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:
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.
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?
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.