Love Comes Softly: The Long and Sordid Tragedy of Laura

Love Comes Softly: The Long and Sordid Tragedy of Laura June 14, 2019

Love Comes Softly, chapters 26-27

Before I start out, yes, in the last chapter Oke did say that the problem with keeping the livestock was that the feed grain burned down with the barn. In fact, the entire reason they have to sell the cattle, most of the chickens, and all of the pigs but too, and board two of the milk cows elsewhere, is that without the feed grain they can’t feed the livestock. The sale of these animals finances buying enough feed grain to feed the remaining two horses, two pigs, one cow, and chickens through the remainder of the winter (it’s March).

I did wonder, at the time, where pigs came into this—surely they weren’t eating feed grain? Or the chickens? But as one commenter pointed out last week, the cattle wouldn’t have been eating feed grain either. They’d have been eating hay that would have been arranged in haystacks in the field. Feed grain was expensive! You didn’t feed livestock on feed grain.

The expense of feed grain seems to be underlined by the fact that Clark had to sell fifteen cattle, half a dozen pigs, and a dozen chickens to purchase enough feed grain to keep two horses, one cow, two pigs, and a few chickens in feed for few months. Clark didn’t sell these animals to raise money for building a new barn. To do that, Oke tells us, all he needed to do was cut more logs, and the neighbors would all come for the barn raising. This was just to recoup enough money for feed. This seems a bit extreme.

Oh by the way, for those interested in milk production:

The Guernsey had ceased giving milk, readying herself for calving. Milk for Missie and for cooking now had to be brought by pail from the Grahams’ every few days.

Make of that what you will.

And now, back to raising a new barn, because that’s where we find ourselves this week! I do have a quick question—something I’m curious about. I’d always assumed that it was called a “barn raising” because you build the four sides and then “raise” them up (which is what takes collective effort) and connect them together. I’ve seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, after all.

But that’s not how this works, here. They’re building the barn out of logs. Someone notches them and someone else stacks them, like an old school log cabin. So my question is, was I wrong about what the “raising” part of “barn raising” meant? Did it simply mean erecting? Does anyone know?

I previously expressed some skepticism that Clark would be adding log bedrooms onto a log house, rather than building a frame house, which I had thought was the logical next step when the original cabin was outgrown. Some commenters suggested that adding onto log houses might have been the norm if they didn’t have a sawmill for cutting the lumber.

I’m going to apply that same reasoning to Clark’s log barn. (How big of a town did you need to have before someone built a saw mill? Did you need a big enough river?) I took to google, I found a number of examples of log barns. Clark’s barn would probably have looked something like this:

Before they do the barn raising, though, the community gathers to do a house raising “for young Jason Stern and Sally Anne Graham.” The men provide their labor; the women open their larders. (Oke’s words.) The women spend their time “chatting about their families and sharing recipes and patterns.”

The Larsons were late, and when they did arrive, Mrs. Larson timidly set her pot of potato stew on the table laden with good things. For the most part no one seemed to pay her much mind, but Marty crossed over to at least say a “howdy” and a welcome to the obviously lonely woman.

Jedd Larson spends his time giving advice instead of actually helping. Cue surprise. But what I’m really wondering is this: If Ma Graham is everything we’ve been told she is, you’d think at least she would be welcoming to Mrs. Larson. Seriously, only Marty realizes how excluded Mrs. Larson is?

So. Remember all the characters we recently met, three-quarters of the way through the book? There’s Mrs. Larson, for one, but she’s not the only one who suddenly has Oke’s attention—and Marty’s.

During the day, Marty had had a nice long visit with Wanda Marshall, showing her a simple crochet pattern and finding her a keen student of the handwork.

Mrs. Vickers had buzzed about, whispering choice bits of news in various ears, and Mrs. Watley had planted herself in a sunny spot by the desserts and busied herself with drinking coffee and “keeping’ the young’uns outen the food.”

Of course, they’re all still paper cut-out stereotypes.

