11 December 2012


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 24

Guess what?! Someone else wrote a post for our book club! Visit Shaz's blog Scattershot for READALONG: Little House in the Big Woods.

As you remember from the Pet Sematary readalong, I like featuring different covers whenever I write a new post. And it turns out that two posts per book was a good idea after all, because Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels don't undergo as many "makeovers" as other books. That kind of makes sense. What you see below is, as far as I can tell, the cover of the current UK edition.

Once Aunt Lotty came to spend the day. That morning Laura had to stand still a long time while Ma unwound her hair from the cloth strings and combed it into long curls. Mary was all ready, sitting primly on a chair, with her golden curls shining and her china blue dress fresh and crisp.

Laura liked her own red dress, but Ma pulled her hair dreadfully, and it was brown instead of golden, so that no one noticed it. Everyone noticed and admired Mary's.

"There!" Ma said at last. "Your hair is curled beautifully, and Lotty is coming. Run meet her, both of you, and ask her which she likes best, brown curls or golden curls."

Now why should I have been surprised that there was sibling rivalry in the Big Woods? It's not all Man vs. Nature all the time. We also get some Girl vs. Girl--though I suppose we all end up rooting for Laura over Mary, if only because we see everything through Laura's eyes . . . and her vision is beautiful.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, aye, little sister? ;-)

Chapters 8 to 13

For me, the main theme of this readalong has been surprise. From its very first chapter, Little House in the Big Woods has been surprising me. Sometimes it's because of a preconceived and totally off-base notion of mine; sometimes it's because of an utter lack of context that isn't even my fault. Take the chapter on the cheese . . .

Laura and Mary liked cheese-making. They liked to eat the curd that squeaked in their teeth and they liked to eat the edges Ma pared off the big, round, yellow cheeses to make them smooth, before she sewed them up in cloth.

Ma laughed at them for eating green cheese.

"The moon is made of green cheese, some people say," she told them.

The new cheese did look like the round moon when it came up the trees. But it was not green; it was yellow, like the moon.

So had you known about that link between the moon and cheese? I hadn't!!! Right until I came to that episode, I thought that "green" meant green--and I wondered how anyone ever thought that the moon was the same colour as the grass, much less all the people needed to take up an expression in order to turn it into "oral literature." So when I learned that "green" meant not yet ripe--and that cheese that is not yet ripe is the same milky colour as . . . the moon . . . I can't even finish that sentence!

That's something I don't know partly because cheese-making has stopped being an essential domestic skill and is now a multimillion dollar industry. Not that I'm complaining; I'm just wondering, as I did last January, how many other things we lose without knowing it . . . and whether, when all the books are balanced, we may find ourselves the poorer for having made those bargains.

And I think the off-stage exit of the cheese is more ominous than the on-stage entrance of the grain separator.

[Pa said to Ma:] "It would have taken Henry and Peterson and Pa and me a couple of weeks a piece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today. We wouldn't have got as much wheat, either, and it wouldn't have been as clean.

"That machine's a great invention!" he said. "Other folks can stick to old fashioned ways, if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in. As long as I raise wheat, I'm going to have a machine to thresh it, if there's one anywhere in the neighbourhood."

Did I imagine--I ask myself chidingly--that because Wilder wrote so beautifully about a lost past, she should also be some kind of Luddite? The "old" ways described in Little House in the Big Woods are charming not because they are divorced from modern methods, but because they have weight that I daresay the latter do not. Pa's and Ma's lifestyle is one that lets people go to bed at the end of the day happy, because of work well done during the day. Technology is utterly peripheral to their understanding of work.

As my friend Bob likes to say, machines are just amplifiers--extensions of our arms . . . or our eyes . . . or any other part of our bodies. And thus they are benign.

That's why I'm sure that when the food industry first got started, it was equally benign--envisioned as an extension of a hard-working mother's arms. Cheese-making is great, the early adopters must have thought, but if we pay someone else to make the cheese, we'll get to do so much more with our time. I'm sure nobody planned for things to turn out as they are today.

