Like Laura, my relationship with Eliza Jane Wilder has been complicated. Sure, there was Lazy Lousy Liza Jane, the bully teacher who made Carrie rock her desk even when she ill. The woman who said “little birds in their nests agree” with a creepy smile, and who gossiped with Nellie Oleson during recess.
But there was also the Eliza Jane of Farmer’s Boy. The big sister who patched up the parlor wallpaper for Almanzo after he hurled the tar brush at her and the black went splat on the precious wall. This room was Mrs. Wilder’s pride and Eliza most likely preserved ‘Manzo’s hide with her surgical skill. Didn’t we all hold our breath when the Wilders first invited their guests to admire the prized symbol of prosperity? Maybe Eliza knew on some level she had provoked the attack by taunting her little brother. Either way, in the end, she came through.
In my research for My Life as Laura I learned more about the real Eliza Jane Wilder. There was more to be admired in EJ than her ability to patch wallpaper. Eliza Jane might have been, for one horrifying moment in her childhood, lousy, but she was not lazy. She filed a claim in the Dakota Territory and tried to earn her 160 acres. (Single women could file with the Homestead Act). It’s not many women who have that kind of courage.
EJ sowed oats, wheat, flax, corn, and dug potatoes. In what we would now recognize as a heroically futile effort, she planted a fruit orchard in the Dakotas—apple, cherry, and plum trees along with currants and grapes. And when’s the last time you enjoyed a nice, fresh glass of Dakotan fruit juice? Right.
I learned that teaching was her recourse—a way to provide much needed income—but homesteading was her dream. Her father commented once on how EJ harvested lettuce and sold it for a quarter, “You were not satisfied to work six hours per day in the school room at $2.00 but you are so delighted as a child with a new toy at receiving .25 in return for a mile walk in the hot sun.”
What’s more, the fated term EJ taught school, she was recovering from a severe poisoning from potato bugs. Now I have to think that dealing with a roomful of sassy farmkids (my beloved, albeit headstrong Laura among them) probably wasn’t so easy. Maybe she lunched with Nellie Oleson out of sheer loneliness. I’ve been there.
The returns of EJ’s claim 1885 were $5. She finally had to throw in the plow. She moved to Washington where she worked as “government girl” for the Department of the Interior. The reinventing of her life didn’t stop there. She married twice in her forties (!) and wound up a rice farmer in Louisiana. For a while, when Laura and her daughter Rose were at odds, Eliza Jane took in Rose so that she could attend a more challenging school than Mansfield, Missouri had to offer. By all accounts Rose thrived there.
So while My Life is Laura is mostly about how I come to admire Laura’s ability to move on and start over, I might have to tip a bit of the bonnet to Eliza.
For a discussion of Laurafans pondering Laura’s less than flattering (and perhaps unfair) portrayal of her sister-in-law in the Books go here.
Fore more information, I recommend A Wilder in the West: The Story of Eliza Jane Wilder by William T. Anderson, the source of information for most of this post.