Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The first book in this fascinating true series about a pioneer existence as told by a young girl who lived it. I’ll get through all of them eventually on here, but will start with the first.

The book is set in the 1870s; Laura is five and lives with her parents, Pa and Ma, her older sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie, in a log cabin in the seemingly endless and uninhabited woods of Wisconsin, far from any kind of society and entirely dependent on themselves for everything they need to live.

The contrast between Laura’s childhood and my own was so huge and yet her life was so appealing. Even as a small girl I was intrigued by the family’s self sufficiency and their skill at so many jobs which we don’t do, like pig slaughtering, smoking meat, making bags out of buckskin, cheese making . . . the list is endless. I wouldn’t actually have wanted to do many of these jobs but learning about them made me feel I could if I had to!

Reading back now, as I often do, the seemingly idyllic life is coloured with considerations which didn’t occur to me as a girl, just as they wouldn’t have occurred to Laura. The loneliness of a life where you rarely saw anyone other than the immediate family; Laura and her sister Mary had only each other for company. The constant heavy work undertaken by Ma just to keep the home going, along with the needs of three small children and no domestic appliances! The dangers faced by Pa whenever he went off hunting in the woods, the deep cold in the winter, and the lack of any kind of medical care should any of the family fall ill, or during childbirth.

Instead, reading as a child, you get a palpable sense of the security that her family life gave Laura, and the anticipation as the highlights of a life governed by the seasons come round, such as butchering time, Christmas, and ‘sugaring off’ when the maple sap rises. The excitement when something out of the ordinary occurs seems heightened by the contrast to the daily grind, and you feel this sense of occasion at the dance given by Laura’s grandparents to celebrate ‘sugaring off’. Laura is brilliant at describing small details, the sort of things we all remember as children. The feeling of space and brightness at her grandparents’ big house, the tiff with her cousin about whose baby is the prettiest, the crunch of the maple sugar, the aunts hauling at each other’s corsets when they dress for the dance. Laura’s gentle but nevertheless heartfelt rivalry with the good-as-gold Mary is also beautifully portrayed and something any child with siblings can instantly relate to.

Laura’s enjoyment at what we would consider to be fairly mundane things, like frost patterns on the window and playing with paper dolls, was infectious. I actually wanted to own a corn cob doll like hers, and at one stage tried to cut out some paper dolls but the results were clearly not in Ma’s league. And I wouldn’t have been very happy with a Christmas stocking containing just a pair of mittens and a candy cane, that’s for sure, although at the same time there was an undefinable feeling of admiration tinged with envy at a life so simple and uncluttered! There were few possessions but a common and constant purpose to life which came across in a hugely positive way.

The Garth Williams illustrations are wonderful, nearly all of people busily occupied, with very effective facial expressions. One of my favourites is picture of Grandpa, James and George on their sled having just inadvertently collected a pig on their way down the slope. I would have loved to see the pig’s expression too but unfortunately you can only see its backside. Pig expressions are probably more tricky.

Little House in the Big Woods is a particularly detailed window onto a vanished way of life; it’s a wonderful, gently meandering book in which nothing particularly major happens but in which the mundane and everyday is made interesting and exciting.

If you haven’t read it, whatever your age, go and read it!

If you have read it, do add your thoughts on it below . . . .

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