"That Mean Nellie Oleson": The Satisfaction of Comeuppance

Otherwise Entitled, My Review of Childhood Schadenfreude in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Okay, maybe that's a little pretentious. How about #YouProbablyShouldn'tUseHashtagsInaBlogPost. But I thought it would be funny, so I did. See below.

I am not going to bother recapping the plot of On the Banks of Plum Creek - if you are unfamiliar with the story, there's a good summary on BookRags that should give you a general idea (although I'd definitely recommend reading the book for yourself!). If you've seen the 1970's TV show, you might recognize several key characters that appear in this book (even though the title of the show is drawn from a previous book, Little House on the Prairie.) Nellie Oleson is arguably the most memorable character (besides the Ingalls family, of course) to appear in both the books and the TV show, and I have been thinking about why.

Nellie has stuck with me as a literary villain (since I was first introduced to her at a kindergarten age) in a way that not many antagonists have done.  Her snottiness to Laura and Mary is first on display when the Ingalls girls arrive at school in Walnut Grove, and though she invites them along with the rest of the class to her fancy party (is it a birthday party? Unclear...) she goes out of her way to be snide to Laura and flaunt the fact that she is richer, more privileged, and more indulged by her parents than the other girls.  These are all classic tropes of The Mean Girl.

The Mean Girl appears in many children's books and movies, and her characteristics usually follow the same pattern: wealthy, petulant, narcissistic, out to "get" the main characters because she is jealous of them for some reason. Immediate examples that come to mind include Edith Eddleton from the Samantha books (American Girl), Annabelle Cole from the Felicity books (also American Girl), Josie Pye from Anne of Green Gables, Veronica diAngelo from The Saddle Club, or even the ugly stepsisters from Cinderella.


Nellie Oleson, however, takes the cake where children's literature is concerned. I mean, her story's just so satisfying, and I put a lot of thought into figuring out why while I listened to the audio CD of On the Banks of Plum Creek.

From the first moment we meet Nellie, she's looking down her nose at the main characters. And probably us, too, let's be real. Even though I'm willing to bet you have "boughten" furniture in your house. Oh, wait, that was from the TV show. Never mind. When she invites Laura to her fancy party, she's a brat from beginning to end: not letting anyone touch her doll (who would want to anyway, Nellie? Wax dolls are creepy!), telling the other girls they should play with Willie's playthings instead of hers (I mean, I'd rather try riding a velocipede, honestly...), and grabbing the biggest piece out of the cake before her mother even begins to serve it. This is where I side-eye Mrs. Oleson. She's radically different than the Katherine McGregor portrayal we see in the show - quiet, kind to Laura, and pretty much a nonentity otherwise - but come on, lady, get a grip on your child's behavior. In the immortal words of Dr. McPhee in Night at the Museum, "CONTROL YOUR YOUNG."

Then it was time to go home, and Laura remembered to say, as Ma had told them to: “Thank you, Mrs. Oleson. I had a very good time at the party.” [LIES. LYING IS A SIN, LAURA ELIZABETH INGALLS.] So did all the others. When they were out of the store, Christy said to Laura, “I wish you’d slapped that mean Nellie Oleson.” [SO DO I.]
“Oh no! I couldn’t!” Laura said. “But I’m going to get even with her. Sh! Don’t let Mary know I said that.”
Jack was waiting, lonesome, at the ford. It was Saturday, and Laura had not played with him. It would be a whole week before they would have another day of playing along Plum Creek. They told Ma all about the party, and she said, “We must not accept hospitality without making some return. I’ve been thinking about it, girls, and you must ask Nellie Oleson and the others to a party here. I think a week from Saturday.” (chapter 22, "Town Party")
I have to wonder just how much Laura and Mary told Ma about the party, and if the narrative here is deliberately vague. Is Older Laura having a little laugh to herself, letting us determine just how much of the "getting even" is Laura's and how much is Ma's, in Ma's own way? On the one hand, if Laura told Ma only what happened, and not how she felt about it, Ma's words could be taken at face value.  But if both girls vented a little to Ma about Nellie's obnoxiousness (not complaining, of course, because pioneers never complain), perhaps Ma got her perfectly straight back up just a bit and resolved to show that Oleson kid just how nice of a party the Ingalls could throw. #Don'tMessWithCaroline

At any rate, Ma makes vanity cakes for the party. These always sounded good to me as a kid. Still do, although a more mature reader notes there is no sugar in the cakes (just eggs, flour and "sizzling fat"). Unsweetened doughnuts, basically, which are "all puffed up, like vanity, with nothing solid, inside." Subtle, Ma. Subtle. She knew what she was doing.