Anyway, the next week everyone gathers again for the barn raising. It proceeds much the same as young Jason Stern’s house raising, except that once the barn is finished Tommy Graham comes over to Marty and tells her that if she’ll move the things out of the lean-to, they’ll go ahead and add the bedrooms too (Clark and Marty hadn’t counted on there being time for this).

Marty could tell that Clark Davis was a favorite neighbor. There wasn’t a man there he hadn’t helped out at one time or another, and it pleased them to be able to lend a hand in return.

This much we had surmised. Because basically, Clark is perfect. Anyway, Jedd Larson is there again, once again not doing much to help but eating plenty. This time, though, his wife stayed home.

“Feelin’ poorly,” he said. Marty felt genuinely sorry for the poor woman and their daughters.

Finally, everyone finishes and leaves.

Clark was almost half dead on his feet, having attempted to carry more than his share of the load at his own “raisin” and then having to go out for choring after it was all over.

Is Marty unable to offer to do the chores at moments like these?

The upshot of it is that Marty finds Clark asleep in his clothes in the new bedroom, and is filled with … feelings … for this man. She takes off his shoes and puts a pillow under his head and a blanket over him. When she’d taken the things out of the lean-to she’d noticed that the bed he’d been sleeping on there was lumpy and uncomfortable, while the one she sleeps on has a feather mattress. Once again, there were feelings.

I’m going to go on to a second chapter, which has a very different topic: Laura. Laura, and her fascinating, maddening tragedy.

There are two weeks left before the visiting preacher’s spring visit, which of course is also when Sally Anne’s “marrying” will happen. Ma tells Marty that she’s still mourning to think of Sally Anne leaving, but that “she guessed it was a part of life.” Is Marty suddenly Ma’s closest confident? It seems like that ought to be Hildi. Stern, who I assume is Jason Stern’s mother.

There’s also Mrs. Vickers and Mrs. Watley, who are both closer to Ma’s period of life than Marty is, but Hildi Stern seems the least objectionable by Oke’s standards (Mrs. Vickers is a gossip and Mrs. Watley is always described eating food, but Marty earlier described Hildi Stern as a “good natured middle aged” lady who was “not as wise” as Ma Graham but would make a “right fine neighbor”). Why isn’t Ma confiding all of this in Hildi?

So, anyway. Back to Ma.

But second daughter Laura’s strange behavior troubled her mother.

Second daughter? Second daughter?! That’s the problem right there! Laura is the older of the two by several months. Let’s flip back a few pages:

Sally Anne and Laura were both seventeen, only two months apart, with Ben’s Laura being the older.

Why is Laura referred to as “second daughter”? Sally Anne is Ma’s biological daughter and Laura isn’t, yes, but there are other daughters in the family, and even if there weren’t, that wouldn’t make “second daughter” make sense.

Has Laura always been back seat to Sally Anne, or just since Sally Anne took up with Jason Stern and everyone started hearing wedding bells? Poor Laura.

The girl had been acting so different lately, sullen and resentful around the house, then slipping away for long walks. At times she even rode off on one of the workhorses.

I wonder what on earth could be the matter. /sarcasm

I’m still upset over Oke’s falling all over herself about how very beautiful Sally Anne is, and her insistent need to emphasize how very homely Laura is by contrast to her younger sister. It is strongly suggested that that is why Sally Anne had a beau and Laura didn’t, and then everyone wonders why on earth Laura might be upset. I mean, who knows! It could be anything!

Ma, to her credit, does have some idea of what’s going on.

“Laura, I be thinkin’ thet somethin’s troublin’ ya. I’d be right glad to be a sharin’ it iffy ya’d like to lay it on me.”

Luara seemed to look at Ma with rebellion in her eyes.

Oh noes! Rebellion!

“Nothin’ the matter with me,” she responded resentfully.

So resentfully!

“I think there is. Maybe it’s a natural thing—with all the fussin’ an’ fixin’ for Sally Anne.”

Maybe??

Laura’s chin went up. “What do I care ’bout Sally Anne?”

“She be yer sister—”

“No, she ain’t.”

Ma looked fully at the girl now. Anger began to stir within her.

