Little House In the Big Woods

This is an utterly charming book, and I flew through it.  As always, there was much detail about farm chores that I didn’t understand and which often left me bored.  But some of that stuff in this book was mildly interesting (like cheesemaking); and none of it detracted from the pleasures of the book for me.

Most successful is the child’s eye perspective.  When little Laura makes her first trip out of the Big Woods, she’s enchanted by her first sight of a lake; of an open, tree-less sky; of a town with houses together in a group.

This is my fourth “Little House” book, and they are starting to be distinguished from one another.  Each of them – or almost all – has a theme running through it that is not just a single episode, and which lifts the novel.  I will always remember “The Long Winter” as the one with all the songs and hymns.  “Little House on the Prairie” has the wolf packs.  “Little Town on the Prairie” is a bit of an exception because rather than one great theme, for me there are only outstanding episodes, my favorite of which is the spelling bee.  But “Little House in the Big Woods” is not an exception, and for me it is now the one featuring several mini-stories told by Pa: “The Story of Grandpa and the Panther,” “The Story of Pa and the Voice in the Woods”, “The Story of Grandpa’s Sled and the Pig”.

Short stories within novels often feel like interruptions. These only add to what you want to know about Laura’s life.

Best of all is Laura’s first trip to the small town of Pepin.  Of course, any child making a foray into the larger world sees things as huge and wondrous that adults no longer notice.  But Laura’s first foray out of the Big Woods puts her in open spaces for the first time, and the effect is enchanting, particularly because the adult author stays in the perspective of the child:

The sky was large overhead. Laura had never known that the sky was so big. There was so much empty space all around her that she felt small and frightened, and glad that Pa and Ma were there….

Laura stood up on the board and Pa held her safe by the arm, so she could see the town. When she saw it, she could hardly breathe. She knew how Yankee Doodle felt, when he could not see the town because there were so many houses…. Laura had never imagined so many houses, and they were so close together….

The store was full of things to look at. All along one side of it were shelves full of colored prints and calicos. There were beautiful pinks and blues and reds and browns and purples. On the floor along the sides of the plank counters there were kegs of nails, and kegs of round, gray shot, and there were big wooden pails full of candy. There were sacks of salt, and sacks of store sugar.

In the middle of the store was a plow made of shiny wood, with a glittering bright plowshare, and there were steel ax heads, and hammer heads, and saws, and all kinds of knives—hunting knives and skinning knives and butcher knives and jack-knives. There were big boots and little boots, big shoes and little shoes.

Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world.

I loved also this bit about green cheese and the Moon:

Laura and Mary liked cheese-making. They liked to eat the curd that squeaked in their teeth and they liked to eat the edges Ma pared off the big, round, yellow cheeses to make them smooth, before she sewed them up in cloth.

Ma laughed at them for eating green cheese.

“The moon is made of green cheese, some people say,” she told them.

The new cheese did look like the round moon when it came up behind the trees. But it was not green; it was yellow, like the moon.

“It’s green,” Ma said, “because it isn’t ripened yet. When it’s cured and ripened, it won’t be a green cheese.”

“Is the moon really made of green cheese?” Laura asked, and Ma laughed.

“I think people say that, because it looks like a green cheese,” she said. “But appearances are deceiving.” Then while she wiped all the green cheeses and rubbed them with butter, she told them about the dead, cold moon that is like a little world on which nothing grows.

Next up, “On the Banks of Plum Creek.”

Garth Williams

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