Returning to Little House in the Big Woods
16 February 2012
Between the ages of 6 and 10 or so, I probably re-read the entire 9-book set of Little House on the Prairie books 60 or 70 times. My parents saw it as a sign of my budding eccentricity. “She finishes The First Four Years and starts over,” they’d tell their friends. These were also the years when I lobbied most vigorously for a horse for Christmas so I could enjoy at least a little bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. (Never one to miss an opportunity, my sister started lobbying for a cheetah, thus putting the kibosh on both pets. Thanks for that, sis.)
Eventually I moved on to other reading obsessions and the re-reading stopped about age 10. Which means I haven’t read Little House in the Big Woods for roundabout 35 years.
Reading it again is an eerie experience for someone who once knew it more or less by heart, and not just because I’d forgotten the overall shape of the book. At the same time it makes me remember my childhood fantasies, the book itself is the collected memories of a woman looking back to the year she turned 5. Reading it again is, in other words, a strange experience of doubledness. As a child I imagined myself as Laura, that “little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up!” Now — well, who am I as I read this book? A 6-year-old once again? Myself as a 40-something academic (who is, eccentrically, reading a children’s book)? The elderly Wilder, looking back? Or even her middle-aged daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who likely served as ghostwriter for the series?
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. The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods.
I dare you to come up with opening lines as evocative as these. With three sentences, Wilder blows out of the water every single fairy tale I’ve ever read. And let’s not overlook the way the book was printed — these lines are framed by Garth Williams’ 1953 illustrations of Laura skipping toward us, with her family behind her. Opening the book to this page is like being greeted both by an old friend and by a family that might be your own.
Did I mention my father grew a beard about this time?
It’s easy to remember a few major elements, like the fact that it’s written much more plainly than the later volumes — this book is written for 4- or 5-yr-olds, or 6-yr-olds who can read on their own. Wilder opens with her family preparing for winter — smoking venison inside an upright log, stacking their attic with root vegetables and salted fish, butchering the pig. No one ever forgets the scene in which Laura and Mary play with a balloon made of the pig’s bladder, but I’d forgotten that their favorite specialty was chewing on the roasted pig’s tail.
Little House in the Big Woods is an episodic, anecdotal story of four seasons with this family, and it feels like a conversation with an exceptionally exacting granny — a woman who knows when to load you up with detail (how to prepare said pig’s tail for roasting; how to make bullets; what Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia’s fine dresses looked like, and how they arranged their hair) and when to just spin a great tale, like when Pa tells them the story of when he was a child, and he and his brothers sneaked out on Sunday afternoon to go sledding against his strict father’s Christian rules, and how misadventure followed.
I’d forgotten — repressed, perhaps — that the sledding story ended with a royal whipping. I’d also forgotten that Pa tells her this story after Laura disobeys his own more lenient rules for Sunday behavior.
It’s unsurprising that I would have forgotten the whipping(s), because this is a book about familial love within a very tight nuclear family. All of Wilder’s memories have a hazy glow about them of love and pride and respect. Extended family members appear occasionally, but those scenes aren’t as significant as Laura’s love for her father, the relationship that dominates the book. Little House in the Big Woods is just about the most ideal situation one can imagine for a little girl.
Ideal especially because Laura isn’t perfect. She has “ugly brown” hair, and sometimes she breaks things, sulks, can’t sit still. She hates being a girl (I did too), and the book makes it clear that being a girl was worse than being a boy (I knew that, somehow, and was relieved to see it articulated). One time the sisters have a fight — a realistic one, I can assure you — and Mary says:
“I don’t care. Aunt Lotty likes my hair best, anyway. Golden hair is lots prettier than brown.”
Laura’s throat swelled tight, and she could not speak. She knew golden hair was prettier than brown. She couldn’t speak, so she reached out quickly and slapped Mary’s face.
Then she heard Pa say, “Come here, Laura.”
What should we find most disturbing about this scene? The fact that even during the 1860s brown-haired girls felt inferior to their blonde sisters? That Laura should be the only one punished for this sisterly spat?
As a child reader I blew past both of those objections to the fact that Wilder is ridiculously generous to her sister, considering scenes like this in which Mary appears as a self-important prig. Wilder insists throughout that Mary was a good and well-behaved girl in contrast to Laura’s impetuosity and athleticism. Even knowing that Mary would eventually go blind (in By the Shores of Silver Lake, book #5) and therefore perhaps deserved special pleading, I always distrusted Wilder’s rosy account of her sister.
Reading it now, though, it appears in a different light. I care less about Mary than the way these scenes flesh out Laura’s character. Laura has an essential sweetness that I could imagine having (but didn’t). Even when she smacks her sister, I see how this fight helped shape her character. Scenes of Laura’s misbehavior can’t be seen outside of the other moments that illustrate her admirable qualities:
Mary was bigger than Laura, and she had a rag doll named Nettie. Laura had only a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief, but it was a good doll. It was named Susan. It wasn’t Susan’s fault that she was only a corncob. Sometimes Mary let Laura hold Nettie, but she did it only when Susan couldn’t see.
