Posted by: Hannah | 01/26/2014

Book 1, Chapter 1

Anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads this blog knows I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Honestly, I’m bloody boring about it – I will always join in on a chat about the Little House books, and have pretty much memorized huge sections of the books. We can safely say that my first crush was on Almanzo Wilder. I thought Pa was the greatest father a little girl could ever want. Ma fascinated and terrified me in equal measure. And like Laura I went from wanting to slap Mary right in her smug face to thinking she was some kind of walking saint.

After yet another long Twitter chat about the books, I idly suggested reading them yet again and blogging along – sort of a recap / live tweet  session, augmented with some frantic Google research and the many biographies I’ve read about Ms. Wilder’s life. I was surprised and gratified by the interest from my fellow Lauraphiles. And it’s winter, a time when I need a project to keep me chugging along.

So! We begin. I have no idea yet how I’m going to do this – some posts will cover multiple chapters, if they’re short. Others may only be for one chapter. As questions occur to me I’ll try to find the answers.

Without further ado… Little House in the Big Woods. 

***

Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

Right off the bat we have a small problem, as sixty years ago would put us in 1954, and if our family is living like this in the mid-50s then they are possibly cultists, or at the very least proto-hippies. A quick check of the publication page tells me the text was first copyrighted in 1932, so we’re actually looking at 1872. Laura was born in 1867, so that establishes our timeline; she’s about five years old, and the American Civil War is only a few years behind us.

We also see the first of Garth Williams’ lovely pencil illustrations. The little girls look a trifle china doll-ish, but the parents seem like nice people. Oh, and dad has a very large gun slung over his shoulder as he apparently takes his family for a walk. Okey-dokey then.

There’s a lovely descriptive passage of the Big Woods, where this little girl lives with her older sister Mary, her baby sister Carrie, and her Ma & Pa. It describes extreme isolation – trees for miles and miles in every direction. Wild animals of every description live in the forest, but there are just a few little log houses scattered far apart on the edge of the Big Woods.

There is a replica of the original Ingalls home, near Pepin, Wisconsin. The trees are all gone now, but you can stop and take a peek at the little log house. It will not take you long to see:

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In this tiny wee house lived a family of five, a dog, and a cat. My introverted soul shrivels at the very thought. The same size as my family, right down to the pets, and I get itchy if all of them hang out with me in the living room for too long.

I’m spoiled.

We soon learn that winter is coming, and Pa is hunting every day in order to lay in a supply of meat to see the family through the lean months ahead.

Pa might hunt alone all day in the bitter cold, in the Big Woods covered with snow, and come home at night with nothing for Ma and Mary and Laura to eat. So as much food as possible must be stored away in the little house before winter came.

As a child reading these I don’t recall wondering what baby Carrie was eating. I first read these books in the second grade, which was the same year my brother was born. He was breastfed, so I just assumed Carrie was, too. Now as a mother, I wonder about that. With the clothes ladies wore in the 1870s, just how did that work? I had a hell of a time nursing all three of my boys. It required a nursing pillow, extra cloths for catching the spit-ups, a cotton nursing bra, a loose shirt, a bottle of water, some snacks… just how did this go, for pioneer women?

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Cool! They just whipped out a boob and let ‘er rip! Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.

Next we get a multi-page description on how to smoke fresh venison, for winter storage. The narrator – not Laura, in this book, which I’d forgotten as the later ones were so clearly written from Laura’s point of view – tells us in exhaustive detail how Pa built a little smokehouse, salted the meat, and set everything up for the required days of curing. The little girls and their Ma are responsible for keeping things in order while he’s off in the woods. Aside: my own Grandad had a smokehouse he built himself, and used it to smoke dozens of fish each year for eating over the winter. There is a definite knack to smoking your own meat over an open fire, and I wish I’d paid closer attention, because I still get a hankering for some of his smoked fish every so often and nothing I’ve ever tried has even come close.

