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“She’s my Nellie Oleson.”
We all had a childhood nemesis—the bratty kid who tried to get us in trouble, foiled our plans, stole our friends. My Nellie Oleson was a bossy know-it-all who lived down the street. Every time she deigned to play with the neighborhood girls, she knew just how to ruin things for everyone.
If Pioneer Girl, Laura’s autobiography of her life, had been accepted for publication in its first form, we might have missed out of one of the great villains of children’s literature. Instead, we are treated to the push and pull that is Laura and Nellie.
Laura Ingalls had three Nellie Olesons—Nellie Owens, Genevieve Masters, and Stella Gilbert, who she combined into one nasty nemesis in her fiction. We first meet Nellie in On the Banks of Plum Creek. She also appears as a queen bee troublemaker in Little Town on the Prairie and as a rival for Laura’s beau, Almanzo Wilder, in These Happy Golden Years.
This is the passage from Pioneer Girl in which we meet Nellie Owens:
That summer Mary and I walked to school. We enjoyed walking the two and a half miles each way. Then it was jolly when we got there. We could hear the boys shouting at their play a long time before we could see the schoolhouse. After we reached town we went between the two stores, passed Mr. Kennedy’s house where Daniel and Christy and Sandy and Nettie would be starting to school, then by the church to the schoolhouse. We usually had time to play ante-over or ring-around-the-rosy before teacher rang the bell.
Not many children were in school. Besides the Kennedy’s [sic] there were Nellie and Willie Owens. Mr. Owens kept one of the stores, and we were sometimes allowed to go home with Nellie and Willie and stay a little while, on our way home from school. They lived upstairs over the store.
Nellie and Willie had toys—tops and jumping jacks and picture books. It was a great treat to see such toys, though Nellie and Willie never let us play with them. Nellie had a most wonderful doll which she kept wrapped in soft paper and laid in a box. This doll had a china head, with black china hair; her cheeks and mouth were red and long eyelashes were painted around her blue eyes. Nellie would take her out and hold her up before our eyes, then wrap her up again and lay her in the box. We did want so much just to touch her, even only once. I would have given anything to hold her in my arms.
The little girls always played ring-around-a-rosy, because Nellie Oleson said to. They got tired of it, but they always played it, until one day, before Nellie could say anything, Laura said, “Let’s play Uncle John!”
“Let’s! Let’s! the girls said, taking hold of hands. But Nellie grabbed both hands full of Laura’s long hair and jerked her flat on the ground.
“No! No!” Nellie shouted. “I want to play ring-around-a-rosy!”
Laura jumped up and her hand flashed out to slap Nellie. She stopped just in time. Pa said she must never strike anybody.
The author develops the relationships between the characters by expanding the scenes and using dialogue. At Nellie’s party, Laura is awed by Nellie’s possessions:
Mrs. Oleson said, “Now, Nellie, bring out your playthings.”
“They can play with Willie’s playthings,” Nellie said.
“They can’t ride on my velocipede!” Willie shouted.
“Well, they can play with your Noah’s ark and your soldiers,” said Nellie.
Later Nellie walked among them, saying “You can look at my doll.”
The doll had a china head, with smooth red cheeks and red mouth. Her eyes were black and her china hair was black and waved. Her wee hands were china, and her feet were tiny china feet in black china shoes.
“Oh!” Laura said. “Oh, what a beautiful doll! Oh, Nellie, what is her name?”
“She’s nothing but an old doll,” Nellie said. “I don’t care about this old doll. You wait til you see my wax doll.”
Nellie proceeds to show off her wax doll, then chastises Laura when Laura tries to touch the doll.
The expanded scenes in On the Banks of Plum Creek do a great deal to establish the relationship between Laura and Nellie. Later, Laura gets her revenge on her own turf.
From Pioneer Girl:
When Nellie and Willie came from town to play with us, I would lead them near the old crab’s stone, and when he chased them they would run screaming into the bloodsucker’s pool. The slimy bloodsuckers would fasten on their feet and legs.
At first they tried to brush them off. Then they kicked and danced and screeched, while I rolled on the grass and laughed.
Nellie and Willie never suspected that I lured them that way on purpose, and they never learned to beware of the old crab before he chased them.
At last Mary would make me stop laughing and come help her pull the bloodsuckers off. Mary did not think we should treat company that way. But I said, when we went to see Nellie and Willie they wouldn’t let us touch their toys, the wonderful doll we were not allowed to hold, and if we played as they wanted to play at their house, then they could play our way when they came to see us.
Finally Mary’s conscience made her tell Ma what I was doing, and Ma said I must not do so any more. But Pa’s blue eyes twinkled, though he did not say anything.
In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the incident with the bloodsuckers occurred at a party, after Nellie was rude to Ma.
They went up the path between the blowing grasses and wild flowers, to the house where Ma was waiting. Mary told her the girls’ names one by one, and she smiled her lovely smile and spoke to them. But Nellie smoothed down her new pretty dress and said to Ma, “Of course I didn’t wear my best dress to just a country party.”
Then Laura didn’t care what Ma had taught her; she didn’t care if Pa punished her. She was going to get even with Nellie for that. Nellie couldn’t speak that way to Ma.
Ma only smiled and said: “It’s a very pretty dress, Nellie. We’re glad you could come.” But Laura was not going to forgive Nellie.
She led the girls wading near the old crab’s home. The noise and the splashing had driven him under his rock. She saw his angry claws and his browny-green head peeping out, and she crowded Nellie near him. Then she kicked a big splash of water onto his rock and she screamed, “Ooh, Nellie! Nellie, look out!”
The old crab rushed at Nellie’s toes, snapping his claws to nip them.
“Run! Run!” Laura screamed, pushing Christy and Maud back toward the bridge, and then she ran after Nellie. Nellie ran screaming straight into the muddy water under the plum thicket.
* * *
Nellie came out into the clean water. 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, then she ran screaming up 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!”
In her later writings, Laura Ingalls Wilder said of her relationship with her Nellie, “I am sure she was much more unhappy than she ever could have made me.”
Some childhood squabbles seem silly when we look back on them, and others cut so deep that we have a hard time letting go of the emotion. The Laura of the Little House books foils her Nellie at every turn, and for that, I’m glad.