SEPTEMBER 7, 2013
LAST YEAR the Library of America released the nine novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder in a two-volume set, placing her, for the first time, in the company of such great American writers as Thomas Paine, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. For many of us, it is surprising that Wilder had not already held this company, while for others, the introduction of a writer of what has since been labeled “young adult literature” is a bit of a shock. Regardless of how you feel about her entrance into the “canon” (I, for one, am unabashedly happy about it), it is worth noting that it took 80 years for it to happen — 80 years in which generations of children read and reread her stories about the pleasures and struggles of life on the American prairie in the decades after the Civil War.
I first encountered the Little House books as a child, growing up in one of the Upper East Side brownstones that had been built in the years of Laura’s own childhood. But Laura and I had more than just a century between us. My urban, upper-middle class upbringing, with its emphasis on high culture and achievement, could not have been more different than Laura’s quiet, rural, community-based one. Yet it was precisely because of these differences that I was eager to steal away every evening into Laura’s world of butter making and tree sapping, of deer slayings and fiddle dances. It was through my deep attraction to — sometimes mesmerization with — my prairie girl counterpart that I came to understand the complexities of my own childhood.
I started, as many of us did, with the first book, Little House in the Big Woods. It opens in the final days of autumn and takes the reader on a journey through a year in the life of the Ingalls family. Right from the start, Wilder, writing of her own childhood, 60 years later and in the third person, casts the setting as utterly devoid of people:
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. 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.
It is in this place of isolation that the Ingalls family — Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie — lived, and because of this, Laura had almost no sense of what existed beyond the woods that surrounded them. This sense of being cut off from the world — of not even knowing there is a world from which to be cut off — is what allows for this slow-paced narrative to wind its way through the seasons with the utmost attention to detail, with prolonged pauses for digression.
While the woods were filled with wolves that Laura could hear approaching the house at night, the inside of the Ingalls house was filled with music, stories, cooking, and a great deal of love. Wilder makes this contrast explicit when she writes, “All alone in the wild Big Woods, and the snow, and the cold, the little log house was warm and snug and cosy. Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie were comfortable and happy there, especially at night.” In the face, then, of the dangers that come from such isolation (starvation, illness, attacks by animals hungrier than the humans), she presents the home as a place of refuge and wonder. This book appeals to children precisely because it is about a family with love abundant enough to keep it warm, no matter how dire the circumstances. I surely loved it for that reason. But lots of books present us with such families. Where Little House in the Big Woods is exceptional is in how it relates the story of all that love.
Instead of presenting adventure as something that happens out in the world, Little House in the Big Woods embraces and describes the small everyday dramas of Laura’s childhood, most of which occur inside and in the company of her family. When Pa kills a pig, Wilder recalls just what they did with every part of it, down to the bladder, which they blew up as a balloon for the children to play with. And when Ma makes butter, Wilder recounts each step of the process, pausing to explain how Ma would color the winter butter with carrot gratings to turn it the prettier yellow before pressing it into the strawberry mold. In this way, Little House in the Big Woods is a book about the intersection of survival and entertainment, the minor (and often private) pleasures of economy, division of labor, and patience.
Surely my brother and I — playing Nintendo for hours on end — had a very different sense of how children spent time. We could not have been more estranged from the activities — such as smoking venison or making bullets — that took the entire Ingalls family several days to complete. While one might think that this fundamental difference would have made the Little House books hard for me to read, I have come to understand that it is because of this — because everything took so long, and because they did it all together, and because Wilder explains every step in such detail — that I was able to fully immerse myself in the activity of reading them. Not only did the Little House books allow me to witness a slower, more attentive, more communal way of life, they allowed me to experience it, as I read and reread and then talked to others about them before returning to them once again.
If it had been all contrasts, I might have indulged in the romantic foreignness of Laura’s life but I’m not sure I would have chosen to live there in my imagination. Instead, though, I was always aware of what we had in common. Although our fathers were very different kinds of men, I recognized in Laura my own experience of waiting up for the man who spent his days elsewhere, who could sweep in with a story or a joke, and on whose adventures out in the world beyond childhood we all depended. Such fathers — and the anticipation of time with such fathers — populate children’s books for a reason, and Pa Ingalls, with his knack for the fiddle and a quick tale, is expertly drawn.
For a long time I thought that my connection with the Little House books ended there. While the series eventually takes us into Laura’s adult life — where the complicated politics of postbellum life on the prairie are made explicit — it was the scenes of her childhood in Little House in the Big Woods to which I was always most attached. Once I was all grown up, I assumed my connection to the scenes of Laura’s childhood would become increasingly distant. But then, six years ago, I moved from New York to Missouri with my two little boys and it all came rushing back. I didn’t see it coming, maybe because they are boys or maybe because the Midwest in which we live — it’s a Missouri college town of just over 100,000 people — is nothing like the unpeopled Wisconsin woods of Laura’s girlhood. Regardless, though, I have found that living here — where there are no skyscrapers, where entertainment is more likely to happen in gatherings of neighbors and friends, and where the changing of the seasons is something to constantly remark upon (partially because there are festivals and parades that accompany each, partially because they dictate the kinds of activities on which our afternoons and weekends depend) — has allowed me to see the Laura inside of them.
When we drive to St. Louis they both stare out the window, commenting on how the buildings are getting taller and are sitting closer together, eager to peer into the busy unknown. The first time this happened, I thought of Laura’s inaugural trip to town and how “she could hardly breathe” at the sight of “so many houses.” And at a restaurant once, in Springfield, Illinois, where there were cloth napkins on the table, ice water in tall, thin glasses, and a waiter in a tie, Archer commented on all of this and called our evening “fancy,” which reminded me of Laura’s description of the “Dance at Grandpa’s” and all her attention to Aunt Ruby’s “wine-colored calico” and the collar that was pinned with “a red rose made of sealing wax.” These moments mark for me that my children’s childhoods are slower and more sparsely populated (both by people and things) than my own was, and because of this maybe they, like Laura, notice more than I did, or do. And of course this doesn’t only happen in the exceptional moment of travel or special occasion, but it also occurs, much as it did for Laura, in the every day. So that when, walking home from school the other day, Nate looks up at the big tree above us, points, and says “Sweet Gum!” with utter delight, I realize that, even before having read a single one of her stories, he’s already looking as closely at his surroundings as Laura was.
The Library of America edition isn’t there to ensure that children of the 21st century will continue to steep themselves in these stories. In fact, since they don’t include Garth Williams’s illustrations, which, for those of us who read the earlier editions, are inextricably linked to the narrative, it’s hard to imagine a child ever opting for this version. What they do guarantee, though, is that Wilder’s adult readers — those of us who, like myself, were profoundly shaped by the stories of this stubborn, ambitious, and kind girl — will return to them in the decades ahead and will think again about how they managed to have the effect on us that they did.
Alexandra Socarides is currently at work on a new book, which reads antebellum American women’s poetry through the tropes, conventions, and postures made possible by the transatlantic literary marketplace.