Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series. My set has the same Garth Williams illustration shown on the left, only my books have a blue background. I think his illustrations are wonderful and add a lot to the stories.
In this opening book, Laura is portrayed as five years old, but according to Wikipedia she was actually three: the publishers changed her age in the stories “because it seemed unrealistic for a three-year-old to have specific memories such as she wrote about.” And I had thought these pretty remarkable memories even for a five year old!
Of course, much of what she wrote about were probably activities that were repeated throughout her life, such as butchering and smoking a hog, making maple syrup and sugar, laying up food for the winter, planting and harvest, etc., so I suppose the details were imprinted on her mind almost without effort. Sprinkled throughout are family stories handed down, songs that Pa played on his fiddle on winter evenings, customs and proverbs of the day.
But even though this is all fascinating historically, it doesn’t read like a history lesson: it reads like a warm family story with old-fashioned but always ever needed “family values”: love of family, respect for parents, obedience, industriousness, thrift, and so on.
There were several things that were amazing to me: that Laura and Mary had not seen a town or a store or even two houses together yet in their young lives (their first trip to town is a major event later in the book); that they used every bit of their resources, even to roasting a pig’s tail and using its bladder for a ball; the sheer amount of knowledge, skill, and energy it took to live in those times; contentment with what we would think of today as very little. Laura plays with an old corn cob as a doll named Susan, and even when she got a new doll, she didn’t want to make “Susan” jealous.
Even the children were expected to work hard and not to complain. Yet they didn’t seem to resent it: they just took it as a matter of course.
And Paul’s twinkling eyes and good humor and Ma’s gentleness, Christmas celebrations and get-togethers with extended family all smoothed some of the rough edges of life.
I so enjoyed revisiting with the Ingalls family a bit for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge. It’s easy to see why these books are beloved children’s classics, and I hope they will be for a many years to come. Yet even though they are written for children, they are beloved and read by adults as well.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)