Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
originally published 1932
HarperTrophy, ?th printing, 1971
Genre: Children’s literature, fictionalized biography, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Seven miles from the town of Pepin on the shores of Lake Pepin deep in the Wisconsin woods stood a little log house. And in that house lived Laura Ingalls, her older sister Mary, her Ma and her Pa, and Baby Carrie. Though the woods are big and dark, those log walls are thick and the little log house snug, and the Ingalls family safe inside. From winter preparations and then Chrsitmas when she is four, through Laura’s fifth birthday and till the next winter, Little House in the Big Woods depicts life on the Wisconsin Big Woods. Pa spends his winter days hunting and trapping, and preparing for spring, and his warm weather days planting and harvesting, as well as keeping the woods from overtaking the little house. Ma tends the cabin in a never-ending cycle of cooking, cleaning, mending, washing, and ironing. Life is not lonely in the Big Woods, however, and friends and family alike visit and are visited, helping each other work–and play.
I remember seeing the cover of On the Banks of Plum Creek on a wire rack in one of my third grade classrooms–and I hated it. I don’t know why, but I bitterly resented that little girl dancing on the grass while below her in the hill a woman toiled. I had no idea what the book was about, but I conceived of an irrational dislike for it. How funny then, that I received the nine volume boxed set with the now ubiquitous yellow covers for Christmas that year. (When did those covers become the standard? I’ve seen a few blue ones, but during the Eighties, everyone had the yellow.) I began with the first of the series, Little House in the Big Woods, and promptly lost myself in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tale of a family in the American West. Like many girls, I never quite recovered from my introduction to Laura and her family, and I remain a fan even as an adult. When I went away to school in Iowa, my mom planned the trip so that we could spend a day in De Smet, and excursion I’d waited a lifetime for. And I continue to read the series and scholarship about both it and Laura Ingalls Wilder–and to receive Little House-related gifts, such as my lovely new first edition of The Little House Cookbook. It was the latter that prompted me to revisit the Little House again, something I do about once a year.
Three things immediately struck me on this reading of Little House in the Big Woods: Pa’s stories, Garth Williams’ illustrations, and the food. Oh god, the food. LHitBW is one of the volumes I read the least, in part because it often seems less exciting than the other volumes; there aren’t any of the changes in location that so dominate the series through The Long Winter, and Laura does not go through the major changes of growing up found in the later books from On the Banks of Plum Creek on. And then there’s the fact that Laura is so little in it, and I suppose her little girl concerns interested me less over time. But on this re-read I was struck by the many stories Pa tells, particularly those about his father (Grandpa and the Panther, Grandpa’s Sled and the Pig); they, and Pa’s own stories (The Voice in the Woods), stand out distinctively, not simply because they’re historical in the context of the books, but also because they are completely masculine. Laura and Ma’s own encounter with a bear is seamlessly part of the narrative, as is Aunt Eliza’s later near-miss with a panther, but Pa’s (and Grandpa’s) tales are formal stories told separately from Laura’s own. I am curious to see whether the pattern continues, as I don’t remember as many stories like that in later books, when Laura is instead an active participant in the stories.
Even before I noticed the difference between Laura’s narrative and Pa’s stories, I was enchanted by Garth Williams’ lovely illustrations which are so cunningly set into the narrative itself, instead of being reserved for their own pages or just chapter headings. This volume is richly illustrated; one can hardly go six pages without at least a small one with some rich and delightful detail of life in the Big Woods. (I was shocked not long ago to discover that the books are being released with new illustrations, something I find horrifying. Yes, I am aware that there were earlier illustrations by Helen Sewell–the PSU library has those editions–but the Williams’ illustrations are the best. The best!) Laura is adorable as a five year-old, and I love the confrontation between her and the other Laura Ingalls. Before that very party, there is a beautiful picture of the aunts putting up their hair for the dance (not to mention the lovely dress descriptions!). And one of my favorites will always be Ma slapping the bear (pictured below on one of the covers). But they best serve to depict the many aspects of life described by Laura Ingalls Wilder: everything from churning and candy-making to threshing and collecting sap from the trees for sugar. Those illustrations, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s detailed and vivid descriptions, brought the Ingalls’ world in the Big Woods to life for me and countless other readers.
(Puffin edition featuring the bear illustration, standard cover, new Williams-free photograph cover.)
The importance of food to the Little House books was brought home within the very first chapter of LHitBW; one of the first activities Laura and the family participate in the the building and operation of a smokehouse as they ready themselves for winter by smoking meat from the animals Pa hunts. That episode is followed by Pa bringing home a wagonload of fish from Lake Pepin, butchering the pig and the subsequent labors of making ham and sausage. And then we find the description of the attic, filled with the many foodstuffs they must hoard against the winter: The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and onions dangled overhead. The hams and venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.
Often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound. But in the attic Laura and Mary played house with the squashes and the pumpkins, and everything was snug and cozy.
And we’re still in the first chapter. It never stops, seriously. The acquisition and storage of food, and the consumption of food, in times of both feast and famine, was a never-ending cycle for the Ingalls–as it was for anyone living at a substistence level, as they did on the various frontiers. And accordingly, this became a constant theme in the Little House books.
I blame Laura Ingalls Wilder for my fascination with food; I distinctly recall making myself mashed potatoes and sitting down to a big bowl of them swimming in butter while I read a Little House book, just so that I, too, could enjoy those visceral eating experiences. How many of us received our introduction to food porn from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s almost breathless descriptions of such bounty? And were enchanted with the vivid descriptions of how we, too, could make it all–not to mention hunt, or grow and harvest it–based on her memories? I swear, you could put me in the woods with the Little House books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Julie of the Wolves–maybe Hatchet, too–and not only would I be entertained, I’d have myself some survival manuals! Invaluable!
By the way, as I mentioned in my Little Women book report/blog entry, the Little House Books have been re-issued as abridged, simplified, shorter editions under the My First Little House and the Little House Chapter Books imprints. I’m sure there must be a reason besides crass materialism to do this, but I have a hard time understand just what that could possibly be. After all, as evidenced by the excerpts here, the books (especially this one) are characterized by clear, simple prose, perfect for young readers. Why should they be dumbed down? They’re lovely as they are.
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
17 August – 18 August