Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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!

41 comments

  1. What a beautiful post about one of my favorite series of books. Laura and her family were part of my own childhood because I read and reread the books. In the later books of the series when life is hard and they are far away from friends and relatives, Laura fondly remembers the good times in the big woods. I know the story in the illustration that you show and it is one of my favorites. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it yet. Our pioneers were amazing people. Thanks, Rachel, for sharing your “visit” to the big woods.

    1. Thank you, Janet! I so wish that I had read these as a child as I think I would have loved them and had so much fun making up pioneer stories! I look forward to reading more about their adventures – their spirit and practicality is just amazing to me. I don’t know whether I would be hardy or tenacious enough to work so hard at just providing for my family’s basic needs.

  2. Can it be regarded as idealised when it is autobiographical? It was the way of the world and may be *our* ideal.

    I loved the series (and the TV show) as a child and spent many an hour curled up with the Ingalls family. One of my gentlest and most enjoyable of pursuits is reading but I remember fondly the descriptions of cooking and eating.

    Quiet moments are the ones I crave most but I also depend on modern technology and remaining “connected” to the world.

    1. Well I think it is idealised in the sense that it is written from the point of view of a child, and as such, the difficulties of everyday life from an adult’s point of view aren’t mentioned. For example, the loneliness and exhaustion of such a way of life. The way the stories are written is wonderful in that it makes the pioneer life sound cosy and heartwarming and wonderful, but in reality, I doubt spending all day every day hunting for food to feed your family and having to battle to keep your house warm during terrifyingly cold winters was as lovely as Laura Ingalls Wilder makes it sound!!

      I’m glad you got to read these as a child – I wish I had. I know what you mean about needing to feel connected – I only enjoy my quiet moments because they are a contrast to an otherwise busy life!

      1. Sorry to pipe in here, but another way you could say they’re “idealised” is that Laura deliberately skipped over one of the most difficult periods of the family’s life (I think chronologically it would have taken place between Plum Creek and Shores of Silver Lake) – the time in which Mary actually had scarlet fever and they also had a younger brother who died.

        It’s hard to say what else might have been condensed or modified to make these better stories. For example, I did read that quasi-villainess Nellie Olsen, who shows up in a few of these books, was actually more than one girl, turned into just one character.

        And thank you for this lovely reminder of what makes these books so great. I read The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years while I was home.

      2. Hi Lija, thanks for that really interesting comment. I knew some tragedies befell the family, and I wasn’t sure if they would be depicted in the books or not. As ultimately they are children’s books, I should imagine much that was unpleasant is glossed over.

        You are welcome – I wish I had all the books at home so I could whizz through them and find out what happens!

  3. The Little House books are favorites of mine (although I was never fond of the TV series which grew further and further away from the source material as time went on and was a little too sappily sentimental for my taste). I see them as sort of a companion piece to the ANNE OF GREEN GABLES books–although Anne is far more introspective (and, dare I say, imaginative?) than Laura.

    What I enjoy most about the Little House books (and what I tried to impress upon my children–although with what success, I’m not sure) is the constant need to be planning and thinking ahead. All those preserves that Ma had to “put up,” all the meat that had to be smoked, all the furs that had to be piled up: Provisions for the cold winter ahead. Few people had the luxury of doing something on the spur of the moment–everything had to be done with an eye toward tomorrow. That’s something we’ve really lost in our “right here, right now” culture.

    1. I can’t believe how many people adore these books, and how late I have come to the party! I was criminally late to the party with Anne of Green Gables, too – I am still to read the whole series but I look forward to discovering them all in time.

      Yes, you are exactly right – the self sufficiency practiced by the pioneer families was fascinating to read about. Making sure they were prepared for whatever would lie ahead is a lesson we definitely no longer take with us into adulthood; with all of our modern conveniences, who needs to worry about stocking up for the lean periods? It’s a shame, I quite agree.

  4. Hi Rachel

    You have found a pot of gold here!! These books remain my very favourite books of childhood and there were lots to choose from, I was very lucky!!

    The TV series is really not worth watching, I am now going to start looking out for first or old editions of the books although I will always keep my old Puffins!

    Happy New Year in NYC, carry on enjoing it and letting us enjoy it too!!

    Jenny

    1. I know! I am so excited to whizz through the remaining books in the series! So much joy to come!

      The early editions are expensive but worth it – the illustrations are something else. I am trying to do the same and hope to have a complete set by the time I leave the US, as they’re certainly not as easy to get hold off at home.

      Thank you so much – Happy New Year to you too!

  5. I loved that book, Rachel. But can you believe it, I bought a lovely copy for my niece when she was about 8 or 9 and she thought it was ‘a bit boring.’ Unfortunately, everything apart from the wretched Jacqueline Wilson is ‘a bit boring.’

