I’m starting my year of re-reading well, with a beloved childhood book I haven’t read in…15 years? 18? I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, but somehow they have not been ones I revisited as I got older–until now, as I just listened to the audiobook of Little House in the Big Woods.
I’m betting most of you know the basic concept here (and there isn’t much of a place). Five-year-old Laura lives in a little log cabin in the Big Woods, with Ma and Pa, older sister Mary, and baby Carrie. The book follows them through a year, talking about daily life and about events like Christmas, harvest and a trip into town.
There’s a lovely charm and sweetness to this book. Maybe it’s only that I know Wilder was writing about her own childhood, but I very much can feel a warmth and love within the book for the characters and for the time–not so much the historical era, but the era within Wilder’s life. On this read, I think that warmth was my favorite part, and it’s something I doubt I could have articulated last time I read this book, though I think I felt it then too.
Most of the others things I felt or thought about the book this time were not things I would have thought last time I read it! One negative that struck me was how slow the book is in places–unfortunately, especially in the first few chapters. It picks up with more adventures and events farther on, but there are a few chapters near the beginning largely devoted to minute detail on how Pa cleans his gun…or how Ma makes butter…and it dragged a bit! I probably liked those parts better when I was younger, because I would guess that I’d been much more interested in how things were done in a different time, and less, um, discerning about what information really needed to be included…
I plan to go on to the other books (or at least the next one!) and I’m wondering if this extreme detail may fade in the later books. I seem to remember Laura being a much more active protagonist in later books–but she’s older there, and Wilder may have smoothed out her writing a little too. I’ll have to find out!
The one scene from this book that stuck in my mind was the dance, full of relatives and neighbors. Well, that scene was here, pretty accurate to how I remembered, but I think it gave me a skewed impression of the book. On this reread, I was a little shocked by how lonely life in the Big Woods seems. That one dance is the first Laura ever sees–and the trip into town is the first time she and Mary had ever seen two houses next to each other–and if neighbors are dropping by for tea on anything like a regular basis, it’s not mentioned! (Ma does buy a packet of store sugar for company…but I get the impression company is rare.) I’m an introvert, and I still can’t imagine that level of isolation. I love the little country villages of Jane Austen or L. M. Montgomery, where there are plenty of rolling fields and open space–and Mrs. Bennet “dines with four-and-twenty families.” The Big Woods may be lovely, but they seem too empty!
Perhaps because of my age, or because Laura is so young in this first book, I found myself looking at Caroline (Ma) a lot. I was most interested in Caroline with regard to the loneliness (Pa tramps off into the woods every day, and she’s alone in this cabin with three little girls all the time!) and the way she never seems to stop working (cooking and cleaning and mending by firelight…) and especially the tantalizing glimpses about her life previously. She lived in the East and had a dressmaker…and the most interesting story here may be how Caroline ended up in the Big Woods, and what that was like for her.
But that would be a grown-up book, not the charming children’s book that Little House in the Big Woods is. And it is charming, and fun to read…but even though it’s rich with nostalgia and even though I enjoyed visiting, reading it as an adult I also became convinced that I could not live this life! But I still look forward to going on to the next, much more famous, Little House on the Prairie.
Buy it here: Little House in the Big Woods