Friday, May 1, 2015

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)

I couldn't help myself; after reading Pioneer Girl , I decided to read the entire series again.  I last read them when I worked at Monrovia Public Library, so that's over three years ago.  I've never blogged about them either.  So it's time.

I thought I would listen to the series on audio, and I did listen to Little House in the Big Woods , narrated by Cherry Jones.  It took me quite a while to get into it.  Not because of the book; I didn't really care for Jones's narration, at least at the beginning.  About a fourth of the way through, I got used to it, although I couldn't say I liked it.   That won't stop me from listening to Little House on the Prairie , which I found on YouTube of all places.  Cherry Jones has this slight southern accent (I read she's from Tennesee), and her characterization of Pa in particular came off as southern rather than the upper Midwesterners that the Ingalls clan were.

I decided I wanted to read them too, so I could go back and lovingly leaf through passages I liked, and see the Garth Williams illustrations I remember as a child.  I'd also now like to see the Helen Sewell original illustrations, which from what I gather look very Oklahoma! poster-ish.  I'm sure the internet has a stockpile of them.

I don't even remember the first time I read Little House in the Big Woods, or any of the books for that matter.  They have just always been part of my soul.  As I have written elsewhere, the Ingalls story mirrors that of my own near ancestors; I am a descendant of their pioneer pluck.

Scenes from Little House in the Big Woods are stuck in my memory; if you mention the book to me a year from now, I probably will remember only these details:  butchering the pig and Mary and Laura playing kickball with the pig's bladder; the strawberries imprinted on the butter that Ma molded; maple syrup snow candy.  Those three things along are Little House in the Big Woods to me.


As a librarian (and certainly as a former children's librarian), if children and families are the bread and butter of the public library, then homeschool families are the cream.  I don't necessarily agree with their homeschool decision - and as a gay man I'm a little afraid of them -- but I can respect them and enjoy their library use (usually - there have been some obnoxious exceptions).  Knowing homeschool families so well, I also know their love of the Little House series.  Re-reading Little House in the Big Woods has made me think about why homeschoolers - and fundamentalist Christians in general - love the Little House series so much.  I think it partly boils down to something Obama said best when he was running for president the first time:  : "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." 

The Ingalls family at some point or the other displays most of these traits.  Guns are lovingly described; Mary and Laura help Pa make the shot; Pa says he will never leave home again without his gun (although why Ma doesn't have a gun to protect her and the Ingalls children while Pa is out tromping in the woods in a real question; afterall, in the two bears scene, it's Ma who encounters the real bear, not Pa; and also, what happens if some vagrant attacks the little house in the big woods?  But I digress). 

Religion is everywhere too; the Sunday rituals, the evening prayers.  But it's not organized religion at the beginning of the series - there are no churches. It's not mainline - probably another appealing point to homeschoolers (although the real Ingalls most certainly belonged to mainline Protestant churches).

I don't recall the Ingalls being anti-immigrant or anti-trade.  Ma certainly lets Laura and Mary go play with the Swedish lady down the road.  They aren't necessarily completely   racist either; I know later in Little House on the Prairie a black doctor tends them; although I doubt they would have gone over to his house to play.  (But of course, there is the disturbing fact that Ma hates Indians, which I think I will wait to deal with until I read that book).  None of my homeschool families over the last 15 or so years have been overtly racist; they all have been white (all of them).  I didn't go to church with them either, so who knows what happens there.

There are three other factors that make the Little House series attractive to homeschoolers.  Gender roles seem to defined in a traditional, conservative way (although that's a misnomer; Laura is most definitely an outlier when it comes to gender roles throughout the entire series; if  Ma and Mary are at one end, the traditionalist role, Laura is always at the other end of the spectrum, always bucking the system and chafing against having to be a girl in a male dominated patriarchal society.

Homeschoolers love the fuzzy , good old says, rose colored past, and if anything is true about Little House, I think it's that; they long for that other, perfect time, when women all wore dresses and made sugar snow candy and rye n injun crackers, and everything was perfect. 

Finally, and maybe this is more subtle:  the libertarian, anti-government, self sufficiency of the Ingalls family (at least in the novels; the real Ingalls family were never as libertarian) is probably quite appealing to homeschool families who distrust the system in which they declined to take part


Laura Ingalls Wilder had some resentment of her Ma.  She certainly gets the cold shoulder compared to Pa Ingalls.  Ma's eyes never twinkle, and she's always trying to make Laura do stuff that's against her nature, that she doesn't want to do, usually with some steely platitude:  "Laura, aren't you going to let the other girls hold your doll?"  She meant, "Little girls must not be selfish."  It's Christmas, Laura just go the doll a few minutes ago, her first toy ever - she should get a few moments to be selfish.  Or:  "It was harder" - in the days of the grandparents - "for little girls.  Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time, not only on Sundays."  It seemed pretty hard anyway.  Although Laura writes from a rebellious point of view against all this, which is refreshing.

Mary Ingalls gets similar treatment.  "Mary was a good little girl who always kept her dress clean and neat and minded her manners.  Mary had lovely golden curls, and her candy heart had a poem on it."   God smiles upon the Aryan children, and even their candy is superior.

Although Mary was ultimately cursed with blindness, so clearly God answers prayers.


Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia Ingalls
"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."

That smacks of shade from Caroline Ingalls.


Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think the entire series should be taken as a whole work; it's hard to review individual books in the series because they are all so utterly connected.  Laura Ingalls Wilder is from the same generation as my great-great grandparents; I have ancestors who made a similar trek as the Ingalls, and lived in the upper midwest, maybe even in the big woods. Who knows, maybe there were McGees at the dance at Grandpa's?

Like everyone who read these books as a child, the scenes that were burned in my memory were all about food.  Particularly the snow candy.  I always wanted to try that, but never have - and at this point, living in a place with no snow, probably never will get the chance.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review. I've been reading the Little House series to my daughters and was thinking of getting the Cherry Jones recordings from audible but I heard a sample of her doing "Because of Winn Dixie" and her accent bothered me too. I'm even from the South and love southern accents but hers felt a little put on? I actually thought it was fake even! Guess not. But I think I'll just continue reading Little House myself.


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