Here we go with our first review! I hope to get a bit quicker from start to finish – partly for our dear readers, partly so we finish the list before Katie starts college! Hopefully before long I’ll get the hang of writing two blogs along with everything else.
Our introduction to the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pleasant surprise. As we mentioned in an earlier post, we began Little House in the Big Woods with the concern that it might all be just a bit too sweet. To be sure, the story fairly overflows with warm, happy memories and obvious familial devotion, but along with all the fun, Ms Wilder provides us with a kid’s eye view of the day-to-day work that was a necessary part of rural life in the late 19th century.
In this first of the Little House books, Laura takes us through one year in the Big Woods. The major action throughout this year? Getting food, preserving food, preparing food and eating food. So. Much. Work.
The main characters carrying out all of this work are Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura and Baby Carrie. Pa works the land and goes out hunting. He butchers and salts and smokes. Ma makes butter. And cheese. And bread. And hulled corn. And everything else they eat. When they’re not doing things with food, they’re making clothes or furniture or soap or bullets. Mary and Laura have their own jobs, of cleaning up and collecting bits and pieces that their parents need for big jobs. Baby Carrie is more or less a loved family accessory. And Laura tells us all about everything, describing their activities in pages of detail – but it’s detail that a child can follow and make sense of. Here’s one of the briefer examples – a look at that wonderful family activity, making bullets:
“Every evening before he began to tell stories, Pa made the bullets for his next day’s hunting.
Laura and Mary helped him. They brought the big, long-handled spoon, the box full of bits of lead, and the bullet-mold. Then while he squatted on the hearth and made the bullets, they sat one on each side of him, and watched.
First he melted the bits of lead in the big spoon held in the coals. When the lead was melted, he poured it carefully from the spoon into the little hole in the bullet-mold. He waited a minute, then he opened the mold and out dropped a bright new bullet onto the hearth.”
And lest we forget that these are grown-up activities recalled from a child’s point of view….
“The bullet was too hot to touch, but it shone so temptingly that sometimes Laura and Mary could not help touching it. Then they burned their fingers. But they did not say anything, because Pa had told them never to touch a new bullet. If they burned their fingers, that was their own fault; they should have minded him. So they put their fingers in their mouths to cool them, and watched Pa make more bullets.”
Now that I re-read this passage, I realize it’s a good one to show what is appealing about this book. The story is narrated from the third-person perspective, but the reader is never in question as to who is really doing the talking. It’s quite clear that we’re seeing everything through Laura’s eyes. And it’s the young Laura telling the story. Along with filling us in on the details of daily chores, she takes us by the hand and brings us right to the spot where the action is, so we can see and touch and smell and share her feelings and reactions. Lots of historical books might tell us the step-by-step of making bullets – but Laura makes us see their irresistible shine and feel the scorching heat. Her simple, straightforward narration gathers up all the pieces of the family’s mundane activities and binds them together with the warmth and love she remembers from her childhood.
Reading this for the first time as an adult, I can’t say that this immediately became an all-time favorite, but I do understand the appeal of the books, and I’m sure I would have been enthusiastically “into” them had I read them when I was 9 years old. The family is appealing and the information about life in the “old days” is very interesting. The “how-to” info about all of the work needed to get all of the things we modern types take for granted contains enough detail for it all to make sense, but it is expressed in simple enough language that an elementary-school reader could understand. Telling the story 60 years later, Laura Ingalls Wilder manages to share the story with the voice of childhood – we’re getting the story from a girlfriend.
And that’s why, even though the activities in the book are not overwhelmingly girlie – I’m not sure that young boys would be as excited about the book as young girls. It’s a tough life with a lot of work and ingenuity needed, but the Ingalls home has a lot of girls in it. Pa does have a huge presence in the story – he’s almost mythic in his wonderfulness – he is the provider, the fiddle player, the storyteller, the traveler, the contact with the outside world, the protector, the cuddler. But do young boys identify with the father figure in a story? Or the young girls? Maybe they do – maybe they should – especially if they are interested in history/social studies. But it’s my thought that this book will appeal more to girls. (But please, if any of you have boys who love the Little House books, let me know!)
As I read this book and tried to put my finger on just what drew me into the story, I decided it was the author’s ability to instantly and easily bring me right into the little house and feel like I was right there with the family, learning about this former lifestyle like it was going on right in front of me. When I came to the end, I was gratified to find that this was evidently Laura Ingalls Wilder’s feeling and intention. The book ends with Laura contemplating the song “Auld Lang Syne” that her father just played on the fiddle:
“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 of the wind 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 cozy 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.”
And now, we’ll be moving with the Ingalls family to the the Little House on the Prairie. (Katie’s review for Little House in the Big Woods to follow soon.)
Number of pages: 238
Date of publication: 1932
Story time and setting: Big Woods near Pepin, Wisconsin, early 1870s
Main characters: Pa, Ma, Laura (4-5 years old), Mary (6-7 years old), Baby Carrie (baby)
Amazon.com Best Sellers rank: 79, 596
Reading age level: 8 and up (I agree with Amazon on this one, though it contains some challenging vocabulary words for an 8 year old – but there’s nothing wrong with that)
Emotional/Maturity level: No worries. Lots of historical stuff, hard work, family love and support and good clean fun.