By Elizabeth Wroten
Chapter Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods
On 20, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Told from four-year-old Laura’s point of view, this story begins in 1871 in a little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Laura lives in the little house with her Pa, her Ma, her sisters Mary and Carrie, and their trusty dog, Jack.
Pioneer life is sometimes hard for the family, since they must grow or catch all their own food as they get ready for the cold winter. But it is also exciting as Laura and her family celebrate Christmas with homemade toys and treats, do the spring planting, bring in the harvest, and make their first trip into town. And every night they are safe and warm in their little house, with the happy sound of Pa’s fiddle sending Laura and her sisters off to sleep.
I really didn’t want to like this book. I also really thought I read these as a kid, but if I did I have zero recollection of them. I think this, in some ways is a good thing, because most of the people I know who still recommend the book remember it very fondly from their childhoods. I don’t have those warm fuzzies about it so I felt like I could be a little more objective. Still, despite myself, I did enjoy it. That being said, the book has issues.
I was totally prepared to find all kinds of jabs at the Indians in this book, but by and large they weren’t there. I marked each place they were mentioned (or not) and there were only two. I think the biggest mistake and injustice the book makes is in the second line:
“The great, dark tress of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more tress. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”
I seriously doubt there were no houses or people. What that really means is there were no white people or white houses. And actually that’s not exactly true. Later in the book they travel to their grandparents’ house as do many other people for a gathering and dance. I suppose the Native populations that lived near the Ingalls family never made contact so I suppose from a four year old’s perspective they didn’t exist, but Wilder wrote this as an adult and knew better.
Native Americans come up exactly two more times. First in a story told about the father as a boy where he’s playing in the woods: “‘I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians.'” This both equates Indians with wild animals and seems to imply it’s okay to hunt them. Then we have: “She baked salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of beans, with salt pork and molasses.” This is a slur for starters, but what is rye’n’Injun bread anyways?
The real kicker though, is a song Pa plays on the fiddle. It begins (I kid you not): “There was an old darkey, And his name was Uncle Ned.” It goes on to talk about his wooly hair, missing teeth and his shovel and hoe. This makes me want to pitch the book. What the hell? Why are we still printing that? Oh wait, I think I can guess. I would see nothing wrong with just striking that from further editions, if we are going to insist on keeping this book in print. And I think we are keeping it in print for better or worse.
What I did like about the book was the picture of settler life. Sure it left out the nasty bits. How hungry they may have been at times. The lack of *ahem* indoor plumbing. But it really shows how the seasons dictated life. In a culture that’s obsessed with connection and being outside the home, particularly with children, it’s refreshing to see a family spend so much time together. Happily. I also think this taps into the current zeitgeist of farm to fork, zero waste, eating seasonally, and all that. Our family personally buys into a lot of that (we have chickens and ducks and a large vegetable garden and eat seasonally) so I know I really connected with that and think others would too.
In terms of keeping the book on the shelf, I have mixed feelings. I think with a letter home warning parents about the issues they may not know about or may not remember being in the book this particular book is not great, definitely problematic, but a good conversation starter. A conversation I know our second grade teachers open up. Furthermore, I would recommend parents read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House which is wonderful and would give a fuller picture of the area.
My bigger concern is that this book opens up the series and in just skimming the contents of the second book I am alarmed and disheartened. It clearly puts Native Americans in a bad light to say the least. I am currently trying to read through that second book and I’ll address it in another post, but I am having such a hard time with it. I think with a letter home I would feel, if not great, at least better about Little House in the Big Woods. I know the other librarian I work with is not on board yet with weeding the series so I’m going to work on it. I would leave just this book in and ditch the rest in a heartbeat. If families want to continue reading it after hearing the concerns, then let them find it at the bookstore or online.