By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Thursday, November 8, 2007
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In February 1867, less than two years after the end of the Civil War, a girl was born in rural Wisconsin. She heard stories of the war firsthand as a child in the Midwest, saw and talked to men still wearing their wartime uniforms, and lived her entire girlhood on, or very close to, the frontier. She was 65 before she published her first book, "Little House in the Big Woods," under the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
As a young boy in the 1940s I adored that book, and the eight others that followed in the steadily expanding "Little House" series, in substantial measure because they brought me so close to the Civil War and brought the frontier so vividly to life, with an immediacy unmatched in any textbook to which I was subsequently subjected in school. By the age of 11 or 12 I had moved on to more grown-up (though not necessarily better) books, but Wilder's have remained in my memory for nearly six decades as treasured touchstones.
It goes without saying that I am scarcely alone. For three-quarters of a century the "Little House" books have been wildly popular, and have penetrated the popular imagination as have few other books for readers of any age. They have remained in print without interruption and are now available in single volumes and boxed sets. There are biographies of Wilder, collections of her other writings and ephemera of various sorts. In the 1970s a hugely popular television series based on "Little House on the Prairie" ran for 202 episodes and is now available in what seems an endless succession of DVDs. A half-century after her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder is an industry.
This is just fine by countless millions of children and parents, rather less so with some historians of the frontier who insist that life was a lot harder and a lot less sunny than Wilder portrays it. They're right, but they also miss the point. As was made plain to me by my first rereading of "Little House in the Big Woods" after more years than I care to contemplate, Wilder's books are not so much about pure historical accuracy, of which they probably don't have all that much, as about more elemental things: familial love and loyalty, learning how to cope with whatever life brings you, treating animals kindly, passing from innocence toward maturity.
Some of the readers who've urged me to include one of Wilder's books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading "Little House in the Big Woods," I guess that I agree, but it's not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder's prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn't try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that -- as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy -- paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let's take her word for it.
It's worth bearing in mind that Wilder did not start writing these stories until she was in her early 60s, after a life that had been rewarding in many ways but also difficult. She was at a point when the temptation of nostalgia is strong, and she did not resist it. Thanks to these books, the story of her childhood (at least as she chose to remember it) is so familiar that retelling it is pointless. As an adult she lived in various places -- the Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Florida, Missouri -- with her husband, Almanzo Wilder. They farmed with varying degrees of success and had two children: Rose, born in 1886, and a boy who died almost immediately after his birth in 1889.
Rose ultimately became a singular and somewhat mysterious figure in her mother's life. She was brilliant and achieved a degree of education and success rare among women of her time and place. Under her married name, Rose Wilder Lane, she became a popular journalist and novelist, and her successes apparently inspired her mother to begin setting down her childhood memories. Rose, who seems to have had astute editorial instincts, helped shape her mother's narratives into the books they eventually became, to the point that no one knows for certain what in them is Laura and what is Rose. The conventional view, which seems fair enough, is that the essence is Laura but that she needed Rose to polish her work into publishable books.
From the publication in 1932 of "Little House in the Big Woods" until her death in 1957, Wilder became ever more famous and beloved. Earnings from royalties enabled her and Almanzo to live in ever greater comfort, and after his death in 1949 at age 92, she spent her remaining years as something of a national institution. The farmhouse where she and Almanzo lived in Missouri is open to the public as a historic landmark and receives a steady, substantial volume of pilgrims. The Little House Heritage Trust makes certain that Wilder's flame will burn brightly for many years to come.
The best of her books unquestionably is "Little House on the Prairie." It is far more substantial than "Big Woods" and contains a good deal more in the way of plot. But "Big Woods" is where it all began; though the first book in a series is not always the best place to start, in this case it is, as it introduces us to Laura and her family and establishes the pattern for all the books to come. It begins like a fairy tale -- "Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs" -- and it sustains that tone for the nearly 200 pages that follow. The little family -- Pa, Ma, Laura, her older sister Mary and baby sister Carrie, as well as their dog, Jack, and innumerable other animals -- live alone in the big woods, miles from anyone else, but she knows she is "safe inside the solid log walls" -- a knowledge that immediately is comforting to any young reader.
The long winter is coming in as the book begins -- whether to call it a memoir or a novel is entirely up in the air -- and the house is "fairly bursting with good food stored away"; "everything [is] snug and cosy." Unlike the bears in the woods around them, the family does not go into full hibernation, but the farm shuts down. Pa's main activity is hunting for meat -- bear, deer, whatever -- and it can be dangerous:
"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."
This is the sort of hard reality of frontier life that Wilder conveys vividly and accurately. She was uncommonly observant; nothing seems to have escaped her. Though she views Pa without exception as the quietly heroic embodiment of male strength and kindness, she also conveys, through her descriptions of Ma's domestic activities, the full extent to which frontier women were no less heroic. Ma has a task for every day -- wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday, rest on Sunday -- and she does each without fail. She makes her own cheese, for example, a process that Wilder describes in loving detail; sews everyone's clothing; and is teacher, storyteller and companion to her children. Today we have a fairly clear idea of how important women were in settling the frontier, but many of the early readers of "Little House in the Big Woods" surely were startled to get some sense of how vital they had been.
What surprises me a bit in thinking back to my own reaction to these books as a boy is that it seems to have made no difference at all that girls, not boys, were at the center of these stories. Most of my favorite books were about boys -- Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "The Story of a Bad Boy," Booth Tarkington's "Penrod and Sam" -- but I remember with great affection, even if I can remember neither the title nor the author, a memoir of a girlhood spent in Manhattan's Gramercy Park, and as my reading habits advanced I thought "Little Women" a much better book than "Little Men," which of course it is.
I say this not in order to lay claim to preternaturally premature feminism, but to make the point that Wilder's books are open and accessible to readers of both sexes. The girls whom she portrays are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did. The front cover of my copy of "Little House in the Big Woods" shows two cute-as-buttons girls in a bright, sunny woods, wearing clothes that look right out of Ralph Lauren. That may be good TV, but it's bad Laura Ingalls Wilder.
"Little House in the Big Woods" is available in a HarperTrophy paperback ($6.99).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.