Oh what a perfect book! This, the first in the Little House on the Prairie Series, tells beautiful vignettes of a year in the life of the Ingalls family while they are living in the ‘big woods’ of rural Wisconsin. It is an isolated life, with few opportunities to mix with others; the family has to be self sufficient, and draw on their own strengths in order to survive and prosper, especially during the harsh winter months. Simply, yet evocatively told, this absolutely delightful tale of an ordinary family living a simple, rich, fulfilling life while having and experiencing very little of what the world today treasures, is such a gem, and I loved every single page.
Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and baby Carrie live comfortably inside their rustic log cabin. There is an attic, usually hung with provisions for winter, where the girls love to play once it is too cold to go outside. There is a cosy fire, and a rocking chair, and a big warm bed where all the girls cuddle up together to sleep at night. During the day, Pa goes out and does whatever seasonal work needs to be done to feed and provide for his family; in the Autumn, he shoots deer and rabbits and whatever other animals he can find, and smokes the meat so that it will keep during the winter. He saves the skins and furs to trade at the market in the town for other supplies the family needs. In the winter, Pa continues to go hunting, and he also protects his little family from the prowling menaces of panthers and bears. Come spring and summer, Pa helps his father and brothers thresh the wheat in their field, and he brings home honey and maple syrup for everyone to enjoy. In the evenings he plays the fiddle and sings, and draws his little girls onto his lap for stories of his own childhood, that leave Laura and Mary enthralled. Ma is a constant figure of love, stability, and comfort, keeping the little house clean and neat, and filled with the good smells of food. The girls help Ma around the house and in the garden, and Laura describes with relish Ma’s baking, cheese making, hat making, dress making and knitting skills. Ma always has something to keep her busy, but she always has time for her girls, and for her husband, and every evening, as she sits by the fire doing her mending, she rocks contently as she listens to her handsome, strong husband entertaining their children with yet another tale of derring-do.
There are moments of excitement in this quiet life of busyness and self sufficiency; Christmas is a time of delight and festive cheer, when a piece of candy and a rag doll bring a joy to Laura’s heart that no modern child could attest to in the same circumstances; a sugar snow, when maple sugar is collected, brings cause for a dance, and all their surrounding neighbours and family come together at Grandpa and Grandma’s house for a lively, wonderful evening of jigs and reels and merriment; and Laura and Mary’s first visit to a town is a time of great magic for little Laura, who cannot even begin to imagine what a place filled with houses and shops and people looks like. Laura and Mary are so unspoiled that their greatest pleasures lie in playing with acorn shells in the garden, running barefoot through the woods, being given a small piece of candy by a shopkeeper, and getting to fall asleep to the sounds of their father’s fiddle as the dying firelight flickers on the roof over their heads. They want nor ask for little; their lives are content, peaceful, safe and happy, in the capable hands of their sensible, loving Ma and Pa.
This book takes you back to a time when life was not complicated by the trivial and shallow concerns we have today. Pa and Ma are not climbing the career ladder; Mary and Laura are not clamouring for the latest toys or squabbling over which television program to watch. Idealised it may be, but in the simplicity of the lives the Ingalls live, there is many a lesson to be learned. There is much joy, laughter and merriment in the Little House in the Big Woods; this is a family that delights in each other’s company and lives harmoniously and happily alongside one another. They live within their means, cherish what they have, and enjoy the blessings of the natural world outside their front door.
I loved the cosy, heartwarming feel of this story, that so exemplifies the chief delights in life. We can all of us spend our days running around like headless chickens, working hard at our jobs, amassing things we don’t need, trying to keep up with everyone and everything, and this book reminds us that these things don’t really matter. The Ingalls live an uncomplicated, stripped down life, living off the land and relying on each other. Their happiness, their tenderness, their enjoyment of life, is testament to how far many of us have run from the simple pleasures of our existence. The gentle pursuits we always think we are too busy to stop and enjoy; of cooking a nice meal, of knitting a blanket, of sitting and listening to a story, of talking with friends long into the night; are the central aspects of the Ingalls’ life, not the things on the periphery that they’ll get around to if they manage to find the time. But really, what is more pleasurable than such things? Do we really prefer to be sitting on trains, sitting in offices, spending our weekends wandering through busy shopping malls, running and rushing about? I know I certainly don’t. Little House in the Big Woods is a tribute to the splendours of a quiet life, quite a contrast to my own, and one I relished reading about. I can’t wait to read the rest of the Ingalls’ adventures!