And how are things today? Let me make my point, Pa-style, by squeezing a story into the end of this "chapter" . . .

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a Spanish client about an activist group in Madrid called Comida Basura ("Junk Food"), which goes through garbage bins to salvage food that has been thrown out but is still fit to eat. Much of it, they find, is still in its original packaging. Then, to make their point that modern Spaniards waste too much food, they then clean what they have gathered, cook up a feast with it, and throw a block party.

Anyway, I asked my client if he was surprised at all the food the group was able to collect. He surprised me by saying he wasn't--because he and his wife throw out heaps of their own groceries each month, too! Then he explained that with both of them working full-time jobs, it's just more "practical" to guess wildly at what you might need for the month and to shop accordingly than to plan each meal as economically as possible to save money. Which makes them the anti-Ma and anti-Pa, I guess, although they both clearly work just as hard for their family. In their case, machines are not for amplifying, but for outsourcing. I suspect that is a view that we, their contemporaries, all share.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 8 to 13?

1. What "wonderful machine" currently in your home do you think children sixty years from now will find quaint?
2. If you had to take the job of Domestic Scientist / Home Economist / Household Manger tomorrow, would you be able to hack it?

Feel free to write your own readalong post to answer these questions or to bring up any issues from the second half of Little House in the Big Woods that you think I should have addressed! Link back to this one and I'll be happy to return the favour! =)

UPDATE: Here is a readalong post from Scattershot!

Image Sources: a) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, b) Grain Separator


DMS said...

I actually love Mary- she's so polite, but really quite a force to be reckoned with!

I know the green phrase from working with horses. When I first started learning about them, people would refer to them as green, and I was like "what?" lol- then, finally it dawned on me.

I think that my wonderful 5 year old mac will be considered an ancient relic (probably sooner rather than later!)

I also think that I would do well running all of those positions- as long as I could do it my way and find the flow- Thanks for a fun post! ~ Jess

Enbrethiliel said...


I'd love to see Mary show some more personality! So far, the treatment of her character reminds me of Amy March from Little Women. It took me decades of rereading the entire series on the March family to realise that it was Amy, not Jo, who was the real rebel of that family!

What's so embarrassing about the "green" expression is that I already knew it also meant immature or untrained. I just never made the connection to cheese! LOL!

One reason I asked the Domestic Scientist question is that I also think I'd do reasonably well in that role but have seen how much harder it is to do on a part-time basis. Since I have a full-time office job, I only prepare lunch and dinner for my family on Sundays. And although I'm a decent meal planner and cook, it's tough to get my head back in that game when it has been doing something else all week! I'd honestly rather be a full-time homemaker than a part-time homemaker, and I wonder whether most women who juggle a lot of roles have come to the same conclusion.

Thanks so much for commenting and answering the questions, Jess!

Shaz said...

Mary comes into her own as the series rolls on, but I agree in the first couple books she just so gosh darned perfect that you want to slap her.

Here's my book club post.

mrsdarwin said...

We also get some Girl vs. Girl--though I suppose we all end up rooting for Laura over Mary, if only because we see everything through Laura's eyes . . . and her vision is beautiful.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, aye, little sister? ;-)

You're going to remember this phrase later in the series... No spoilers, though!

Enbrethiliel said...


Shaz -- I don't really want to slap Mary here. I just think she's getting the short end of the stick when it comes to memorable characterisation.

Thanks for linking up again! =)

Mrs. Darwin -- Apparently, crow is a dish best served cold as well. LOL!

Sheila said...

I think you'll see the sinister side of threshing machines in the later books as farmers go into debt to buy the newest machines, counting on those increased yields to pay for them ... only to learn that crucial lesson of farming, that you must NEVER consider the harvest a done deal till it's in the barn. This process was pretty much the main cause for the end of small farming in America.

