Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Laura Ingalls Wilder began her famous Little House series in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods. This is a magical book that takes the reader back in time to the hard yet happy times of the American frontier, when nature provided both bounty and danger in equal measures. 

I read all eight of the Little House novels some years ago, plus the posthumously published The First Four Years, a ninth installment that Wilder seemingly abandoned. The novels, which are all autobiographical, tell of Laura Ingalls’ growing up from a young girl to adulthood in the late 19th century, on the American frontier. Of course I’d always known about the television series, but knew next to nothing about the novels that they were based on. It was only through reading environmentalist writers like Bill McKibben and James Howard Kunstler that I found out about Laura Ingalls Wilder the author.

Little House in the Big Woods was the first novel in the series, and was published in 1932. It tells of a young Laura living in the Big Woods of Wisconsin with her Ma (Caroline), Pa (Charles), older sister Mary and baby sister Carrie. The weather is often freezing, life is precarious and there are dangers all around. Bears and other hungry predators often make themselves heard against the walls of the little house the family lives in. Pa has a rifle that sits above the house’s door, ever at the ready to protect the family.

A Self-Sufficient Family

Despite all these external threats and dangers, inside the house all is cosy and a feeling of safety and security permeates. This sense of security is created by the industry, skill and knowledge of Laura’s parents, Caroline and Charles.  For the little house is also in reality a small factory. The family produce just about all the essentials of life themselves: cheese, milk, preserved meats. For non-essentials, like music and toys, Pa has his fiddle and Ma can make cloth dolls for the girls. With each season, new pleasures and adventures present themselves, even though these often involve farming and other food gathering activities. The descriptions of the dinner table and Christmas cooking are also quite mouth watering: maple syrup candies, pumpkin pies and pancakes.

Whilst reading Little House in the Big Woods for a second time, I was trying to figure out what was so enjoyable and captivating about the Little House series. I think it is perhaps two things. Firstly, the novels juxtapose nature’s dangers and cruelties against the warmth and security two parents can create for their children. (In later novels, some truly horrible things happen, with Pa almost suffering a mental breakdown when he loses his crops to a locust plague.)  It is Wilder’s faithful recreation of those times on the frontier, the realism of her writing, balanced as it is by the many good things that happened to her, and an appreciative attitude towards nature's bounty, that makes her books such treasures.

A Time Never Far Away

The second reason I think the novels are so successful is that they almost read like a love letter to Wilder’s parents.  The last pages of Little House in the Big Woods are particularly affecting, when the young Laura in the novel says that the little house and all inside it, Pa, Ma, Mary and Carrie, can never be far away in time, because it is being consciously thought of now, in the present. It is the sort of thing we all do when experiencing a particularly joyful time, trying to consciously fix it in our memories so that it can never be forgotten.

Why do environmentalists enjoy the Little House novels? Basically because they illustrate in such careful detail how life was lived on the frontier. Wilder shows how industrious and imaginative people were, how they made their own music and farmed and processed their own food, and despite so many hardships all around them, life was still good, very good indeed.

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Publisher by Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0060581800  $19.95