    1. Oh Mary, how disappointing! I hope to be given the enormous gift of a niece in May (though if it is another nephew I will of course love the baby no differently!) to curl up with and read my childhood favourites too, but this is a reminder that my childhood favourites may not interest a child growing up in these Jacqueline Wilson-ified times!

  6. Rachel, I always feel Laura Ingalls Wilder has never received her due as an American writer – I suppose because her books were written by a woman, for children. I love her simple, spare prose – it is as clean and pared-down as the life she describes, perfectly evoking the world she lived in. I like how, as the series goes on, the prose becomes more complex as her life becomes more complex.

    In keeping with my habit of reading the end first, the first book of Wilder’s that I ever read was Little Town on the Prairie – the next-to-last in the series. It’s still my favorite. You’ve got some good reading ahead!

    1. Hello Mumsy! I always find it interesting how little children’s book writers – many of whom are female – are valued in the canon of literature. Little Women, The Secret Garden, etc are classics and form many young children’s imaginations, and yet they are dismissed as nothing but children’s stories, which drastically undervalues their place in the canon as recorders of social history and the experience of childhood in previous generations. I look forward to reading how her adulthood pans out.

      Ha! That’s funny. I can never bear to read a series of books out of sequence! It’s good to know I have much joy to come however!

  7. As you already know, the Little House books are my favorites, and many-a-winter is stills spent reading them again and again and I do so love the passages of Pa playing his girls to bed with his fiddle. Like Janet, I know the story behind the scene depicted in the illustration above. It was perfect seeing the snow falling on it compliments of wordpress, though the image remains in mind from Laura’s words.

    I think that this is a great book to read aloud to young ones, a chapter a day, when you can still keep their attention. If they are drawn into the story of Laura and her family, there is still hope that they will later read the rest independently. I have no hope, however, of reading Little House in the Big Woods to my granddaughter as I know her parents will beat me to it. Katy still has her books intact from childhood.

    What a great review, Rachel, and I was thrilled to see it done by you. One of the books latter in the series is about Almanzo Wilder and set in upstate New York.

    1. Oh Penny! I loved the image of the girls curled up in bed, the fire flickering, and the fiddle playing…so beautiful!

      Yes, they are perfect read aloud stories, and I can’t wait to share them with a little one of my own one day. Little Kezzie can have the books read to her by her grandma Penny when she comes to stay!

      Thank you Penny – really? I look forward to reading about his adventures – I need to get hold of the other books in the series, pronto!

  8. I adored the Little House books when I was younger (though perhaps not quite as much as L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books). I read my copy of By The Shores of Silver Lake to tatters. I’ve been thinking about rereading The Long Winter after it was featured in the Guardian’s Season’s Readings last month. I do love to read about snow and storms while I’m wrapped up safe and cosy at home (especially since we have snow in the forecast here!).

    1. I am so jealous of all of you who grew up with these books…I wish I had! But I am making up for lost time now!🙂 Oh yes, me too – there’s nothing better than being all warm and cosy indoors when you’re reading about terrible storms!

  9. You’ve perfectly described the cosy, familial feeling of this book. It’s so easy to recall the girls playing with their dolls in the attic and Ma’s China doll sitting on the bracket.

    The thing I also love about all the Little House books is the way they take the time to describe the tasks that needed to be done in order survive. This is how you preserve food. This is how you build a cabin. This is how you survive in a blizzard. It really makes you think. If you were suddenly dropped into the past, could you survive?

    Later in her life, Laura went to the 1915 San Francisco Worlds Fair and wrote about that. Amazing to think she started life travellng by covered wagon and lived to drive the station wagon to San Francisco!

    1. I’m so glad I managed to get that cosy feeling across, Nancy!

      Yes, I loved that too. Now I know how to smoke meat, and make head cheese! These dying traditional activities need to be documented and I found it fascinating to have them spelled out in so much detail. I certainly wouldn’t have a clue if I was pitched up in the middle of the Wisconsin woods in winter!

      It does amaze me at the span of some people’s lives, and how technology transformed them. When my grandparents talk about their childhoods in the 1930s, when they had horses and carts and my nan went out as a maid in her early teens, I can’t believe how far the world has come in just one lifetime. It’s incredible!

  10. How fortunate to have such a beautifully illustrated book. I have my old Complete Little House copy with illustrations by Garth Williams – delightful but not so classically beautiful as yours. And so sweet to see the snow design adding to its atmosphere.

    Thinking back to a previous post of yours, I find reading this series now that I’m (more than) grown, my approach and appreciation are quite different. Ma’s concerns for her children chime with me now I have my own family. Truly a book for all ages. Thank you for this tenderly written reminder.

    1. I know, I am so lucky to have found this little gem. However, now I am determined to collect the rest of the series in these lovely editions and can I find any for less than $50? I think not. So we will see!

      I agree – despite me wishing I had read these as a child, I do see a lot of value in them now that I know I wouldn’t have done then. The sophistication in writing a book that works for children and adults is so often overlooked, and as Mumsy says, it’s a shame that Laura Ingalls Wilder is so underappreciated as a writer.

