Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods

Information

Goodreads: Little House in the Big Woods
Series: Little House #1
Source: Library
Published: 1932

Summary

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!

Star Divider

Review

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.

4 stars

7 thoughts on “Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. Nicole Overmoyer says:

    I loved your review of one my favorite books from childhood! I still re-read them all every couple years. If you’re interested in looking at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life through a more non-fiction lens, and learning more about who she was and why wrote and the things that shaped her books, have you read “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” by Caroline Fraser? It was fascinating! And it didn’t diminish my love for her series, in part because it explained the context behind the things that are problematic in her series. Anyway, just thought I’d offer that recommendation if you’re interested.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Ah, yes, the historical context is very important! From what I can see, critics understand that there is historical context, but they are particularly worried that these are children’s books and that children might be reading them without understanding that context. They would prefer such books overtly say that manifest destiny was wrong and depict Native Americans in a positive way, instead of as a threat, as Ingalls does. I have seen some librarians ask if they ought to remove the books from shelves or transfer them to the adult section where they will be available just in case of research needs. Basically, they want to remove the books from shelves in case the “wrong” people read them. In this case, kids.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Never Not Reading says:

    You make a good point that a lot of the problems with this book are that the Wilders are there on Native lands and don’t acknowledge it. This is less of an issue even in this book (They were in Wisconsin which was settled by white people long before they got there I believe) but becomes an increasing problem as the series goes on.

    I admit that what makes this series continually intriguing to me (in theory, I haven’t revisited them yet) is what you talked about, how this series accurately preserves their way of life. Right or wrong, there were white folks on the frontier, and the lives they lived were profoundly different than ours. Even the racist ideas espoused later in the series might help young readers understand WHY the white people felt justified in settling Native lands. If you’re interested in history this series is fascinating.

    I would suggest instead of throwing it out with the curriculum maybe pairing it with an own-voices Indigenous perspective (such as Prairie Lotus) and comparing the two and discussing what exactly the problems with the Little House series are.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think the series is really valuable from a historical perspective. I really wouldn’t expect white settlers to be sorry about moving West–or they wouldn’t have done it–and it does come across as anachronistic when you have contemporary books writing historical characters espousing what are really contemporary views. I think Wilder wanted to preserve her way of life and she did that honestly, down to portraying views from her parents that she herself didn’t seem to agree with. Pretending that her parents didn’t have certain views wouldn’t necessarily have been beneficial, either. We need to acknowledge the past to address it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I have never read the Little House books. In fact, they often vanish from my mind! I don’t know why. I’d probably adore them.

    I know they are based on Wilder’s own life and I really like that. But what I don’t know is how accurate they are. And whether or not the accuracy lasts throughout the series. Have you read them all before? Do you know?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I remember really loving the Little House books growing up, but don’t remember much about them! As far as I know, they are pretty accurate historically since they’re basically a fictionalized memoir–so at least I imagine stuff like how to make a straw hat is true, even if she potentially rearranged some events for more clarity or drama or something. But I have never researched the question.

      Like

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