I have recently begun volunteering at an afterschool program teaching science to fourth and fifth grade girls. On my first trip out to the school, I had to kill twenty minutes after my bus arrived but before we were supposed to meet. I was in a neighborhood that was new to me, and while wandering around looking for a coffeeshop, lo and behold, a library appeared. A sucker for libraries, I wandered in. On a whim, I decided that it would be a good and productive thing to re-read all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House books, which the library had in full. I haven’t read them since I was quite young – I’m pretty sure not since I was in fifth grade myself. I am currently working through at the rate of one book per week (with weeks off for school holidays). Here are my thoughts on the first three books:
Little House in the Big Woods
In her first book, Laura is a very little girl (she celebrates her fifth birthday about halfway through). LHitBW does not have much of a plot – the seasons change, Pa and Ma’s work changes throughout the year, and Laura observes. This book has been embraced for depicting a simpler time in America, when a family could be dependent on no one but themselves (and their gun). The Ingalls live close to the land. They have few neighbors, most of whom are family. Pa makes a living hunting in the winter and farming (on a very small scale) in the summer. Almost every calorie they eat, they have to grow, harvest, butcher, preserve, etc., etc. For entertainment, they have Pa’s fiddle and a couple of ragdolls. There is a strong fantasy about this type of self-sufficient life, and it is enjoyable to read about all the ways that they tuck in for the winter. But large parts of the book aren’t suffused so much with a sense of freedom so much as one of suffocating confinement. During the winter, Pa is free to wander the woods and lay down his trap lines. Although it is certainly cold and difficult, also dangerous, work, it is at least something that Pa has chosen, an occupation that he loves. Ma, on the other hand, is stuck in a two room house with three children under the age of eight, and she does not leave for four months. She barely sees another adult during the whole of the winter. It sounds, frankly, quite awful, even if the lonely woods are beautiful and the food you’ve laboriously put up is delicious.
But the food. The food! Mostly, this is a book about food. Here is a partial list of the things they eat in “Little House in the Big Woods”: venison (smoked and fresh), pork (spare ribs, salt pork, hams, shoulders, sausages, belly, head cheese, and tail), bear, salt fish, salt-rising bread, politically incorrect rye ‘n’ Injun bread, johnnycake, molasses candy, maple candy, maple syrup, maple sugar, honey, stewed pumpkin, pumpkin pie, dried apple pie, dried berry pie, vinegar pie, pickles, squash, hulled corn, butter, cheese… the list goes on and on. Whole chapters detail the making of all this food. Salt, coffee, tea, peppermint candy, cane sugar, and white flour are practically the only food items they purchase. And in fact, it all sounds perfectly delicious and fun. For a little while, anyway.
Little House on the Prairie
If LHitBW is all about eating things, LHonP is all about building things. One day, Pa gets itchy feet and starts to feel like the Big Woods are too full of people (they can see a wagon pass almost every day!), so he loads up all his worldly goods and his family into a covered wagon and heads west to the Indian Territory (which will eventually become Oklahoma). Once they arrive (the journey takes an unspecified number of months), then Pa starts to build. He builds a house and a stable, he builds doors and installs the roof. He lays the floor and builds a fireplace. He digs a well (a crazy dangerous thing to do). He makes all their furniture. He even gets glass windows.
The disturbing aspect to this book is that all this building isn’t exactly legal. Pa heard a rumor that the Indian Territory would “soon” be open for settlement, so he decides to go ahead and settle three miles on the wrong side of the border. Basically, the Ingalls pick out some land, land that is patently not theirs, and squat there, assuming that their government will pretty soon break its most recent treaty with the Indians and shove out the people who already live there. My stomach gets a little sick twinge thinking about it, how self-righteous they are – after all, the Indians don’t farm this land, so how do they get off thinking they have a right to live here? Ma hates and fears the natives, and there is one squicky scene where she simultaneously imparts her hatred and fear on her daughters and tells them to watch their table manners. Ick. Even after all their back-breaking labor, I was a little pleased at the end when the government tells them that no, they can’t live here after all, and they are forced to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. And that’s it for the prairie house.
This is one of the Little House books that I never read growing up. I think I was just not as interested in the story of a little boy in nineteenth century America than I was in a little girl. The tone of this book is rather different from the Laura books. For one thing, little Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) spends the book doing things, while Laura mostly observes things. Almanzo goes to school, trains his own pair of calves, ploughs the fields, plants crops, tends them, harvests them, grows a prize pumpkin, and learns to handle money. Mostly, Almanzo does all of this without strict parental supervision. Laura might wind up in some dangerous situations – wolves surround the unfinished prairie house, the justifiably unfriendly Native people nearly start a war, and the family is nearly wiped out by malaria – but Pa Ingalls always looks out for his little girls. It is clear that Pa is trying his hardest to keep his children safe. Father Wilder, on the other hand, has no compunctions at all about putting Almanzo in some very frightening situations. In perhaps the worst chapter of the book, Father Wilder is hauling timber, and he expects nine-year-old Almanzo to be able to haul logs with his miniature bobsled and yearling oxen. Almanzo has some idea of how this is to be done (having watched it since he was probably two), but nevertheless doesn’t have the strength or even the tools to do it properly. When his oxen drive off the road, or even when he is crushed by a rolling log, injuring his leg and possibly causing internal damage, Mr. Wilder offers no advice and barely any help, just lets him struggle along with it as best he can. I’m all for learning by doing, but this was just too much.
Another difference between Farmer Boy and the Laura books is the emphasis on money. There is practically no discussion of money in LHitBW or LHotP – Laura mostly isn’t really aware of it and Pa mostly carries out business directly in trade. But in Farmer Boy, there is constant discussion of the price of crops and animals, the amount of profit that Mr. Wilder makes from his land, the money he has in the bank. In one scene, Mr. Wilder lectures Almanzo about the worth of a half-dollar, how the coin represents all the work and effort and time that went into growing one half-bushel of potatoes. The book places a sort of moral emphasis on money – investing money wisely is equated with living a moral life. I frankly don’t really agree with that. Mr. Wilder tells Almanzo that he can use the half-dollar to buy a bunch of sweet, sweet lemonade, or to buy a suckling pig which he can then raise up, breed more pigs from, and earn a lot more money. Almanzo buys the pig, but I don’t see how earning a lot of money for yourself is necessarily more moral than giving all your friends a treat – Mr. Wilder is rich enough to afford to buy some lemonade for all the poorer farmers’ children. There is also a distinct impression that money earned by farming the land is purer than money earned by being a shopkeeper or wheelwright, despite the necessity of having shopkeepers and wheelwrights in a functioning society. Pa Ingalls and Father Wilder both share a conviction that being a farmer makes you more independent (and consequently a better and purer person in general and a better American in particular) than any other profession.