#1 - probably this laptop. People are going to use phones more and more, I bet. But anyway any computer is obsolete in five years.

#2 - I think you know the answer to that! In a way fulltime is easier -- yes, you always stay in the same groove -- but it's also harder, for the same reason. No free evenings, weekends, vacations, sick days. Tired or not tired, flu or no flu (this week, there has been flu), you've got to keep working while people around you thank God it's Friday and crack open a beer. And the loneliness. And the way your work is never, ever done. Any rest you take is stolen from work you should be doing. This is one advantage (probably the only one) Ma had over me: no electric light, so no one could complain when she stopped work at sundown. I feel guilty for even taking the time to read this (usually. Not now because I am holding a sick baby in one arm, so I AM working) and have had to make no-work-after-dinner rules to make myself stop.

Enbrethiliel said...


I think I've been suspicious of machines ever since I watched The Terminator. =P There are some trade-offs that we probably shouldn't make too hastily.

What's funny is that I've also thought that way about artificial lights creating artificial work schedules. What's coming to mind now is the part in The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss where the Robinsons have finally started making candles. The father treats it as a sign of progress, specifically celebrating the fact that they will be able to keep working even after sunset. Now that I think about it, the Robinsons work just as hard as the Ingalls . . . and yet Wyss's idea of work is nowhere close to Wilder and her family's. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I think your no-work-after-dinner rule sounds totally fair and sane. Especially since a homemaker's work is literally never done.

Enbrethiliel said...


PS -- I'm really sorry to hear about the flu in your home! =(

Sheila said...

It's not so bad. Well, one day was bad. That was the day (and night) when John was out of town and I was throwing up. Motherhood is the only job I know of where you actually CAN'T be replaced when you're sick. Even the President gets sick days. I get toddlers crawling on top of me and prying my eyelids open.

Sigh. But apparently everyone is almost well now.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Hmmm. i'm still pretty terrible at Domestic Scientist / Home Economist / Household Manger. I keep thinking if only I wasn't pregnant or breastfeeding or dealing with toddlers I might manage but since I've been doing some or all of the above for the last seven years I can't seem to find my groove. I'm terrible about planning meals and do tend to throw food into my cart that I know we use often and that I can make something out of. But I'm often scrambling for a plan and yes food often gets thrown out because I fail to use it before it goes bad. I'm terrible about being consistent.

Also, I keep thinking that housework would be so, so, so much easier if my kids had as few toys as Mary and Laura. If only I could get the rest of my family on board. Especially the extended family who overload us with toys at every Christmas and birthday. I'm pretty good at limiting what I buy for them but once something comes into this house I have such a hard time getting it out again.

Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie, I'm not even in charge of all the housework at home, and I keep thinking that it would be so much easier if our house were designed differently. LOL! I remember reading Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge and getting to the part in which she boasts that nineteenth century Dutch housewives kept their houses utterly spotless. It made me wish that I lived in a nineteenth century Dutch house. =P Because, of course, the key is the house and not the housewife. ;-)

Now I suspect that if I had a time machine and actually went back to nineteenth-century Holland, I'd find a few "flaws" in their housekeeping that they had just learned not to be fussy about.

I really wonder whether the high pressure today's housekeepers put on themselves has less to do with the standards of the past and more to do with other modern standards, particularly the unrealistic ideal of beauty being peddled in fashion magazines.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Yes! I want one of those nineteenth century Dutch houses. I do think having a slightly larger house might make things a bit easier. If I only had more storage to put things away. I would certainly like a bigger kitchen and either a basement, attic, or garage for storing things we aren't currently using like winter clothes.

I try to stay away from fashion magazines and my ideal is homey not glitzy. But you may have a point. Still, I think of Rachel Lynde and Marilla and how clean they kept their houses too. A kitchen floor you could eat off of. Certainly not in my house. Then again, neither of them had five kids.