Posted by: Hannah | 03/30/2014

book 1, chapters 7 & 8

I can’t believe how much time has passed since my last post. See, winter didn’t end after March Break, like it should have done. We’ve had two snow days since. Michael’s been sick for a week. Seems like every time I sit down and think about writing a post, I slowly deflate like a balloon with a pinhole in it and I end up noodling around on Twitter, waiting for spring to come.

A dear friend of mine had a birthday yesterday, and he asked for another Little House post. I can do that! So, happy birthday! Here’s a two-for-one recap just for you.

Chapter 6 – The Sugar Snow

The spring thaw happens, and maybe this is why I haven’t recapped in a while – I’m jealous. Even in the wintry wilds of 19th-century Wisconsin they can have spring. WHY CAN’T I HAVE SPRING, LORD??


So all the snow melts, and Laura is promised that she can play outside tomorrow. Overnight, it snows. It snows a lot – soft, thick snow. Pa describes it as a “sugar snow”. He can’t explain what that means, though – he’s got to go to Grandpa’s house. He’s gone for the whole day, and he comes home bearing gifts; two hard, brown cakes, each as large as a milk pan [and] a bucket … full of dark brown syrup. For supper that night they have bread with maple syrup poured on it, and the girls get cakes of maple sugar for dessert.

Pa then carefully explains, in great detail, how Grandpa taps maple trees, boils the sap, and so on. It’s such a detailed explanation that I’m pretty sure a total novice could figure out how to do, from following the steps. Handy! As long as you make sure it’s actually a sugar maple you’re tapping. A sugar snow, Pa finally tells Laura, is what the men call a late spring snowfall; this little cold spell and the snow will hold back the leafing of the trees, and that makes for a longer run of sap.

Grandpa is so happy about all this extra sap – because it means he can make enough maple sugar for the whole year, and thus he won’t need to trade for store sugar at all – that he’s holding a big dance. And this is one of the saddest moments in the whole series for me, now that I’m an adult and a stay-at-home mom. Ma is thrilled about the dance and says she will wear her delaine dress. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.

I’d like to take a minute to share a picture of Charles and Caroline, before we get too far into it. I always had a picture in my mind of what they looked like, based on the illustrations by Garth Williams and Laura’s loving descriptions of her parents. Here they are!

Get a load of that beard!

Get a load of that beard!

Now, maybe I’m projecting, but Pat looks crazy and Ma looks trapped. Jeepers-creepers. This poor woman, who apparently was “fashionable”, who was educated and had a career before she married (she was a schoolteacher), is now getting excited beyond all reason because she’s going to a party at her in-laws because it means she’s getting out of the house.

Holy shit.

Chapter 8 – Dance at Grandpa’s

The family piles into the sleigh before dawn for the trip through the woods to Grandma & Grandpa’s house. Pa brings his fiddle, of course, there being a sad dearth of DJs in Wisconsin at the time. Laura says she “loves” her grandparents’ house, because it is so much bigger than her own. It has one great big room, two additional bedrooms (one for Uncle George, one shared by Aunts Docia & Ruby), and a separate kitchen. The kids spend the day playing while Ma helps her in-laws in the kitchen, and for supper they have “hasty pudding” with maple syrup. I’ve found a recipe – it’s also called “Indian pudding” – and it does sound delicious, although I don’t know how I feel about it as a main course. Seems like a dessert to me.

We meet Uncle George, who ran away at fourteen to be a drummer boy in the army. As a kid I never stopped to think about which army they meant, or which war he’d have fought in. My (very quick) research tells me he would have been 14 at the tail end of the Civil War, and 21 at the time of the big dance. Pa has been known to describe George as “wild”, and it’s never explained what that means, or why George insists on wearing his blue army coat at all times even though the war’s been over for six years. PTSD, thy name is George.

After dinner Laura goes to watch her aunts get ready for the dance. My boys were BORED SILLY with this bit, and no wonder. Pages devoted to their dresses, and their hair, and their stockings, and their shoes. You know it’s a big event because they use store soap to wash, not the homemade stuff, which is described as slimy, soft, dark brown soap that Grandma made. Then come the corsets. The girls yank and tug and pull on the corset strings, and then we get this charming passage that shows women’s body image issues are not the fault of the internet no matter how much some people want us to believe it:

“Pull, Ruby, pull!” Aunt Docia said, breathless. “Pull harder.” so Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, “I guess that’s the best you can do.”

