Saturday, January 9, 2016

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

"Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world."
-- from Little House in the Big Woods, p. 170

Part 1 of a Little House Read-Along, details found at Smoke & Mirrors and An Armchair by the Sea.

The Little House books had a huge influence on me as a kid. I read all of them over and over; my best friend and I took over the whole house with our pioneering accoutrements as "Laura and Mary;" and the television show was my primal "It's not like the book!" pop culture trauma. I really hated the show, and the reasons why my come up later on in the Read-Along, as, probably, will my thoughts on various other themes that develop.

But today we're starting with the first book, originally published in 1932. It's set in Wisconsin in the early 1870s, and in the course of it, the fictional Laura turns 6 (although the real thing was a tish younger). Like the Harry Potters, the books grow up with their readers, being roughly appropriate for the age group of the characters, then getting more adult in subject matter (although still discrete), and more grown-up in style as they go along. So this is the one geared to the youngest readers, but the crispness of the language helps keep it from feeling dumbed-down to an adult.

As far as the story goes, the book talks about how the Ingalls family lived their life in a log cabin, through all their seasonal work.  The rivalry between Laura and her too-perfect sister Mary which will continue through the books until circumstances change their dynamic, is marked here, since this is the book in which (Spoiler Alert!) Laura gets whipped for slapping Mary, who's been superior about her blonde curls. Come to think of it, I'd never thought of Laura as a role model, but she was, especially when the stories acknowledge that she's not always right, or doing what she should. Her occasional rebelliousness about sitting still and doing what she's told is a sign of her spirited nature, and it's nice to see that she's sometimes angry and frustrated, but that doesn't make her a bad person.

We also, in the very beginning, get a sense that this is all about Laura's growing up, and her little milestones toward maturity. She starts out feeling completely safe and comfortable in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild animals, since this is life as she's always known it, and she has complete trust in her parents to protect her and provide for her. The scene where she's mind-boggled and thrilled by going to town for the first time almost strikes me, a lot older than when I last read this, as a kind of eating of the apple. But self-consciousness and awareness of the larger world are going to happen sometime.

Wilder's simply expressed, but richly detailed descriptions of physical objects are part of why I always loved them so much, and that certainly starts here. I do suspect that I always kind of skimmed over the stuff about farming, however. That's a little more interesting now that I've seen vintage steam threshers in action. But when it comes to buildings and clothing and food and household goods, she's a master!

What I remembered best from this book: Their making "candy" by dropping maple syrup onto the snow to freeze into shapes.

What I remembered vividly, but didn't remember it was this book: Ahh, it's Aunt Docia who has the dress with "the black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them" (141).  Of course it was: Aunt Docia was very stylish.

Speaking of, "Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa" (128): Indeed, Ma has a fine aesthetic sense. Even in the log cabin, she has her precious decorative china shepherdess. After laboriously making her own butter, she equally laboriously dyes it with carrot shavings and shapes it in a butter mold, with a pattern of strawberries carved on top, because "Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty" (30). This really puts into perspective how lazy I am. I sit all day in a climate-controlled room, and can barely make boxed macaroni and cheese! Then there's the delaine dress (a fine wool or other worsted fabric, according to le Wikipedia), which she keeps wrapped in paper, in some corner of a house where they do such an insane amount of work, and every spare bit of space is used to store food for the winter.

Little Laura, despite always having the reputation of a tomboy, clearly follows in those footsteps, lavishing her attention on color and fabrics. This is seen in their own clothes (the girls' good dresses, and even their Christmas mittens), at the dance that takes place during maple syrup season, and when she's overwhelmed by all the choices at the store.

The current trends: Pa and Uncle Peter both make pretty carved shelves for their wives for Christmas.

Progress. It's amazing how much work they have to do. Ma homemakes both their cheese and their hats, and Pa not only kills their meat, he makes his own bullets every night for the next day.  Still there's a lot of recognition that times are now more modern. For women specifically, it's noted on page 96 that the old days were "harder for little girls. Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time,  not only on Sundays," where Laura does a lot of romping outside with her boy cousins. And Pa, having gone in on communal use of one of those noisy threshing machines, says "Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in" (228).

Odd detail: Ma tells Laura about the moon,  which is NOT made of green cheese as she had joked, but a "dead, cold moon that is like little world on which nothing grows" (191). Scientific accuracy!

In Summary: I'm looking forward to the next book!

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins: 1953.
In general: 228


  1. Isn't Ma an awesome woman? She puts me to shame, as I am not the perfectionist type. She is definitely courageous, slapping that bear. I wouldn't even have gone out in the dark to milk the cow; Sukey would have had to wait until Pa came home.

    And surely she gave up a good life to live in the woods, to be self-sufficient. Yikes!

  2. Agreed! And yeah, I definitely wonder how she and Pa hooked up, and how hard she had to soul-search about going off to pioneer.

  3. What a great review! You cited so many things I overlooked! I hadn't even thought about how Ma and Pa met, etc.! It would be interesting to know... I agree about feeling lazy! I stayed home raising my children for 13 years and we gardened a huge plot during those years. I preserved as much of our own food as I could, mainly to conserve what little money we had, but it also spoiled us because fresh food tastes so much better. But...I never churned my own butter, made my own cheese, etc. I don't think there are enough hours in the day to do ALL of that! :) I have been sick, but finally got my review posted today! :)