Ma’s reaction to Laura’s statement isn’t confusion about why Laura would say this, or compassion for Laura’s pain. Nope. It’s anger. This is going to go well…

“Ya listen here, missy. Sally an’ you been close like ever since I be yer ma.”

Oh yeah. That’ll show her! 

“Ya ain’t my ma.”

Ma stopped short, and she told Marty later that she was sure her mouth was hanging open. She had known things were bad but had not guessed they were this bad.

Hang on a minute. She’s sharing all of this with Marty? 

Laura is 18 (we know this because Oke told us Sally Anne would turn 18 before the wedding; Laura is two months older than Sally Anne; and Sally Anne’s wedding is in two weeks). Marty is 19. Marty and Laura are for all intents nad purposes the same age. How is this in any sense appropriate?

Yes, Ma needs peers she can confide in about this kind of thing—but it’s not like she doesn’t have any. There’s Mrs. Vickers, Mrs. Watley, and Hildi Stern. Marty is not her peer. Marty is her daughters’ peer.

It’s not as though Ma is talking to Marty about people who live far away, people she won’t interact with. Not at all. Marty is perfectly positioned to be close friends with Sally Anne and Laura—both girls will soon be married and having babies, and they and Marty will be at the same stage in life. Doesn’t Ma want them to have friends they can confide in? Friends like Marty?

This is some serious oversharing and boundary crossing going on here.

Anyway, back to Oke’s narration of Ma and Laura’s conversation:

“Laura, I’m sorry, I really am. I never knowed ya was feelin’ this way—so strong like. I’ve tried to be a ma to ya. I love ya like ya was my own, and yer pa—he’d do almost anythin’ fer ya.”

Let I remind you that Ma thinks of Laura as her “second daughter,” which seems to suggest that she doesn’t quite love her as though she were her own.

“Won’t need to be a doin’ fer me much longer now,” declared Laura.

“Whatcha meanin’?”

“I’m gettin’ married, too.”

“Yer gettin’ married? But ya ain’t even had ya a beau.”

“Have to.”

“Well, we never snowed it. Who be—?”

“Milt Conners.” Laura stared back with stubborn determination in her face, no doubt well aware of the Grahams’ view of the young man in question.

Ma reeled inwardly, turmoil and consternation making her nearly weak with the announcement from Laura. Never in her life would she give one of her daughters to Milt Conners. Not if her life depended on it. His drinking and carousing were well known in these parts, and not just hearsay.

How many marriageable young men did Laura have access to? Laura clearly didn’t want to be left at home when her sister left to set up her own household, so she set out to find someone to marry. We know Mrs. Vickers has a son named Shem, but we don’t know how hold he is. We know there were other children in the Stern family, but we don’t know if any others are boys, or their ages.

Did Laura look around at the landscape and determine that Milt Conners was her only option? Or maybe there are others who were eligible, but Laura was too homely for them? This whole situation is heading for tragedy, and I just can’t shake the feeling that the only thing this poor girl did wrong was to try to find her own way when faced with a very small number of options.

I also can’t shake the feeling that if Clark had married Laura, none of this would have happened. Laura already knew Missie, and was prepared to run a farming household. Clark has enormous respect for Ma and Ben Graham, and they for him. Why not join forces? Clark would have known from watching Laura with her younger siblings what kind of mother she would be.

Instead, Clark married a complete stranger and promised to send his precious daughter—his only reminder of Ellen—east with said stranger should she want to leave come spring. I’ve noted before that Wanda Marshall got passed over when Clark married Marty—Wanda and her husband wanted to adopt Missie—but Laura got passed over too.

Anyway. Back to Ma and Laura.

When finally she could speak again, she tried her best to be firm yet gentle. “Oh no, ya ain’t,” she began. “No one in this house be takin’ themselves up with Milt Conners. Iffen I didn’t stop ya, your pa sure would.”

Funny, I don’t see any gentle there at all.

“Ya can’t stop me!” Laura’s assertion seemed to shock her as much as Ma. The girl took a tentative step backward.

“Oh yes’m, we can,” said Ma, equally determined.

Great approach. Great approach right there.

“It be too late,” flung out Laura.