And now for Laura's revenge. Here is the culmination of all her pent-up frustration and not being allowed to slap the snot out of Nellie (who, of course, didn't wear her BEST DRESS to just a COUUUUUNTRY party) - and it's so perfectly orchestrated as to not get her in trouble. Because, you know, she doesn't actually actively do anything. She just sets up and lets nature take its course. My hat is off to you, Laura. You'd think she planned this, but no - chapter 23 tells us, "Laura suddenly thought of what she could do to Nellie."

We must hastily rewind and remind the gentle reader that while playing in the creek previously, Laura and Mary suffered a somewhat gross but ultimately harmless attack of "bloodsuckers," leeches that live in the soft mud at the bottom of Plum Creek and attach themselves to little splashing legs. Disgusting, but fairly easily removed. But disgusting. Bear that in mind.

There is, sadly, no illustration of the Infamous Bloodsucker Scene in the book. So this photo is not from the book, but they did a great job translating Nellie's book-description to the screen in the show, and I'm letting this pic slide a little.  Points taken off for the Laura-Ashley-esque dress that is NOT authentic to the 1870's, but hey, you can imagine they're looking into the leech abyss of the creek pond and not the raging waters of the camping creek in southern Californ-- I mean, the totally authentic midwestern prairie in which the TV show was filmed.

I digress.

So they all prance down to the creek and the nice girls go wading because they aren't prissypants, and prissypants Nellie says the gravel hurts her feet. As someone who didn't think much of going barefoot as a kid, I kinda have to sympathize with her there. But I wouldn't have said that in front of a tough country-gal friend. Suck it up, Nellie. Oh, wait, that's coming next. But not done by you. #seewhatIdidthere

They all go wading, they all splash around and try to tease the old crab, and then Laura fakes Nellie out by pretending to protect her from the Mean Old Crab, and before you know it...

Nellie came out into the clean water. She said she didn’t like that horrid old creek and wasn’t going to play any more. She tried to wash her muddy skirt and then she tried to wash her feet, and then she screamed.
Muddy-brown bloodsuckers were sticking to her legs and her feet. She couldn’t wash them off. She tried to pick one off, and then she ran screaming up on the creek bank. There she stood kicking as hard as she could, first one foot and then the other, screaming all the time. Laura laughed till she fell on the grass and rolled. “Oh, look, look!” she shouted, laughing. “See Nellie dance!” 
All the girls came running. Mary told Laura to pick those bloodsuckers off Nellie, but Laura didn’t listen. She kept on rolling and laughing. [I mean, I can't say I blame you, Laura...]
“Laura!” Mary said. “You get up and pull those things off, or I’ll tell Ma.” [And here is where I identify with Bossy Older Sister Mary. *cough*]
Then Laura began to pull the bloodsuckers off Nellie. All the girls watched and screamed while she pulled them out long, and longer, and longer. Nellie cried: “I don’t like your party!” she said. “I want to go home!”
Ma came hurrying down to the creek to see why they were screaming. She told Nellie not to cry, a few leeches were nothing to cry about. She said it was time now for them all to come to the house. (chapter 23, "Country Party")

Ma is not having any of Nellie's nonsense. I wish we had a more detailed description of Ma's face in this scene, but I'm willing to bet (and I WANT to think) that she was privately very amused. It is worth noting that not a word is said to Laura later about what happened, nor is Mary called upon by her conscience to tell Ma about Laura's howls of laughter. Hmmmmm. Points to Mary, I suppose. She doesn't like Nellie much, either.

That scene made me scream with laughter when I read the book for myself as a kid, and it still makes me chuckle these days. Everybody knows that one person who just seems to have it all, and rub it all in everyone else's face. Watching and enjoying their downfall isn't exactly the most charitable of reactions, but can you really blame Laura? Or can you put yourself in her place and see exactly where she's coming from?

It doesn't end here. The Ingalls come into a bit of money, and off they trot behind Sam and David, the Christmas horses, to Mr. Fitch's store in Walnut Grove.

The winter before, Ma had let out every tuck and seam in Laura’s winter dress. This winter it was very short, and there were holes in the sleeves where Laura’s elbows had gone through them because they were so tight. Ma had patched them neatly, and the patches did not show, but in that dress Laura felt skimpy and patched. Still, she had not dreamed of a whole new dress.
They looked at it, and Nellie asked, “Don’t you wish you had a fur cape, Laura? But your Pa couldn’t buy you one. Your Pa’s not a storekeeper.”
Laura dared not slap Nellie. She was so angry that she could not speak. She did turn her back, and Nellie went away laughing.
(chapter 30, "Going to Town")

UGH, Nellie. I'm so sorry, Laura. #IWishYou'dSlappedThatMeanNellieOleson.

