06 December 2012


"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.

Chapters 1 to 7

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


Jenny said...

Your thoughts are always so interesting...even on this book, which, unfortunately, is not a favorite series of mine. :(

mrsdarwin said...

If you ever hear anyone going on about American "individualism", recall these chapters and this book and remember that the pioneers really had to do most things themselves. Pa and Ma do have the benefit of a store, a half-day's wagon ride away, so they have nails and cloth and other accoutrements, but so much of their daily life is scratched out from the soil and preserved for later. (They're even further from civilization in Little House on the Prairie.)

I love this book, because Laura makes the labor of the past real. So often when I'm feeling overwhelmed or like my life is difficult, I find myself thinking, "What would Ma do?', and my American Individualism kicks in. These people don't ask for help unless they're dying, and not even then, sometimes.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jenny -- Now you have me intrigued! Why don't you like the Little House books?

Mrs. Darwin -- What is hardest for me to understand is the why of it. Why would someone (who isn't a monk) want to live so far away from society? Or rather, why would someone want to be that self-reliant?

I'm not questioning the belief that self-reliance can ennoble the character, but I do wonder what it's rooted in.

I guess I'll find out when I start the second book!

Dauvit Balfour said...

I'm not sure what my favorite "earthy" tradition would be, so I'll leave that unanswered.

Of the skills you mentioned, playing the fiddle strikes a chord with me, because I wish that parties were still the same thing as dances, because music and dancing and wine and song and people are the things in life worth having, I reckon.

I remember very little of the books. My mother read them to us when we were very young, and then of course we used to watch the show on TBS of a morning during the summer, but that never had the Big Woods. I remember the old guest bed, in the room where my grandparents would stay when they visited, lying there with our mom reading to us, and I wish I could live a Time Lord's 13 lives, but maybe without all the heavy memories at the start of each new one.

Enbrethiliel said...


So you know about time lords who regenerate twelve times! =D Did you see the answer to last month's riddle? More importantly, did you see the second poem I wrote for you? =)

I think I'd want to be more skillful in the kitchen, but I know what you mean about playing an instrument. I've been playing at the guitar for years, and I doubt I'm good enough to be one of the instrumentalists at a dance. (Terrible technique, really. Sad.) But I'd like to be!

Thanks so much for joining the discussion, Dauvit. =)

Shaz said...

As usual I'm late ... but I did write a full post. :)


mrsdarwin said...

Well, it's not just self-reliance, but independence -- independence from king, from oppression, from being told what to do. America at this time was wide open. There was the very real possibility that if you laid claim to a piece of land, you could well be the first person to have worked it. It was yours, in a way that land in a country that had been civilized for hundreds or thousands of years couldn't be. Perhaps it's something in the national psyche. I don't want to homestead, but I can very much understand the appeal of a free, self-sufficient life.

(That, of course, leaves aside the whole question of the Indians being driven off the land -- not as much an issue in the uncleared Wisconsin forests, but one that's addressed very memorably in Little House on the Prairie.

Enbrethiliel said...


Shaz -- Thanks! I've already embedded your link at the bottom of this post and left you a comment. =)

Mrs. Darwin -- You forgot independence from Church. ;-) While you know all too well that I find it easy to sympathise with those who "go their own way," I ultimately find it a very un-Catholic impulse.

I've been thinking a lot about the discussion on parish life that you recently hosted on your blog, and it seems relevant to the Ingalls' special blend of independence and community. Nobody would ever say they aren't involved in the life of their community: they clearly have close ties to family, good relationships with neighbours (My favourite is the Swedish lady whom they address in English and who answers back only in Swedish--to the end of perfect communication!), and even business contacts in town. For all their self-reliance, they understand that there are some things that individuals cannot do for themselves, but which require an active community. Not to overly romanticise the past, but that seems to be something else they just "got" that we have trouble grasping.

Sheila said...

I love, love, love these books. Always have. I don't remember reading them for the first time, but I remember re-reading them over and over again.

