My copy of Little House in the Big Woods may be 20 years old now. I can’t remember exactly how long I’ve had it. I mean, look at this photo:
The pages of my copy have the yellow-brown tint of vintage (cough, old) books. It has begun to smell like something on my grandfather’s shelves, which are stocked with titles from the 60s and 70s.
My copy has also become delicate. Look! I chipped the lower left edge of its back cover.
Whenever I turn the pages of my Little House in the Big Woods, they make a concerning creaking noise so I was dainty in reading as I didn’t want the book to fall apart (and yet I still chipped that edge. Curses!)
I am deeply attached to my copy and will keep it as long as I can. Little House in the Big Woods and 3 subsequent books from the series were gifted to me by my aunt’s mother-in-law (whom I shall call Grandma R) when I was a young girl spending her holidays in Seattle.
My aunt married an American and they settled near Seattle for many years. My cousins were raised in Washington state and my family would visit as I was growing up. These visits exposed me to elements of American culture I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I remember going Halloween trick-or-treating one year.
Grandma R would visit my aunt and uncle’s Washington home too. During a visit when everyone converged (probably a Christmas holiday), Grandma R gave me the books. She must have chosen them because my aunt told her I was a little bookworm. I had zero life as a young girl: all I did was study, read, and write in diaries. Uh. To be fair, nothing has changed…
I remember Grandma R saying that she loved the books as a little girl and hoped I would too. I did not see her often and she has now sadly passed away. I treasure the remaining memories I have of her: how she wore pastel chunky sweaters, how she baked sugar cookies for me and my brother and my cousins using Pillsbury dough (is there a more American brand?), and how she loved collecting lighthouse-related paraphernalia from paintings to figurines. Most of all, I treasure these 4 Little House books. They are now my most tangible connections to her. Sometimes items outlive us, often they are less fleeting than memories. Sometimes, you live in the things you leave behind.
I remember loving the books as Grandma R hoped. On afternoons after school, I would devour them inside an air-conditioned car braving the notorious Jakarta traffic to get home. My body may be stuck in traffic congestion, but my imagination was absorbed by the wilderness of 19th century North America.
Rereading this at 30, I think some of the writing isn’t great: the prose doesn’t always flow well and the story is at times choppily presented. Little House in the Big Woods is slice of life – a year in the life, to be exact. It follows a year of life in the Wisconsin “Big Woods” for Laura’s family.
Life for little Laura and her family in their log house was isolated and subject to the seasons. They were hours away from the nearest town and hours away from other family members in their log houses in other areas of the “Big Woods” so they had to be self-sufficient.
We begin when winter was coming. Laura, her big sister Mary, Ma, and Pa had to cure meats to make sure they had enough food supply to last the winter. Winter was also for making maple sugar and maple syrup, spring was for making cheese, summer was for planting vegetables, and autumn was for harvest and storing food away for another winter.
Family members would visit each other for Christmas, dances, and to help each other with harvest crops. While families in the “Big Woods” were independent, there was still enough social interactions to nurture life.
As a child, I loved these descriptions of chores from a bygone era. Life, in Little House in the Big Woods, was very tactile. You churned your own butter, you made your own cheese, you created your survival. As a child getting her produce from supermarkets and her food cooked by others, there was something enchanting and exotic about Little House in the Big Woods.
As a 30-year-old, I see Little House in the Big Woods as a profoundly American product. The story it tells is the Puritan lifestyle: absolutely no work and no smiles on Sabbath day, strip yourself of all frivolity, rigid days of never-changing and never-ending chores, etc. Without this constant ethos of hard work, you would die. At times, I sensed a rejection of pleasure that I simultaneously admired and recoiled against.
This isn’t to say that life in Laura’s household was always po-faced. They had the simple joys of Pa playing his fiddle and telling stories. They sometimes went to the general store to buy pretty fabrics for dresses. They would go to grandma & grandpa’s for dances and delicious big family dinners. As an adult, however, it’s easy to see that Laura took so much pleasure in these trips because of how few and far between they were. Law of diminishing returns and all…
As a 30-year-old, Little House in the Big Woods does read like an instruction manual for the pioneer lifestyle and like an instruction manual to raise good little boys and girls. A bit didactic. At this point in my life, I prefer my stories to be subtler.
(Of course, I couldn’t help but smile a little. With all this manual labor, who’s got time to deal with an existential crisis?)
If I were to read Little House in the Big Woods for the first time as a 30-year-old, out of curiosity for this American children’s classic, I’d leave underwhelmed. I’d be glad to have checked it off the endless list of books I would like to read before I die but I wouldn’t seek out Little House on the Prairie, the next book in the series (and the one I remember as my favorite!).
But my relationship with Little House in the Big Woods is not purely about its content. In fact, its content matters little. The book no longer takes me to the woods of Wisconsin; it takes me to innocent childhood days of seeing firsthand life in the American suburbs, of baking Pillsbury cookies, of Grandma R’s sweaters and sweetness.
These books now embody Grandma R to me rather than a children’s story. Fiction evokes the emotional. No. Fiction is emotional.
Rereading Little House in the Big Woods also created a connection to my younger self. There were long descriptions of Pa making hunting bullets and cleaning his rifle that I forgot existed. Yet scenes and imagery of Mary churning butter and Laura’s palpable joy from receiving her first real doll for Christmas remain in my mind’s eye even to this day.
It made me smile. I was always a girly girl. Now I’m just a very feminine woman. Some things don’t change. I still had to force down boredom when reading passages about guns and hunting game. But I still devour pages about making homemade cheese and maple syrup with gusto.
It’s such a cliched takeaway, but our personal histories often eclipse the textual content of a book. The words in a book connect us to the wider world: they teach us about various fields and broaden our understanding of faraway places and people. But even without the words contained within, books embody things for us, connect us to precious memories, and become physical mementos of places and people and ourselves.