Laura wrestles with some inner conflict, and is frustrated with herself for it. Again, I can relate. It's easy to pat oneself on the back for a one-time-occurrence, and be proud of NOT slapping Nellie in her smirking face. But then you keep thinking about it, and it doesn't get any easier.
Every Sunday they went to Sunday school. Laura saw Nellie Oleson showing off her fur cape. She remembered what Nellie had said about Pa, and she burned hot inside. She knew that hot feeling was wicked. She knew she must forgive Nellie, or she would never be an angel. She thought hard about the pictures of beautiful angels in the big paper-covered Bible at home. But they wore long white nightgowns. Not one of them wore a fur cape. (chapter 31, "Surprise")


But again, satisfaction comes along. No one who might have sponsored the church Christmas tree gifts was there to witness the little scene in the general store, yet when the grand and glorious Christmas surprise rolls around at Reverend Alden's church - namely, a Victorian Christmas tree loaded with gifts from the "churches Back East" - a muff and fur cape for Laura are hanging on the branches. Prettier than Nellie's, and Nellie has no muff. Put that in your storekeeper-father's pipe and smoke it, Nellie.
Laura could not speak. The golden-brown fur cuddled her neck and softly hugged her shoulders. Down her front it hid the threadbare fastenings of her coat. The muff came far up her wrists and hid the shortness of her coat sleeves.
“She’s a little brown bird with red trimmings,” the Reverend Alden said.
Then Laura laughed. It was true. Her hair and her coat, her dress and the wonderful furs, were brown. Her hood and mittens and the braid on her dress were red.
“I’ll tell my church people back east about our little brown bird,” said the Reverend Alden. “You see, when I told them about our church out here, they said they must send a box for the Christmas tree. They all gave things they had. The little girls who sent your furs and Mary’s coat needed larger ones.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Laura. “And please, sir, tell them thank you, too.” For when she could speak, her manners were as nice as Mary’s.
Then they all said good night and Merry Christmas to the Reverend Alden. Mary was so beautiful in her Christmas coat. Carrie was so pretty on Pa’s arm. Pa and Ma were smiling so happily and Laura was all gladness.
Mr. and Mrs. Oleson were going home, too. Mr. Oleson’s arms were full of things, and so were Nellie’s and Willie’s. No wickedness boiled up in Laura now; she only felt a little bit of mean gladness.
“Merry Christmas, Nellie,” Laura said. Nellie stared, while Laura walked quietly on, with her hands snuggled deep in the soft muff. Her cape was prettier than Nellie’s, and Nellie had no muff.
(chapter 31, "Surprise")

It's almost too perfect. In fact, I have to wonder if it really happened, or if either incident was an embellishment on the part of Older Laura to help bring the story of Nellie to a satisfying conclusion. We know that Nellie herself was kinda-sorta real - Laura based her on three girls (one named Nellie, two others named Genevieve and Stella) with whom she interacted over the course of her childhood, and the real Nellie Owens was the daughter of a wealthy storekeeper. But as to the leeches and the town party vs. country party and the competing fur capes... well, perhaps it is a product of the elderly Laura Ingalls Wilder's imagination.

But I don't think I really care. It's still a ripping good story, and one that lets an eight-year-old reader close the book with a sigh of contentment. Evil doesn't win in the end, and though Laura's actions and thoughts toward Nellie aren't, shall we say, the most angelic in the world... well, Laura never was The Good Sister. That's why she's the one everyone loves the most, because everyone can see a little of themselves in Laura. In Nellie Oleson's comeuppance, we see hope for justice as regards our own Nellie Olesons, whether childhood versions or the adult ones we have to deal with today.

There's so much more that could be said about this book. I chose to focus mainly on Nellie and Laura's relationship, but if I were to come back to Plum Creek later on, I might talk a little more about Ma and Pa's relationship and Pa's questionable decisions during... well, from this time onward. (Heh heh.) I laughed my way through this review on Goodreads (go read it!) and though I love the family dynamic portrayed in the Little House books, I can't deny that Pa and Ma both drive me up the wall sometimes. Might be a subject to handle in By the Shores of Silver Lake, come to think of it...

In conclusion: karma is a leech. (heh heh again.) Don't be mean to people, because it will catch up with you. #LauraRulesandNellieDrools. The End.

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