“Watcha be meanin’?”

“I’m … I’m gonna have his baby.” Now Laura’s eyes were downcast, and she wouldn’t look Ma in the face.

Ma told Marty she felt a weakness go all through her and thought she’d faint.

What the hell?? Laura is to be married to Milt Conner and have a baby within a year. Laura very clearly is not going to listen to Ma about anything, and is unlikely to come to Ma if she needs anything. You’d think Ma’s top priority here would to ask Marty to befriend Laura, not sharing every salacious detail of Laura’s rebellious, scandalous choices and words with Marty.

And yet here we are!

I’ve changed my mind. Ma isn’t nearly as wise as literally everyone in this book thinks she is. For one thing, she doesn’t appear to have done anything to reach out to Mrs. Larson, yet she reached out to Marty right away upon her arrival in the area. Why? We were given to think she was just a kindly neighborhood matriarch—but it couldn’t have anything to do with Marty and Ben’s close friendship with Clark, could it? For another thing, Ma is a profuse oversharer who is sabotaging her stepdaughter’s ability to form meaningful friendships in the community, at the time she most needs them.

“Whatcha be sayin’, girl?” she managed to ask.

But Laura stood her ground. Let Ma and Pa fume and fuss or anything else. Come time for Sally Anne to be standing before the preacher, she’d be there too.

“I’m gonna have his baby,” she repeated, more firmly this time.

Portrait of courage. It takes a lot to stand up to someone like Ma and assert your own independence. I should know.

Ma stepped forward, tears streaming down her face. She reached out for Laura and pulled her gently into her arms, holding her close, her head bowed against the long brown hair.

“Oh, my poor baby,” she wept. “My poor, poor baby.”

Oh yeah. That’ll totally help.

The two weeks until the preacher’s visit were full of wedding preparations as well as deep sorrow in the Graham house.

Good god. Laura can’t catch a break.

Ben carried on with his usual farm work, but his shoulders sagged, and his face appeared drawn. The joy of the big day had been stolen from them.

Stolen. Laura stole this from them. SMH.

Even Laura did not seem to carry the glow that a new bride should, but she set her jaw determinedly and helped in preparations for the double wedding.

Oh jee, I wonder why. Maybe she doesn’t carry that glow because literally everyone is being awful. If Ma is spelling every detail of what happened to Marty, who else is she sharing it with? We’re meant to believe that Mrs. Vickers, and not Ma, is the local gossip, but this is ridiculous.

Look, I’ve read the book through to the end more than once, I know how this ends. Milt Conners is scum. There will be no happy ending for Laura. But I don’t feel like anyone ever actually gave Laura a chance.

It’s possible that there were lots of eligible bachelors and that Laura went after Milt Conner on purpose, to spite Ma in punishment for a long-held list of grievances. But I doubt it. Earlier in the book, Laura was presented as someone who was capable and had a good head on her shoulders.

Here is how we were introduced to her:

It was the two older girls that most interested Marty. Sally Anne was one of the prettiest young things Marty had ever seen, and the girl seemed to simply adore her stepsister Laura. Laura, though capable and efficient, was plain and probably knew it, for she seemed to always be trying to outdo Sally Anne. Why does she do it? Marty puzzled. Can’t she see that Sally Anne practically worships her? Laura has no early reason to lord it over her. In watching more closely, she decided that Laura was unaware of what she was doing, probably driven by a deep feeling of being inferior to her pretty sister.

She doesn’t need to feel thet way, Marty reasoned silently. She has so much to offer jest the way she be.

She supposed there was nothing she could do about it. However, she promised herself that she’d try to be especially nice to Laura and maybe help her realize she was a worthwhile person.

Unlike later in the book when Marty feels similar compassion for Mrs. Larson and decides to reach out to her, however we never see Marty act on determination to help Laura realize she is a worthwhile person. She never (that we see) interacts with Laura, and her only mention of Laura is to relegate Laura (along with Sally Anne) to the kids’ table when planning seating arrangements for Christmas dinner.

So many missed opportunities.

This whole storyline is such a tragedy.

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