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Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls
Stranger in the Store
Nellie Oleson did not like the prairie.
She did not like the dust. She did not like the big open sky. She did not like how there was nothing to see in any direction for miles and miles and miles. She did not like the musky, hot, itchy smell of horses tied up along Main Street, or the wind that whistled all night and blew dirt in her face all day.
She hated the long, boring afternoons when she was cooped up in her father's store. She hated the flies that came in through the open windows and the men in raggedy clothes who came in through the open door.
She couldn't go outside to play. She had to keep her skin pale and ladylike. But she didn't want to go out anyway. It was always too hot or too cold. In the summer there were too many bugs, and in the winter her fingers and toes were always frozen.
Every morning when Nellie woke up, she lay in bed for as long as she could, wishing and wishing that her father would take them back to New York. They had come west when she was only a little girl, so she could not remember their home back east very well. But she knew it had to be better than Walnut Grove.
When she was very small, her family had taken a trip to New York City. Nellie was sure it was the biggest, most beautiful city in the world.
New York had buildings that reached so far up into the sky, she imagined clouds must bump into them all the time. She could remember the streets full of well-dressed people walking and talking. Everywhere she heard the clop-clopping sound of hooves on stone as horse-drawn carriages went by.
Most of all she remembered big store windows made of clear, shiny glass. She had pulled away from her mother's hand to press her nose against their smooth, clean surfaces. Beyond, she could see a world of silk dresses and gloves and velvet hats and polished shoes. Mrs. Oleson was very angry when she finally found Nellie, but Nellie didn't care.
She knew New York was the place for her. There was something to see wherever you looked. Not like on the prairie, where she had nothing to do all day long. At least, nothing she wanted to do.
Every night Nellie sat in front of the great looking-glass in the bedroom as her mother brushed her long golden hair and wrapped it in curl-papers. Nellie would look into her own blue eyes and dream about being a grown lady. When she was old enough, she could go back to New York and be a real city girl. She would wear fine dresses and hoopskirts and delicate slippers. Elegant men would ask her to dance. New York was a good place to be beautiful, and Nellie Oleson was very beautiful.
"Take care of your looks, Nellie," Mrs. Oleson always said. "A rich man will marry you someday if you are pretty. That's the most important thing you have to remember."
Nellie didn't see how she was ever going to meet a rich man out here on the prairie, especially one she would want to marry. She had not met a single person in Walnut Grove who she thought was good enough to even speak to the Oleson family.
She knew her mother felt the same way, because Mrs. Oleson had a way of sniffing when she disapproved of someone. Nearly everyone who came into the store got Mrs. Oleson's sniff-sniff of disapproval once they were gone.
One spring morning when Nellie was seven years old, she was in her father's store, dusting. This was a job she hated. The dust tickled her nose, and it made her hands feel dry and rough. But every Saturday her father called her into the store, handed her a damp rag, and pointed her to the shelves behind the counter. Her little brother, Willie, had only one chore, sweeping the front steps, because he was younger than her and a boy. Nellie did not think that was fair.
The store was big, but it was so crowded with merchandise that it looked much smaller. In the front it was lit by the sun coming through the two windows and the open door. But toward the back it could be dim and hard to see, especially on dark winter days.
Along one side of the store was a long board counter. Behind it the wall was covered in shelves that reached nearly to the ceiling. Each shelf was crammed with pans and pots and pieces of stovepipe and hinges and door knobs and tin cups and pails and bolts of cloth in bright reds and soft browns and cornsilk yellows. It was Nellie's task to dust everything she could reach until it shone. Then her mother would dust everything else that she couldn't reach.
Mr. Oleson said it was important for everything to be clean so that it gleamed in the lamplight. Nobody wanted to buy dusty pots, he told Nellie. And dust blew in off the street all day long as people came in and out. It made Nellie dislike the shop's customers more and more, as she watched the store get dirtier with every person who tromped in. She knew she would have to help her mother clean it later. At least she did not have to do any chores that would tan her skin or give her hands calluses.
The only good thing about this chore was that her father usually did not watch her while she did it. He always faced forward over the counter, selling or joking with customers.
Along the opposite wall were all the sharp and dangerous things: knives, saws, axes, wires, nails, hoes, hatchets, and farming tools. Nellie and Willie were not allowed to touch anything on that . . .Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls. Copyright � by Heather Williams. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.