She said, “Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married.”

Caroline was Laura’s Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Also, he could SPAN HER WAIST WITH HIS HANDS??? Yerk. Blergh. Gross.

The rest of the party guests arrive. The babies are all swaddled and laid in rows on the big bed in the main room, which is an image that just delights me completely. I think we should bring that back. Uncle George starts playing his bugle (in the house! yet the babies keep sleeping!) and Pa, apparently, knows how to call a square dance, because he takes charge.

Little-known aside – we had a gym teacher when I was in elementary school who insisted on teaching us all how to square dance. I am not even kidding. I actually know how to promenade, and allemande left, and all that stuff. A regular bear for square dancing, was Miss Boss (yes, that was really her name).

So the dance goes on and it does sound like fun. Grandma and Uncle George get into a jigging contest, and Grandma beats George, in that she is still jigging when he collapses from sheer exhaustion. Go, Grandma!

And the whole time, syrup is boiling down in the kitchen. When it’s ready, everyone is sent outside to get plates full of snow, and Grandma pours syrup onto the snow, making fresh maple candy. They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody. (Michael always snorts in disgust at this part. He has Type II diabetes. He doesn’t agree with the position that unrestricted candy-eating is good for a person.)

There is a feast as well – pies, cakes, cold boiled pork, pickles. (Try to remember what constitutes a feast for the Ingalls clan, when we get to Farmer Boy and hear how the Wilders eat at every single meal.) Then the remaining syrup reaches the “graining” stage, and the womenfolk rush around pouring it into milk pans, pots, broken cups – anything they can find – because this will become  hard maple sugar.

Once the work is done, the dance goes on far into the night. In the morning they have pancakes with – you guessed it – maple syrup, and they all head home.

As a child I loved these two chapters, and as an adult I still think they’re great. Even hardy pioneer people took time out to have fun, and maybe I’m old-fashioned but I think a sugaring-off dance sounds like an absolute riot. Singing! Dancing! Stuffing your face with maple candy! (as much as your corsets would allow, anyway). What makes me sad as I read these now is that even though the family seems quite isolated at the beginning of the book – they aren’t. With only a few days’ notice, the whole clan can gather for food and fellowship. When Charles packs up the whole lot of them and drags them west, he really does pull them away from any sense of community and stability, isolating his formerly-fashionable wife still further and almost consigning the girls to a life of drudgery and illiteracy.

Oh, Pa. I loved you so when I was a kid. But now as an adult… I don’t know. You seem like a fucking nutter, frankly.

Up next: the girls go to town. Mary is an insufferable prig! Laura gets mad! And they see two houses side-by-side for the first time in their lives.




  1. I always wanted to hear from Caroline through all of this. We heard from Laura, and that’s awesome, because she had a lot of decision-making power when she and Almanzo moved west, but it seems poor Caroline just had to go where Pa went and had no choice in the matter. And coming from the life she came from, I can’t imagine she didn’t feel depressed sometimes. I would have loved a tell-all from her, haha, as impossible as that would have been!

    • I always thought Ma was so mean, when I was a kid. Such a stickler for manners! As an adult, I totally get it. She wanted better for her girls than a life as pioneer wives. She wanted them to have an education – making them do their lessons is a huge part of her whole persona. And eventually, she *does* put her foot down. If you’ll remember, she makes Pa promise that they will not move again once they get the homestead in South Dakota. She does stand up, when the occasion calls for it.

      I read today that after Pa dies, Laura never goes back to visit Ma again. I guess the relationship really was difficult.

  2. The sugar snow was and is my favourite part in Big Woods. I loved it. I loved the dress descriptions and corsets, creepy waist spanning and all. And wild old George!

    Remember that modern book that said Caroline was “homely and old” and was just happy to marry whoever would have her? I have a hard time believing that. She looks way out of Pa’s league.

    • She *does* look out of his league, absolutely. I checked the math and she was 21 when they got married… doesn’t seem old to me, but I know in those times that was pretty much on the shelf. Sad. I wonder how different her life would have been, if she hadn’t married Pa?

      I loved the dress descriptions, too. Especially all the layers of petticoats, and stockings, and underskirts, and corsets… you have to wonder why chaperonage was an issue, don’t you? Heavy petting would have needed some serious commitment, and possibly a map.

