Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods

Title: Little House in the Big Woods
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Date: 1932
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon
Length: 176 pages
Quote: “Once upon a time, sixty years ago,a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin...and she called her father, Pa, and she called her mother, Ma...”
And you know the rest. That girl was so little, and it was so long ago, that everything she did was an adventure. One day they smoked some venison! One day Pa shot a bear, but all the little girl saw of that adventure was the cooking and preserving of the bear meat. And sometimes she churned butter! And sometimes Pa made his own bullets! And at Christmas their cousins came to visit, and they played in the snow! And so on!
Sometimes the grown-ups told stories that were even more adventuresome! Once Grandpa was chased by a panther! Once Pa, as a boy, was frightened by an owl! Once a dog warned Aunt Eliza away from another panther, a big one! And so on!
And after many, many more of these adventures and stories, the little girl grew up! And got married! And had just one little girl of her own! And then that little girl grew up, and she said, “Why don’t we write down all the stories you’ve told me about your childhood, make them into books, sell the books, and become rich and famous?” And her mother did, with some help from her own, now grown-up, little girl. And lots and lots and lots of other children read the books. Boys liked them too, because Laura was so close to her Pa and all the hunting and fishing and wolves and bears and “American Indians” in the stories made them exciting.
But only after Laura’s own little girl was an old, old lady, in fact mostly after she had died, did two little girls, both called Melissa, and a laid-back actor called Michael Landon who didn’t look anything like Laura’s Pa, make a television show of the books. Then Laura’s relatives really started to collect the money. The little old house, one of several houses Pa had built for his family as they travelled, became a museum. Friends and relatives went on writing more Little House books, about Laura’s little girl, Rose, and her mother, her grandmother, and even her great-grandmother, when they were little girls. The Little House industry is still going strong (see for more information), and this little book is where it starts.
Probably every library in America now has a complete set of the edition of these books issued after Laura died and the original series was considered complete, the edition with pictures by Garth Williams; but a few libraries treasured their original editions for years, and so what I physically sold in between writing and posting this review was a harshly used, though superbly bound, 1932 copy with pictures by Helen Sewell. 
Although these books are wholesome and educational, one reason why kids loved them was that they offered an escape from both the safe little nicely-nice nursery world of children’s books in the 1930s through 1960s and the mindless, predictable violence of “Westerns.” There’s no melodrama in these books. The “Indians,” like the large animals, usually frighten the Ingalls family because they’re alien and unpredictable, but they come in peace; when fed or given souvenirs, they go away. There aren’t very many “bad men,” and they aren’t very bad, but you never know when you’re going to turn a page in these books and find one of the characters in what could be mortal danger—employees threaten to riot because the manager can’t pay their wages on time, a man wakes up to find his wife standing over him with a knife—and Laura’s matter-of-fact narrative tone, in these scenes, hardly varies from the tone in which she explains how they salted fish. This is not a world in which anyone asks children to talk to therapists about their feelings about having a new baby sister or losing a baby tooth. To a certain kind of child it’s a profoundly reassuring world.

Laura Ingalls Wilder no longer needs a dollar, but this web site still needs to charge $5 for the book + $5 for shipping. If you're not buying a Fair Trade Book and tucking this one into the package, you might as well find a better price online.