Friday, January 14, 2011

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is a book chosen by an online book group to which I belong.  Apparently, Little House on the Prairie has been challenged in some schools because of how Native Americans are represented.  I haven’t read the other book yet so I cannot comment upon that.

What I can comment upon is the memory I had of reading this first book to my children and how, at the time, I found it dull.  Boring enough that I forgot a lot of things.  For instance, Wilder’s descriptions are so detailed but often redundant.  She never tries to use a different word so a smell is never described as an aroma or odor.  While it is possible to overuse a thesaurus, there is an argument for using a new word especially when the writer is using the same word three or more times in a single paragraph.

I love how Pa shares stories from his own father’s childhood and his own.  I wonder why Ma doesn’t share an of her stories.  And even when the stories include corporal punishment, I found it interesting how important these stories are in how they extend the family dynamic beyond the small shelter of their little house.

While I suppose I can understand why parents are not up in arms about the use of corporal punishment in the books, I have to wonder at how the term “darkey” has not raised any objections.  At the end of the chapter “Sundays,” Pa sings a song while playing his fiddle.  The song is “Uncle Ned” by Stephen Foster.  (See?  I did my research.)  Foster wrote songs for minstrel shows.  Uh oh.  The lyrics of the song are changed in the book and “darkey” is perhaps more polite than Foster’s original lyrics but one has to wonder why nobody had a problem with the lyrics of this song.

Over all, I can see why these books remain so popular.  They tell a typically American story but I realized it didn’t tell my American story.  My Italian and Irish families came over to America but never left the east coast until after WWII.  The first generation probably arrived sometime before the turn of the century.  My grandfather was born 1900 and my mother was only a second generation American.

I only know my maternal family’s history.

It is interesting to read some of the things the family had to do to survive–how the meat is hunted and cured, how food is made, the making of gifts and such.  It is charming to read how Laura used a corn cob wrapped in a napkin as a doll until she is given a doll of her own.  The simplicity of their lives is perhaps meritorious and offers many lessons for our consumerism driven culture.  I doubt most children reading the book would appreciate their family’s decision to downsize the holidays.

When I first read this book to my children (about 20 years ago), there was a power outage and we didn’t have electricity.  It was fun, and somehow apropos, to read the book by candlelight.  I don’t think my children remember my doing that but I distinctly recall that experience.  Otherwise, the experience of reading this book to my children was mostly forgettable and rereading the book now was no more enjoyable to me.  Not utterly distasteful but wouldn’t it be nice of there were other books that shared the lifestyle of pioneers without being tedious to read?  I think so.

I'll be reading Little House on the Prairie with the group.  I doubt it will be any more exciting to read but hopefully it won't put me to sleep.  We're going to be reading Gone With the Wind too.


  1. The Little House on the Prairie (Book) was the last thing my grandmother gave me before she passed away. She wrote me a note on the inside cover. I can't remember what it said, I was 11 when she died but I will also have a fondness for the The Little House on the Prairie series even though it was NEVER my cup of tea.

    I have long since lost the book, having moved so much in the time since she gave it to me but I'm quite sure I'll re read it someday.

  2. I think they're worth reading but I can see where some of the content is off-putting. The stories about how things are made and done is really interesting and I wonder if living more simply would make life "better" or not. I don't know. There's something precious about a child using a corn cob for a babydoll but not nearly as adorable as a poodle skirt and cat glasses for a build-a-bear. And saddle shoes.

    My priorities are skewed.


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