  3. I really need to reread this series as an adult.

    • I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them over the years, and every time I revisit the series I see them from a different perspective. Definitely worth picking them up again, if you were a fan as a child.

  4. I used to square dance in university, for fun. I miss it! I’d probably end up swimming upstream in a grand right and left, mind you, but if I learned once…

    I remember noting that “span her waist” thing when I read the books myself, at about age eleven. I hunted down my grandfather (as a representative male, with man-sized hands) to get an idea of how small that was. Unless Charles had enormous hands, Caroline, at whatever age she was when she married, had a waist smaller than I did at age eleven or twelve. Ew. EW!

    Yeah, Pa definitely had some sort of social phobia, with his hate for being around other people. Poor Caroline. But wait till Caroline starts talking, in whatever book it is, about Indians. Ooo, Caroline! Nasty, nasty…

    • It’s the next book, although her hatred of Indians – Laura’s words! “Ma hated Indians” – comes up again and again. Poor, racist Ma.

      I first read Gone With the Wind when I was in grade three. Scarlett was described as having a waist of sixteen inches. I remember borrowing my dad’s tape measure to find out just how small that was, and being completely horrified & fascinated.

  5. I wonder what their teeth were like with all this maple syrup. Just finished this book! Moving onto the next one. I bet Ma would have liked to tell Pato stick his fiddle where the sun don’t shine!

    • I had the same thought, about the teeth! No idea how they cleaned their teeth in the 1880s. Must remember to try and look that up…

  6. I am with Nicole! I loved the descriptions and the sugar snow. We just started “Farmer Boy” and the descriptions are also very long winded, but I still love them because they make my kids ask questions. What’s a “waist”? Not the body part. What’s an “air castle”? It was a hard life for everyone, no doubt. There sure was a lot of togetherness and teamwork, though, wasn’t there?

    • I’m actually reading through two different ones with Harry and Ron right now… Ron and I are on Farmer Boy, while Harry and I are pushing through The Hard Winter. It’s interesting to see how much Laura grows as a writer through the course of the series. There are descriptive passages in The Hard Winter that literally take my breath away, they are so evocative.

      I guess you had to pull together, when there was so much adversity. No other way to survive! And I still think the family bond as portrayed in the books is beautiful. I just find that as an adult, I sympathize with Ma much more than I ever did as a kid.

      • Oh my goodness, yes! Can you imagine the life? Pitching in with clearing land/farming and yet still doing ALL the cooking, cleaning, mothering, serving. Oh brother. I’d like to be a fly on the wall.

        Or when they work so hard to make a home and then they just drive away, never to return? Devastating! Poor Ma! Yes, I sympathize with her the most.

        As a kiddo I loved “By the Banks of Plum Creek”.. the writing does grow and change over time.

        I’m loving your synopses and hilarious observations!

  7. I also need to read the rest of the books. I used to own them but for some reason Big Woods was the only one i kept. Weird.

    Even weirder was the fact that I just ran into Ms. Boss two weeks ago at Winners. Except she got married so that’s not her last name anymore…

  8. Thanks for that, much appreciated! And that picture…wow. Even though I’m pretty sure I read the books before I ever saw the TV series, I still can’t help picturing the actors from the show when I read these posts. But now I think I’m going to try to make the effort to visualize Pa as he actually looked, because THAT looks like the guy who brought home a bear holding a recently-slaughtered pig of unknown origin in its claws, not Michael Landon.

  9. “You seem like a fucking nutter, frankly.”


  10. I’m never looking at that picture again, I’m just going to keep picturing Michael Landon. They cleaned their teeth with twigs and baking soda, didn’t they? I have no idea what I’m basing that on, I’ll just shut up and wait for the next chapter. And I thought square dancing was just part of the curriculum – you mean some school didn’t have to do it? Because I might need to cut a bitch.

    • Twigs and baking soda sounds right, actually. I think I remember hearing that somewhere. And was square-dancing part of the curriculum?? My god, who had THAT bright idea?

  11. I agree about Pa being crazy. I have a deep respect for Caroline. Every time Charlea wants to drag her further from humans and goes on one of his happy-go-lucky “this time we’ll be rich!!” Mood swing she just smiles and says “all right, Charles.” I get the feeling that she loves him a lot despite it all.

    He must have been damn good in the sack.

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