweet enough?” Mrs. Oleson asked.
Without knowledge of the playground or doll incidents, for all Mrs. Oleson knows, Laura Ingalls is simply shy and uncomfortable at Nellie’s party. In my mind, Mrs. Oleson is presented as a gracious, courteous, and caring woman.
Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls is of interest because of its obvious link to the Little House series. The question is: could it stand alone – or stand out – if the character names and location were changed to something else?
Laura Ingalls Wilder has long been more than a fictional character to millions of readers and fans. Nellie Owens Kirry and Genevieve Masters Renwick and Stella Gilbert Drury were real women with children and grandchildren, and descendants living among us.
Is this the story they deserve to read about their ancestors?
Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls Review from my old blog, originally posted January 31, 2008. The identity of the little girl in the photograph is unknown.