Pa brings home a wagonload of fish from Lake Pepin – it’s salted in barrels and stored “in the pantry”. Vegetables of every description are harvested from the little garden and stored in the attic. Cheeses are also in the pantry. Go back up and look at that cabin. Again, FIVE HUMANS, A DOG, AND A CAT. Now think of how much trouble you have storing the proceeds from your last trip to Costco in your house. Either they were bloody geniuses of organization, or they were living curled up amongst the food and basically ate their way free in the spring.

Butchering time! Woo boy. My Grandad also raised a pig for meat every year. I wish my Grandad was still alive so I could ask him just how he went about slaughtering the hog. Even our narrator doesn’t tell that part – just says that Pa promises the pig doesn’t feel a thing. Hmm. Questions, I haz them.

Pa & Uncle Henry – new character! – butcher the pig quickly and it’s described as “great fun” and a “busy day”. The menfolk are “jolly”. Laura & Mary are given the pig’s bladder, inflated on a string, to play with. They are also allowed to roast and eat the pig’s tail. These are rare treats in the ol’ Big Woods. And to think, my kids can play Skylanders for a couple of hours on a rainy Sunday and then mutter about being bored as soon as the TV is turned off. Ungrateful children.

Next day the real work of pioneering begins, as Ma & the girls have to process all the meat from the previous day’s jolly fun time. It is amazing to me, the incredible amount of labour involved in being a pioneer wife. Ma takes that pig and turns it into sausages, lard, headcheese (shudder), salt pork, smoked hams… she does all of this on a woodstove, with three children underfoot.

I AM SUPER-SPOILED, YOU GUYS.

Next we find out why Laura and Mary are so happy to have an inflated pig’s bladder to play with – Laura’s doll is actually a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief. Mary has an actual rag doll, I guess because she’s the oldest or something… but guys! Mary gets a rag doll! Laura gets a vegetable! Seriously, I’m going to make my kids re-read this part every time we go to a store that has Lego.

On winter nights Pa sits before the fire greasing his traps with bear-grease. I’ll bet that smelled just wonderful in that tiny little food-stuffed closet with the no windows and the open fireplace. He tells the girls stories and sings songs while he works, and when he’s finished he plays the fiddle.

A word on Pa and his fiddle – it is a huge part of the characterization of Pa, him and his fiddle-playing. These books are full of songs and music. They are always singing. It gave me a warm feeling as a child and it still does today. I remember very well when I was a little girl that many nights my dad would play his guitar and sing for us. The narrator says he took his fiddle out of its box and began to play. That was the best time of all.

*contented sigh*

 

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Responses

  1. I just re-read this book last week 🙂

    Hard to imagine living in such a time! I wish that I could find my other books to read. We read these books in grade 2 as well. The Bwater Bulletin came to our school when we were celebrating Pioneer week. Corinne (I think) and I were in the paper wearing Pioneer clothes 🙂

    • Pioneer Week! I don’t remember that at all. Why don’t I remember that? I’d have been churning butter like a BOSS.

  2. OH I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I actually really liked the pig slaughter chapter when I was a kid – weirdly enough – I was fascinated by the pig bladder balloon. GROSS. But it seemed cool back then! Also, poor Laura and her corncob. Oh! In some ways it seems so cool to have purpose to your day – process the meat, etc., or we’ll all die – but yet, it also seems exhausting, given they would also have all their other work to do.

    I never once, as a child, thought about how Baby Carrie would eat. Imagine doing all the pig slaughter processing AND nursing? eeeeee.

    • Imagine doing all the *everything* with a nursing baby! I used to congratulate myself for putting on pants, some days.

      I thought the pig’s bladder was fascinating, too. I never had the opportunity to find out if it would really work like that, since Grandad refused to have any children around for the actual butchering day. I did help with processing, though. I have actually made natural-casing sausages with a handgrinder. Fun fact – the intestine that is the ‘casing’ CAN be blown up like a balloon. And it was, most definitely, awesome.

  3. You can really understand Pa’s longing for freedom and open space a lot better after looking at the picture of that house.

    As a kid, I loved the exhaustive descriptions of everything. It fascinated me. Now, I skim.

    • Yup, I skim, too. And reading those descriptions out loud is exhausting. I’m still shell-shocked from reading about how Pa built a door in the house in Indian Territory. It goes on for PAGES.