I find the desire to live in the middle of the woods very understandable indeed. People in the city see people constantly, and nature only when they choose to. In the Big Woods, you got all the nature you wanted, and people only when you chose. That sounds fine to me. I think I like nature much better than people. And as Mrs. Darwin points out, there's the desire to be free of meddling -- government, school, church.

Pa is the one who is always yearning to go farther and farther West. Ma misses civilization and is always eager to live in a town where there is a church and school. Of course they are not even close to Catholic -- I think they're Calvinist or something, and so "home church" is just part of their tradition. I do think it's funny that they never bother to teach Laura to read until she goes to her first school at the age of eight -- even though Ma was a schoolteacher herself.

Those books were my main inspiration to want to homestead myself. I just wanted to live like Laura. I wanted to eat REAL food, food that came out of the ground. I wanted to eat squeaky curds and smoked venison. I wanted to travel through places no white man had ever been. I wanted to know that whatever crazy thing happened in the big, scary world outside, I would know how to feed myself. It bothers me how detached we are from our food supply nowadays. If there were no jobs for market researchers or stockbrokers, would all those people have any usable skills? And even when our food system works perfectly, it still isn't completely safe because it's always adulterated with one preservative or another so it will last long enough to get to us. But that is a whole other topic, I suppose.

Let me just say that my dream for my life, since I was about eight years old at least, has been to have a little farm and live off the land. I can't imagine anything better.

The answer to 1 & 2 is probably cheesemaking. I think it's so cool. And not cheesemaking as in buying a carton of milk from the store, ordering starter culture and rennet packets, and following strict directions with a thermometer and manufactured cheese press. I want to make cheese from *scratch.* Cow, calf's stomach, grooved log. That would be awesome.

Am I really so unusual in this?

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for joining the discussion, Sheila! =D

I like the contrast you draw between the Big Woods and our own big cities. Given only those choices, I would pick the Big Woods as well, but I'd add the cowardly caveat that I get to have a few modern conveniences with me. =P It's only practical, though. I would never survive if I had to kill or grow my own food. At least not without a lot of practice first!

You remind me that my own dream from when I was eight years old or so was inspired by another American children's classic: Louisa May Alcott's Little Men. I wanted to have a small bunch of kids around to raise and to homeschool--and I still do! (Interestingly, Plumfield used to be a farm before it was converted into a school. The students still grow crops, and I remember that Tommy sells the eggs laid by his chickens, but I should read the book again to see whether they still rely very heavily on the land for their food.)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I'm interested in the question of independence being an un-Catholic impulse. I was raised on Little House-- and by that I don't mean just reading the books, but somehow they embody an American ideal that was just a part of the atmosphere I breathed. And yet over and over as i'm reading the series it strikes me how not Catholic the Ingalls family is and it makes me wonder how many of the early pioneers were Catholic and makes me curious about the experiences of Catholics at that time.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'll admit that my calling independence an "un-Catholic impulse" was intended to be provocative more than anything else. Although I admire the Ingalls family's self-reliance, something about idealising it rubbed me the wrong way while I was writing this post--and I had hoped that my throwaway comment would generate the discussion I needed to refine, or to assuage, that doubt. And ten weeks later, here you are! ;-)

But since no one picked up on it earlier, I ended up working my thoughts out in a post on my officially defunct but occasionally active (but don't tell anyone!) Catholic blog. The relevant passage is: ". . . the real glory of a Catholic civilisation is not in its art and music, nor in its religious rites and civic policies, nor even in the saintliness of its greatest men and women. It is in the unconscious ease with which the weak in Faith are supported by the strong, with neither group ever realising that some very heavy lifting is being done."

Anyway, I just don't know if a lifestyle of rugged independence would be compatible with that other ideal of a community in which it is easy (to the point of second nature) for the strong to help the weak, and in which any form of dependence or incompetence is not seen as the opposite of virtue.

What do you think?