This is the second character profile I put together for Little House on the Prairie. Just as I had a challenging time putting together a synopsis of Laura's TV life without sharing everything, I tried to do my best to capture Mary's character as I see her without overdoing it.
WARNING!!! CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!
We first meet Mary Ingalls in the Pilot movie. She is Charles and Caroline’s oldest daughter and she is very different from her younger sister, Laura. The family leaves the Big Woods of Wisconsin and journeys to Kansas, and we soon discover that while Laura’s never ending curiosity tends to get her in a bit of trouble, Mary is happy to play the obedient, helpful daughter.
On Christmas Day in Kansas, Mary is seen at the table helping Ma get the food ready, but Laura is busy trying to peek into her stocking to get a glimpse at her presents. And this is exactly the type of relationship the girls continue to have until Mary moves away from home.
Mary’s good looks and her obedient nature makes things tense between the two oldest Ingalls girls. Now living in Walnut Grove, Laura struggles in school while Mary excels, creating just another reason for Laura to be jealous of her older sister. But perhaps the biggest issue between the sisters is boys. Laura often had a crush on boys who ended up being more interested in Mary than they were in her younger, tomboyish sister, causing hurt feelings and a few arguments between them. Mary, however, was a staunch supporter of her sister against Nellie Oleson, who was destined to be a thorn in Laura’s side from day one.
The real Mary Ingalls dealt with a great deal of hardship in her life. She was ill and lost her sight at an early age. She never married and lived at home with her parents until their deaths, and then lived with one of her sisters until her own death. And one must wonder if Michael Landon used these difficulties to shape Mary’s TV character, as she also, had more than her share of hardships.
In Season 3, Mary is kicked by a horse while cleaning out the barn and her internal injuries go from bad to worse (To Live with Fear). Charles and Caroline take her to Rochester, where Mary undergoes an operation. Unable to pay the hospital bills, Charles leaves his wife and daughter in Rochester to go find work. While he is away, Mary requires an additional operation, even though the doctor has told Caroline that she might not survive it. She is held hostage by Frank and Jesse James who had sought shelter in Walnut Grove under assumed names (The Aftermath). And Mary has her share of boy troubles too. Her fiancé, John Sanderson Jr. goes away to college (I'll Ride the Wind) and when she pays him a surprise visit in Chicago, she discovers he has been carrying on a relationship with another young woman(Times of Change).
At the end of Season 4, Mary’s eyesight begins to weaken. At this point, she has accepted her glasses, so it’s not a big deal to her to get new ones and she dismisses the trouble as eye strain, until her Pa finally admits to her that she is going blind (I'll Be Waving as You Drive Away).
Scared and angry, Mary falls into a pit of self-pity and Charles and Caroline make the difficult decision to send her to Iowa where there is a school for the blind. Mary believes her parents are trying to get rid of her and she spends the first several days at the blind school acting out—something that we rarely see from her.
Mary meets Adam Kendall while in Iowa. He is her teacher and he is the first to tell her that she is not special just because she is blind. Adam is also the one who comforts her when Mary is afraid to return home and put the skills she has learned to the test. It isn’t until Mary realizes that she may never see Adam again that she discovers her feelings for him. Adam asks her to join him in Winoka to start a new blind school and Mary agrees. It seems that though she had given up on her dream of being a teacher, her dreams are destined to be fulfilled, and Mary looks forward to developing her relationship with Adam.
The entire Ingalls family moves to Winoka because times are so tough in Walnut Grove. Mary celebrates her 16th birthday while in Winoka and this is where we see that Laura and Mary’s relationship has definitely changed (As Long As We're Together). The jealousy is no longer there and a Laura, who is also quickly growing up, expresses her love for her sister. But after months of trying to deny it, Charles realizes that he will never be happy in the city and the family says goodbye to Mary and Adam and travels back to Walnut Grove (There's No Place Like Home).
Charles and Caroline are thrilled when they receive Mary’s letter that she and Adam are going to be married (The Wedding). They can’t afford to take the whole family with them—a family that now includes Albert, an orphan they met in Winoka who they unofficially adopt and bring home to Walnut Grove—so Charles and Caroline travel by train to attend Mary’s wedding. Mary is excited about getting married until she hears her Ma talking about how her children used to run off and she fears that two blind people couldn’t care for a sighted child and calls the wedding off. When one of the children from the school is lost in a sandstorm, Mary and Adam search for her. Finding Susan Goodspeed gives Mary the confidence she needs to marry Adam.
But happiness would not come easy to the Kendalls. When the blind school is purchased by the greedy Mr. Standish they are forced to find a new location (Blind Journey). Mary and Adam, with Charles’s help, make the long journey from Winoka to Walnut Grove to a new blind school at Mr. Hanson’s old house. Mary becomes pregnant for the first time but miscarries the child (The Sound of Children). The blind school is turned into a hospital when an anthrax epidemic hits town and some of Mary and Adam’s students die (Mortal Mission).
Mary gets pregnant again and gives birth to Adam Charles Holbrook Kendall, but the infant is killed in a fire that also destroys the blind school and takes the life of Alice Garvey, a good friend to the Ingalls family (May We Make Them Proud). At one point Mary thinks she is regaining her sight, but is disappointed to discover it was untrue (The Enchanted Cottage). This makes it even harder when a freak accident returns Adam’s sight and Mary feels like she is losing her husband to a world she cannot see as he pursues his law career (To See the Light).
Once Adam gets his law degree, he soon realizes a town the size of Walnut Grove will not allow him to provide for Mary, so they say goodbye to the Ingalls family again and move to New York (The Reincarnation of Nellie).
The trials that Mary endured during her life made her a person of strong character and I believe that Michael Landon captured that in many ways. Losing her sight forced Mary to focus on her strengths, and not only was she able to do that, she flourished and found love with Adam. Mary was a woman of quiet dignity, very different from her younger sister, but with the same pioneering spirit that taught her that as long as you stick together, you can do anything. Adam became the perfect companion for Mary, and just as Mary had stood up for Laura against Nellie Oleson, she stood up for Adam when she felt he was wronged, allowing him to pursue a career he had only dreamed about.
When Mary and Adam return to Walnut Grove one last time to celebrate Christmas with the Ingalls family, Hester Sue, and a pregnant Laura and her husband Almanzo (A Christmas They Never Forgot), we see a Mary that seems truly happy with her life, and we rejoice in the overdue happiness that Mary and Adam have together.