      I’m glad you enjoy these too and have shared them with your own children – something I hope I can do one day!

  11. You are very late to this party, but I’m so glad you found your way there because these are really beautiful books and you’re in for a treat! I might just have to re-read them…

    1. Ha! Well yes I am, but I’m still having fun! They are perfect winter time books – I hope you do pick them back up in these bleak days of midwinter!

  12. I came late to these books as well, only reading them a couple of years ago (at 34). But I loved the television series. After I read the books, which I absolutely adored (and I have to admit, I still think head cheese is an absolutely hilariously funny word for brawn – descriptive though), I decided to rewatch the television series. I couldn’t even make it past the first episode – it’s so sachharine sweet.

    The one thing I didn’t like about the books is not really something she could have changed. The aspect of children should be seen and not heard attitude, Sundays are for sitting quietly and reading the bible or just sitting doing nothing and don’t fidget is what I’m talking about. I know that’s just the way life was then but it’s the one thing that bothered me.

    I did read Anne of Green Gables when I was younger but I can barely remember them. Must add them to the list of things to read again too.

    1. I’m glad you were a late starter when it came to these too! I watched a few episodes when it was on channel 4 on Sunday mornings but I never fell in love with them – I’m glad I don’t have those characters in my mind when I read the books now.

      Yes – it was interesting how adult like the children were, taking part in all of the aspects of running the home. However in those days it was a case of all hands on deck and in a way I wish children were more socially responsible now rather than being allowed to abscond all responsibility until they reach 18!

      Oh Anne of Green Gables! I love it and need to read the rest of the series!

  13. Oh, these are favorites here. Each of my girls has their own hardcover set and I’ve started my nieces on them. It was so fun to read your review and “live it” all over again. The scene of the sugar snow and maple syrup gathering with the dance has long been one of my favorites. As for the Long Winter — I highly recommend reading it in July. When they are snowed in by the blizzard, you can’t help getting cold while you read it!🙂
    So glad you found these – thanks for sharing your reading experience with us.

      1. Ah, Susan! It’s you! I think it’s lovely that you can pass on such loved books to your daughters, and now youe nieces! I hope to have a niece in May to pass them on too, but we shall see! If not, my nephews will have to develop a liking for them! The Long Winter sounds delightful if not freezing – I’d love to find out what a real winter is like!
        You are welcome – I’m delighted to have found these and that there are so many in the series to enjoy!

  14. Is this the one where they pour maple syrup on the snow to make candy? Or is that a completely different book? I have always wanted to do that and when it first snowed in New York I was like, Damn, if I were in New York I could be making maple syrup candy right now. But I guess that would be unhygienic.

    1. Yes! It is! I thought that was lovely and delicious sounding too. You could not make maple candy on New York snow Jenny! Never let me hear you making such dangerously unhygienic suggestions again!

  15. Your comments make me want to re-read this series again, or at least read it with my daughter so that she can learn the wonders of Laura’s life. I always wondered though whether the Ingalls would have been better off if they had stayed in Wisconsin.

    1. Oh Michelle, please read these with your daughter! How lovely that would be! I haven’t read the rest of the series so I can’t comment, but from the loveliness of their life in the Big Woods, I can’t imagine why they would have wanted to leave!

  16. You are bringing back memories of my childhood and all the booksof the Little House on the Prarie and Anne of Green Gables . I also read some of them to my own daughters when they were young. Have you read Rose in Bloom, Eight Cousins and The Old Fashion Girl by Lousia May Alcott. They are also forgotten books that are fun and beautiful to read.
    I also want you to know that you have inspired me to start my own blog with my photography of the surf and sand. Thank you.

    1. Hello Mindy! I am so glad I have brought back some happy memories for you! I love Louisa May Alcott but I haven’t read those books yet – I intend on doing so this year, though! Thank you for the reminder.

      Oh Mindy, that’s wonderful! I am so pleased! I hope blogging brings you as much pleasure as it does me.

  17. A full set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books was one of the best Christmas presents I ever got. I can’t count how many times I’ve read them especially Big Woods, Plum Creek and Litttle Town. Though I’m glad I read them as a child, I also envy you having the experience of reading them for the first time!

  18. I read and LOVED these as a child. Then about ten years ago I stumbled on vintage hardcover set and had the joy of rereading them one “LONG WINTER” as an adult reader with an adult perspective. What a totally different feel. As a kid, Laura’s life was an adventure and fun. As an adult, while still being charmed by the prose, all I could think about was how HARD the pioneer life would have been. So glad I found the set and I hope to read them again.

    1. Yes I think reading these is a much different experience as an adult – you get that sense of struggle and peril in a way that a child wouldn’t. I found the descriptions of pioneer life utterly fascinating and I am just in awe of how they managed. I am glad you have your own set to go back to now – I’ll be rereading Little House in the Big Woods on Christmas Eve I think!

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