‘Little House in the Big Woods’: Literary Themes and Discussion (Part One)


When Wilder began rewriting, “When Grandma Was a Little Girl” in 1931 she began her a rough draft this way, “Once upon a time long ago a little girl lived in the big woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.” These opening lines changed slightly when Little House in the Big Woods was published in 1932, “Once upon a time sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the big Woods of Wisconsin in a little gray house made of logs.” It’s a slight change long long ago to 60 years ago, but in hindsight Wilder’s original line is more timeless and would have been a more effective opening for the generations of readers to come after 1932. But whether the change originated with Wilder herself, with Lane or even Virginia Kirkus at Harper and Brothers, it was probably an attempt to frame the story historically, to place Little House in the Big Woods within a specific period of American history at that time. But it also reflects the expectations for the novel that like most children’s books it would at best sell steadily for a few years and then be forgotten. The Little House in the Big Woods was not a Newberry award winner the year it was eligible 1933,nor was it even a finalist; and while a couple of Newberry books from 1933 are still in print today including the winning title by Elizabeth Foreman “Lewis” none of the books or the authors have a contemporary following like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House in the Big Woods do today. But in 1932 no one imagine Wilder’s book would make such a deep impression on readers then or readers over 80 years later. In 1932 the literary world assumed that Little House in the Big Woods would probably have a relatively short life in the marketplace and that line placing the story in the big Woods of Wisconsin 60 years ago would simply fade away, a relic of an obscure children’s book and an obscure children’s book writer from 1932. and remember as we discussed earlier Wilder had signed a contract with Harper and Brothers for just this one book the publisher hadn’t envisioned a series of books at this point and it’s likely that Wilder herself hadn’t either. She was however in late 1931, working on another children’s book, a companion to Little House in the Big Woods but this one would be a book for boys set not in the American West but back east showcasing a different family and a different kind of living the American life in the late 1800s, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that although Little House in the Big Woods it was an exceptionally polished and accomplished children’s book no one knew how deeply the fictional Ingalls family would influence generations of readers to come. So why is the book important and what did Wilder do in this novel that her contemporary children’s book writers even those Newberry authors didn’t? Why do we still read Little House in the Big Woods today? Let’s start with the fictional family itself. The characters in this book function almost on an archetypal level, Pa is certainly Pa would run his fingers through his thick brown hair standing up on end and then drop down on all fours and chase Laura and Mary around the little house playing mad dog and Ma is capable, reserved and gentle sitting in her rocking chair sewing by the light of the lamp on the table. Laura and Mary are distinct characters too. In the mad dog game, Mary was so frightened that she could not move but as Pa came nearer Laura screamed and with a wild leap and a scramble she went over the wood box dragging Mary with her. Still the Ingalls family in Little House in the Big Woods is larger-than-life somehow not quite fully formed flesh and blood characters. Wilder rarely lingers on even Laura’s internal thoughts and emotions as she does in later Little House books. The family here represents the archetypal American pioneer family, resourceful, courageous, loving even in the face of danger. Wilder’s initial description of the family reinforces this image. “So far as the little girl could see there was only the one little house where she lived with her father and mother, her sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie. A wagon track ran before the house turning and twisting out of sight in the woods where the wild animals lived but the little girl did not know where it went nor what might be at the end of it. ” This is an archetypal family taming the wild yet living part of it. Granted the opening line of Little House in the Big Woods establishes this story will be told from the point of view of the little girl in the big Woods of Wisconsin but the focus of Little House in the Big Woods isn’t exclusively on Laura’s actions, feelings, and conflicts; it’s on how the entire family lives its life in those big woods of Wisconsin. The story here is about an ensemble cast of characters starting with Pa, Ma, Mary, Lara and baby Carrie but also extending to the larger family, grandpa and grandma, the aunts and uncles and all the cousins. In fact a case could be made that Laura isn’t the main character in Little House in the Big Woods. Although the story is told from her perspective the character around whom most of the actions swirled is Pa. Charles Ingalls. Laura’s world indeed the whole families revolves around his ability to provide and protect them. He also entertains them with stories from his childhood and fills long nights in the big woods with fiddle music that alternately wails and laughs and comforts. As we’ve already seen, Wilder herself explained that she was motivated to write Pioneer Girl and ultimately Little House in the Big Woods because she wanted to preserve her father ‘s stories. “I would be especially glad to have Knopf publish those stories of my father’s.” she wrote Marion Ferry. “They impressed me very much as a child and I still have a great affection for them.” In Little House in the Big Woods much of the action revolves around Pa from the very beginning. When Laura is frightened by wolves howling in the distance, Laura knows she’s safe because her father ‘s gun hung over the door and one night when wolves are howling at the door, Pa scoops Laura up in his arms and takes her to the window to see them. In Pa’s strong arms Laura knows she has nothing to fear. The theme of this novel reinforces the idea that Pa is not only the books hero, but it’s protagonist. Little House in the Big Woods is a novel about danger and survival set against the backdrop of what appears to young readers as an exotic routine. The primary action the book focuses on the art of everyday living on the frontier, making bullets, preparing venison, butchering a hog, making maple syrup, planting crop and harvesting them. Even learning how to endure long Sunday afternoons and celebrating grand occasions with an extended family, in virtually all of these scenes Pa is center stage. In between scenes of the routine and ordinary as it existed on the frontier, Wilder builds one conflict on another as the family deals with bears, wolves and Panthers and the wilderness of the big woods. Again Pa is the primary focus here. Although in the scene I’ve chosen to picture here, Ma is the heroin. The reader senses that in the larger framework of the story the real hero is Pa. He and his guns stand between the Ingalls family and the everyday dangers of life on the frontier, Ma is his stalwart companion.

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