You see? Don’t you fall in love with a little girl who’s that considerate of a corncob doll?
The other trick Wilder pulls off is explaining in vivid detail the dangers that surround this Little House without terrifying little readers. The way an owl hooting in the dark woods can scare the bejeezus out of a child. The ominous presence of black panthers, who might chase a man riding a horse home at night. The time Laura and Ma go out to milk the cow on a black, dark night and run into a huge black bear — but it’s so dark that Ma mistakes it at first for Sukey, and she gives it a good smack on the bear’s rump. Somehow those tales never gave me nightmares, perhaps because of the reassuring presence of Ma and Pa throughout … and perhaps the regular appearance of exotic sweets like molasses candy, cooled in a pot of snow.
Some scenes had receded so far into my memory that it felt like read them de novo. Excuse me while I quote at length from the family’s maple sugar party and dance, at which Pa plays the fiddle as fast as possible. Until this moment, Grandma has remained in the kitchen, keeping an eye on the syrup boiling away on the stove. But then:
Suddenly Uncle George did a pigeon wing, and bowing low before Grandma he began to jig. Grandma tossed her spoon to somebody. She put her hands on her hips and faced Uncle George, and everybody shouted. Grandma was jigging.
Laura clapped her hands in time to the music, with all the other clapping hands. The fiddle sang as it had never sung before. Grandma’s eyes were snapping and her cheeks were red, and underneath her skirts her heels were clicking as fast as the thumping of Uncle George’s boots.
Everybody was excited. Uncle George kept on jigging and Grandma kept on facing him, jigging too. The fiddle did not stop. Uncle George began to breathe loudly, and he wiped sweat off his forehead. Grandma’s eyes twinkled.
“You can’t beat her, George!” somebody shouted.
Uncle George jigged faster. He jigged twice as fast as he had been jigging. So did Grandma. Everybody cheered again. All the women were laughing and clapping their hands, and all the men were teasing George. George did not care, but he did not have breath enough to laugh. He was jigging.
Pa’s blue eyes were snapping and sparkling. He was standing up, watching George and Grandma, and the bow danced over the fiddle strings. Laura jumped up and down and squealed and clapped her hands.
Grandma kept on jigging. Her hands were on her hips and her chin was up and she was smiling. George kept on jigging, but his boots did not thump as loudly as they had thumped at first. Grandma’s heels kept on clickety-clacking gaily. A drop of sweat dripped off George’s forehead and shone on his cheek.
All at once he threw up both arms and gasped, “I’m beat!” He stopped jigging.
Everybody made a terrific noise, shouting and yelling and stamping, cheering Grandma. Grandma jigged just a little minute more, then she stopped. She laughed in gasps. Her eyes sparkled just like Pa’s when he laughed. George was laughing, too, and wiping his forehead on his sleeve.
This scene is so delicious that I cried upon re-reading it. I should note here that my own granny wanted us to call her “Grandmother” and exemplified the lace-curtain Irish stereotype; she told stories of a comparatively exotic and cosmopolitan childhood roaming the 1910s and 1920s streets of Manhattan and, although she could demonstrate how to dance the Charleston, would have seen jigging competitions as gauche. Oh, how I wanted a granny who could jig, whose eyes “snapped,” and who lived in the Big Woods.
Despite the narrator’s heroic efforts to describe everything, there are hints of unknowability: the book is filled with song lyrics, some for tunes I still don’t know and which baffle even now — I was surprised to feel a familiar ache for lack of knowledge about those mystery tunes with strange lyrics. Who in my generation ever grew up knowing obscure lyrics for “Pop! Goes the Weasel” and “Yankee Doodle”? Who ever heard of a song about a “old darkey” named Uncle Ned or a poor husband whose wife only lets him drink whey with no cream in it?
I didn’t always revert back to emotions I’d felt as a 6-yr-old reader. I experienced odd moments realizing I can now reconstruct the book’s context. “Uncle George has come back from the Civil War!” I said to myself with odd realization during the scene when George takes his bugle outside and wails its song into the woods. Likewise, when Laura gets her first chance to see a real town — of Pepin, Wisconsin — I quickly raced to find Pepin on a map, something I’m quite sure I never did as a kid. I remember, too, being confused by that opening line, explaining that the book happened “sixty years ago” — not knowing that the book was originally published in the early 1930s. Considering that it never, ever snowed in my hometown, I can surely be excused for seeing the whole tale as so exotic that it must have existed out of time.
But nothing worked my confusion of identities (and my tear ducts) more than the book’s ending. Again, I’d forgotten this until I re-read it and the words washed over me with that familiarity like a long-forgotten ability to play a song on the piano — these words, I found, are practically bound up with my muscle memory, they run so deep. This ending captures a feeling I knew so well as a child; but at this point I can’t remember whether it was a feeling I already had, or whether I learned it from re-reading the book so many times:
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.