A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

 Little House in the Big Woods

I recently read a review of the whole series of Little House books on the occasion of their being released in a two-volume set by the Library of America. These books were great favorites of mine as a child, but unlike many other childhood favorites, they have remained hidden away in the attic, unrevisited in my adult years. Reviewer Katherine A. Powers's discussion of the books' descriptions of frontier life and of the darkness inherent in it made me long to read these old favorites again. So I trotted off and snagged a few of them in paperback, my attic dwarf being unwilling to stand on her head and paw through boxes to find my childhood copies (which I once mutilated somewhat cruelly (by folding and crinkling the pages) in an effort to make the books look "old"; attic dwarf, in a slightly different role, was none too pleased with my efforts).

I remember that Little House in the Big Woods was not my favorite of the books (I think that was On the Banks of Plum Creek, but I won't be fully sure until I get to it), but gosh do I remember it well. I anticipated every incident, every illustration, even some turns of phrase. I started leafing ahead to see "How far til the stump that looked like a bear?" or "When do we get to the naughty boy and the bees?" Again, unlike other childhood favorites I have read again when grown up, I have little or no recollection of reading these, which makes me think I read them (or they were read to me) when I was so young that they just sort of became part of my own personal idiomythology (that's not a word, surely; surely it should be?). In any case, they were a delight to read now, and not just for the nostalgia. The prose is very simple, but there's often something poetic about it, and despite the episodic nature of the story (there's no plot beyond detailing how people stayed alive and happy in the big woods of Wisconsin in the 1870s), the book was practically a page-turner for me. Incidents that were mostly just adventures for me when I was a child now are tinged with a darkness that did not occur to me then. When Pa is away and Ma and Laura find a hungry bear inside the barn fence, what if the bear had killed Ma? What happens to a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year old in the woods, alone, in winter with no way of contacting anyone? The reality of the thing is more real to me now, I suppose is a good way of putting it, and it engenders a respect for the courage of the people who lived these sorts of lives that just knowing that such a life was hard never could. This was fascinating reading, and I'm already well into the next one--or, the third one, really (I'm skipping Farmer Boy for now)--where I expect I may run headlong into some attitudes about native peoples which is going to challenge my fuzzy delight in rediscovering these books, but we shall see.

Little House on the Prairie

I didn't remember this one nearly as well as Little House in the Big Woods, but many of the incidents (and many of the illustrations) were familiar and welcome. I was struck in Big Woods by the ingenuity and courage of the settlers living on the frontiers in the 1870s; in Prairie I am no less impressed by those qualities, but the circumstances of the Ingalls family in this installment gives me the willies in a way that the realities of living in the Big Woods did not. Surely it is because I have always lived nestled among hills and under trees that the descriptions (and illustrations--maybe even especially the illustrations) of the wide open prairie and the notion of a house just plopped in the middle of all that space quite literally gives me the shivers. Do you know a person who must sit with his back to the wall in a restaurant because that open space behind him is discomfiting? That's how I feel about houses. They ought be backed up against the foot of a mountain or at the least tucked in a clearing with tall trees all around. I'm glad, I guess, that there are people who like that kind of open environment (both Pa and Laura in this book seem to take to the flat openness of the prairie particularly well) as not all of us can live at the foot of mountains--there just aren't enough of them. But I leave them to it.

The constant fear regarding encounters with restive Indians lent a sense of suspense to Prairie which was completely lacking in Big Woods. The fears I had about attitudes toward native peoples in this book were perhaps somewhat overblown. There is certainly othering going on here, and a fair amount of prejudice, but Laura (mostly) seems innocently fascinated by the Indians and Pa (though he definitely carries a nice load of white-settler-entitlement around with him) adopts a live-and-let-live attitude, talking his neighbors down from their fears on more than one occasion. Some passages made me squirm a bit, but keeping in mind the context in which the book was written and the time it recalls, and considering the perhaps more-enlightened-than-typical attitude of Pa, those passages weren't enough to ruin a series of childhood favorites. I would be fascinated, however, to read some articles delving into the portrayal of the native peoples in this book and providing some discussion of the political and historical situation. I'd particularly like to read some opinions on the scene where Laura becomes enchanted by an Indian baby with "hair . . . as black as a crow and its eyes . . . black as a night when no stars shine" and demands that Pa "get (her) that little Indian baby!" as well as on the fact that Pa's sense of morality when it comes to usurping the Indian land seems to stem directly from what the government says is okay. If Washington says the Indian Territory is open to the settlers then he's going to have his land and the Indians can go lump it. If they say not, then he'll move on. That the Indians are obviously living on the land and that they were clearly there first seems not to enter into it for him.

Pa, in fact (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ma), has become one of the most interesting aspects of these books for me on these rereads. How does he know how to make a life on the prairie anyway? That he should be a competent frontiersman generally can be taken as a given since when we first meet him in Big Woods he's already been making a successful go at that kind of life for several years (at least). But how does he know what the specific dangers of the prairie are? And how to deal with them? As a child, I accepted Pa as the all-knowing performer of crafty miracles and protector of home and family (I knew men like that myself, after all), but as an adult I begin to want to see him as a real person and to question him and to suspect that sometimes his pioneer spirit endangers his family (a number of minor catastrophes in Prairie, which are presented as things from which Pa saves the day, are actually his fault). The question of what children know and what adults know and keep from the children, I think, is a central theme in this book, and one which probably sails right over the head of children readers (except for the few times when it is made explicit as part of the action). I count six instances in Prairie when the whole family is a hair's breadth away from a horrible death, and much of what is interesting to me here (beyond the details of the day-to-day business of staying alive, which is always fascinating) is how these two adults try to--and mostly succeed at--giving their children a happy life which is free from fear and dread.

These reviews originally appeared on my LibraryThing account here and here.


  1. Pithy, as usual. Do you have images in your head of the characters which do not depend on the TV series casting?

  2. I definitely don't picture the TV series peeps. There was some good to that show, but I don't really see them as the same people who populate the books. I pretty much picture the characters as they are depicted in the illustrations, really--probably because the illustrations are so ingrained in my memory. I could call them up in the ol' mind's eye twenty plus years after last seeing them no problem (before these-here rereads, of course).