      • The door! And then, he fashioned a peg. Then fitted into the notch. zzzzzzz

  4. Awesome! I’m so looking forward to this series – I’m a huge fan too, but it’s been years since I read the later books so I’m hoping you get through them all. I read Big Woods and On The Prairie to my middle child last year, and while we both adored every word in Little House on the Prairie, I found some of the descriptions in Big Woods to be too long winded, and since they didn’t have Laura’s voice my daughter lost interest (SNIFF). Will have to dig out the rest of the set and see if I can get her to read some more!

    • My kids didn’t really get hooked until “Farmer Boy”. It’s a much more straight-up enjoyable read (once you get past the whole ‘murdered teacher’ bit at the beginning… we’ll get to that). Once that’s behind you, it’s all feasting and riches and horses and awesomeness.

      • The murdered teacher is the best part, until Almanzo is accused of stealing $. HOO BOY my kids loved that. All the food descriptions though…mmmm

  5. I loved those books as a kid. Like you guys, I relished all the details I now skim over.

    We did a cull of books a year or two back, and I put the Little House set in a box we were sending off to a reserve my husband was working with in Saskatchewan. Thank GOD I skimmed them a bit before I sealed up the box, because HOOBOY is Ma Ingalls an anti-Indian racist!!! I could only imagine some poor sweet little aboriginal 8-year-old girl reading some of her “filthy Indian” gems. So, no. The Little House books did not make the cut.

    It was a jolt, reading that through adult eyes. I was oblivious to it as a child. But then, I’m not an ‘Indian’.

    However, like all the other details in the books, that racist attitude is true to the times, and can be pointed out and addressed with the children you read it to.

    • Yes, I’d remembered that Ma had some issues with “Indians” but until I was actually reading it aloud to Harry & Ron I’d forgotten just how incredibly racist she was. Also, there is some more subtly-racist language throughout; listing “Indians” alongside wolves & bears when describing the “wild animals” that live nearby, for example.

      It was good, though – we were able to have some good, frank discussions about changing attitudes and stereotypes. But it’s definitely something you need to be aware of, if you’re reading it to young kids.

  6. The thing is, as much as the Little House in the Big Woods is tiny, and their lives there involve incredible amounts of hard work, in light of the rest of the series I always look at that house in the Big Woods as Paradise Lost. I’m teaching Little House on the Prairie this week, and whenever I read the first chapter, where Pa decides it’s a good idea to leave behind that house packed full of cheese and vegetables, surrounded by family support, I always want to shout out, “No, Pa, no!!!”

    • Yes, absolutely I agree! As the series goes on, Pa starts to look less and less like a merry fiddle-playing dude and more like someone who suffers from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

    • ME TOO, Bea!

  7. Oh good.
    This will encourage me to get out my old time-worn copies of the books and read them to the kids.

    • If they’re anything like my kids they will *love* Farmer Boy.

  8. You know, I’ve never read these books. (As a lover of children’s literature, am I even allowed to admit that?) I should remedy that. And I think my daughter (almost 8) would be fascinated.

  9. […] Red Hatters – but in our minds. Every morning, let’s put on the sunbonnets of our souls. Her first post is here. Pig slaughter and meat smoking? Good times in the Big […]

  10. I am nodding along to everything. But am laughing out loud at Laura’s doll!! Kids these days do not know they are born!!
    Having babies pioneer style – what about the dirty nappies?

    • Today’s modern cloth-diapering mom has no idea how lucky she is, with her BumGenius and FuzzyBuns and inserts and washing machines.

  11. Have I ever told you about when my uncle’s smokehouse burned down on April Fool’s Day and my aunt didn’t believe him because it was April Fool’s Day? Probably, because it’s my only smokehouse story and I always whip it out when a smokehouse is mentioned. This is a KICK ASS AWESOME PROJECT!

    • You didn’t! The smokehouse burned down? I HAZ A SAD.

  12. […] first Little House recap post got a great response – better than I could have hoped for. And it was fun to write! I […]


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