Now that Labor Day has come and almost gone, thoughts turn to school days. My girls actually started last week, but they don't do much during that first week. Homework will start tomorrow--UGH--and the kids will really start getting down to work.
It probably isn't surprising, then, that my thoughts also turned to the first episode of Season 6 - Back to School. Michael Landon began Little House on the Prairie that year (Sept. 1979) with a two-part episode that introduced new characters: Eliza Jane Wilder and her handsome brother, Almanzo. Eliza Jane became the new school teacher and her brother Almanzo got a job working at the Feed and Seed, in addition to taking care of the Wilder farm.
The introduction of Almanzo was important for viewers because fans of the books knew that this character would be the man Laura Ingalls ended up marrying. I can imagine the pressure that put on Michael, and on Dean Butler, who portrayed Almanzo Wilder.
As we discussed last month--though most of that conversation took place at Facebook--the romance that Michael Landon and his writers created is very different from what fans of the books knew. In the books, it is Almanzo who pursues Laura. On the show, however, Melissa Gilbert's character, Laura, had a huge crush on Almanzo from the moment she saw him. Caught somewhere between childhood and womanhood, a growing and changing Laura hoped and prayed that Almanzo would see her as older than she was. This would be the way their relationship played out through most of Season 6, until the episode Sweet Sixteen where Almanzo finally does realize that Laura isn't a little girl anymore.
But I'm moving ahead too quickly; in Back to School we also see Nellie Oleson graduate, leaving the Walnut Grove school, and Laura, behind. This must have been hard on poor Laura, who is already trying to prove to her pa and Almanzo that she's no longer a child. And what makes matters worse is that Nellie thinks Almanzo is dreamy too; not to mention that Harriet is playing matchmaker for her daughter by inviting Zaldamo--as she calls him--to dinner at Nellie's Restaurant--an unexpected and unwanted graduation gift from Nellie's parents.
What results from this matchmaking attempt is one of the best Laura and Nellie fights of the series. Even though it seems that Nellie has it all over Laura, it's usually Nellie who is miserable in the end; and this episode is no different.
The important dinner between Nellie and Almanzo is ruined when Laura agrees to cook for them because neither Nellie nor her mother can cook anything. But Nellie doesn't want Almanzo to know she can't cook, so Laura is kept hidden in the kitchen, which gives her ample time to shake cayenne pepper on the chicken instead of cinammon. One bite of that chicken and Almanzo and Nellie are running for the pump to drink like fish and cool off their burning tongues.
Not one to take losing lightly, Nellie vows revenge; and boy does she get it. Convinced that the only way her father and Almanzo will see her as a woman, Laura decides to take her final exam so that she can graduate. Problem is, Charles has been out of work after being hit by a mill stone, and they can't afford to buy Laura the books she needs to study. Determined to pass that test, Laura begs Nellie to let her borrow her books--which Nellie does. Now, even though Miss Wilder has told Laura that the test will be mostly history, Nellie manages to convince Laura that Miss Wilder is lying to protect her job. Can't have any young, new teachers stealing her school, you know. So, guess what? Laura doesn't pass the test and she is more than upset.
A very satisfied Nellie stumbles upon a crying Laura on her way back from delivering cookies to Almanzo at the farm. Gee, there might have been a bit more history on the test than she remembered. You think! So, Laura proceeds to give Nellie more than a piece of her mind.
Don't you know that Almanzo picks this very moment to be driving back into town and comes upon Nellie and Laura in the watering hole. He pulls Laura off Nellie and brings her back to his place to get washed up. He gives her a robe and something to warm her up, then gets her to realize that not passing the test isn't the end of the world. And what does he get for his gallant behavior? Almanzo gets punched by Charles, who sure isn't happy to see Laura mooning all over the much older Almanzo while dressed in his robe. Seems an angry Nellie finally dragged her muddy body back to town and told Charles that she saw Laura and Almanzo kissing. We all remember what kind of temper Charles has, right?
Everything ends up okay though. Pa apologizes to Half-pint for the misunderstanding and they both blame Nellie for everything that happened. Then Laura makes them a picnic lunch and they go fishing.
Back to School is one of my favorite Little House episodes. It's where my crush on Dean Butler began. We see Laura struggling in that nasty place called adolescence--which we can all relate to; Pa continues his battle against being okay with his Half-pint growing up; and Nellie and Laura still fight from time to time to make things interesting. This is classic Little House at its best; and it still amazes me that after all these years, new generations of fans are discovering and enjoying the show that I grew up with.