"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 23
If anyone is thinking that Little House in the Big Woods is a mad leap from our last Book Club pick, Stephen King's Pet Sematary, then he wasn't really paying attention the last time. As soon as I started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic, I felt nothing but uncanny continuity.
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs.
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.
Wolves lived in the Big Woods, and bears, and huge wild cats. Muskrats and mink and otter lived by the streams. Foxes had dens in the hills and deer roamed everywhere . . .
As the list of wild creatures grew longer, I kept expecting it to include a wendigo. =P I'm not saying that just to be funny, either. I did check a map of North America to see how far apart Laura's Wisconsin and Louis's Maine are in geography and not just in time--but to be honest, it's all wendigo country to me at this point.
But just to be clear, the setting has nothing to do with the Top Secret December Theme.
Laura Ingalls Wilder is full of surprises, isn't she? I had been happy to write as many as nine posts for Pet Semetary before I even started it, but then decided to be conservative with the Little House series, dividing ten posts up among the first five novels, because I worried that it would be hard enough to write one post per book. Which is not to say I doubted Wilder. Knowing nothing about this series except that Melissa Gilbert was on TV with Michael Landon before I was born, I doubted my own ability to discuss it with much depth.
Well, apparently, Wilder can meet me more than halfway, if necessary. After I read Chapter 1, I was ready to give it a whole post of its own. Who knew you could get so much meat--and so much fun--from a pig??? (No offense, Sully.)
[Pa] was blowing up the bladder. It made a little white balloon, and he tied the end tight with a string and gave it to Mary and Laura to play with. They could throw it into the air and spat it back and forth with their hands. Or it would bounce along the ground and they could kick it. But even better than a balloon was a pig's tail . . .
Roasting and eating the pig's tail is the highlight of butchering day for Mary and Laura. What makes the treat extra special is the fact that they only get one pig's tail a year. And that's because they only get one pig a year. Imagine having to wait one whole year for a delicacy. You aren't deprived of food or anything--but you feel the wait that is what makes it a delicacy.
My mind instantly drew a parallel between this seasonal activity and those cultural traditions of the Church which we can describe as rooted in the earth. It was a struggle to preserve them as we stopped living off the land--or rather, as we continued to be dependent on nature but let all the middlemen in between make us see ourselves differently. While I think it is good to keep traditions alive, I'm now starting to wonder whether many traditions that we still think of as living have already passed away on us.
How wrong would it be, for instance, to remember the old pioneer tradition of butchering day by buying vacuum sealed packs of ready-to-roast pig tails from the supermarket--in budget size, if necessary, so that the kids can gorge on more than one? That's a scenario worthy of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World--except, of course, that the World State would have honestly junked every last bit of that tradition.
I wonder what the Mediaevals would make of us modern Catholics who still faithfully light up our Advent candles, in homes artificially bright with electric lights all year round.
And those are my thoughts on Chapter 1. I've read as far as Chapter 7 and feel that I really could write something for each one; but I decided to limit myself to one more thing, and that is Pa's rifle.
Whenever he shot at a wild animal, he had to stop and load the gun--measure the powder, put it in and shake it down, put in the patch and the bullet and pound them down, and then put a fresh cap under the hammer--before he could shoot again. When he shot at a bear or a panther, he must kill it with the first shot. A wounded bear or panther could kill a man before he had time to load his gun again.
But Laura and Mary were never afraid when Pa went alone into the Big Woods. They knew he could always kill bears and panthers with the first shot.
Next to Pa's rifle, the firearms we have now seem excessive--even extravagant. You may argue that we have more to defend ourselves from than bears and panthers (and I do agree), but the point of this passage is that we don't rely on the weapon half as much as we rely on the one who wields it. And history shows that we have often liked it when technology is strong, because it gives us an excuse to be weak.
Now, I don't mean to be a huge downer. I've just been really struck by how different the lifestyle of the Ingalls family is from my own--how useless all my own finely developed skills would be in their world, and how obsolete theirs have become in ours. Whenever Ma does something else in the kitchen or with her sewing, I think about how little I don't know how to do. And it totally blows my mind that Pa can kill a predator with one shot and carve an ornamental shelf from scratch and "pop" a weasel on the violin.
I'll never brag about my typing speed again. =P
What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 7?
1. What are your favourite "earthy" traditions? What is the value of keeping them alive?
2. Which essential skill from the past do you wish you could do?
3. And most importantly, do you still remember your first encounter with the Little House books? If so, do share! =)
UPDATE: Read Shaz's answers and other thoughts at Scattershot!
Image Source: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder