Goodreads: Little House in the Big Woods
Series: Little House #1
It’s 1871 and four-year-old Laura Ingalls is growing up in the Big Woods in Wisconsin in a log cabin. Join her and her family for many fun adventures!
I cannot remember the last time I read the Little House books, but I knew I wanted to return to them. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series is beloved by many, even as some argue that they should no longer be taught in schools because they focus on a white family unrepentantly moving west onto the lands of Native Americans. Others take offense at the ways in which the books depict the white character’s views of Native Americans. I did not remember any of this from when I read the series as a child. I, presumably like many, simply recalled that the books focus on a little girl growing up on the prairie–a lifestyle that continues to intrigue with how different it is from life in the United States today.
Upon my reread of the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, I was struck immediately by how little dialogue the story contains. Even though Laura is the protagonist, readers hear very little from her. Instead, they are treated to scene after scene of growing up in the wilderness. Readers learn how to churn butter, how to thresh wheat, how to prepare a log cabin for the winter, and so on. Chapters are very often simply detailed explanations of what would have been common practices for settlers in the West. Writing in the 1930s, however, Wilder clearly knew that her childhood and its way of life was a thing of the past–and she tries to preserve it in the pages of her book.
This is exactly what I imagine has drawn many readers to the Little House series. Wilder presents what appears to be a simpler way of life, attractive in its “naturalness” and its “connection to the earth.” Even though it is clear that Ma and Pa work hard, and get very little time to relax, Wilder, too, is evidently enchanted by the settler lifestyle. She admires her mother at work hulling corn, learns to make straw hats by watching her Ma, and celebrates simple moments like listening to her father play the fiddle or getting a rag doll for her birthday. She also emphasizes her family’s values, insisting that children should work hard, be obedient, and never lie. If they do misbehave, they certainly deserve what’s coming to them. Even though life in the Big Woods is by no means easy, Wilder writes as if it somehow uncomplicated and therefore ideal. No wonder readers still like to imagine they are going on adventures with young Laura!
Readers may be wondering, however, if every book in the series is unapologetically racist. In this one Pa sings a song with lyrics that readers today will no longer find appropriate. Native Americans, however, are largely missing from this particular book. What some readers find inexcusable about the series is not always how Native Americans are presented, but sometimes the fact that Laura and her family are settled on land that first belonged to the Native Americans–and they don’t care. Some readers would prefer that the books present something other than white history and that they acknowledge that the Wilders are settled on stolen land. From a historical perspective, it is not surprising that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not seem to hold these same views. However, readers looking for a book set on the prairie that discusses more of the history of westward expansion, and that presents Native Americans in a positive light, can check out Linda Sue Park’s new middle grade novel Prairie Lotus instead.
At its heart, Little House in the Big Woods seems written primarily to serve as a record of a little girl growing up in the west in the late 1800s. In this respect, I think it succeeds very well. The book serves as a historical testament, not only to a way of life, but also to a way of thinking. Parts of the book will be uncomfortable and offensive. But the book does force Americans to confront the past unfiltered. And that confrontation can open a way to change.