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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-10-07 12:54 am

Mock Newbery: Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder), Part 1

It is Monday! I have... a partial liveblog of Little House in the Big Woods, written before Vaino arrived on interlibrary loan.

I'm posting this now because the deeply informal poll came out unanimously in favor of upping my language rating here. So I thought I'd post all the deliberately-G-rated writing I had and start fresh. ^_^


[Written earlier:]

For clarity, throughout this series, I'm going to use "Laura" to mean the fictionalized character and "Mrs Wilder" or "Laura Ingalls Wilder" to mean the real-life author / historical character.

* I have one of the recent "Full-Color Collector's Edition" versions out of the library, and it is so incredibly weird to see Garth Williams's illustrations with colors added. So weird. It's like a colorized version of Alice in Wonderland, or Winnie the Pooh, or anything else where the black-and-white line drawings are practically part of the text at this point through having been in every edition since 1953 of a book that was part of many people's childhood for the last seventy years and more. O_O

* So weird.

* Well, anyway. First line: "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."

* "Sixty years ago" from the time of publication is 1872. Mrs Wilder doesn't say so at this point - I think it doesn't come up till Laura's birthday - but I'm pretty sure Laura is four years old at this time. Looking at Laura Ingalls Wilder's Wiki page, she would have been four years old in 1871. Presumably that small discrepancy comes from the lag-time in conventional publishing: that is, Mrs Wilder was 64 years old (and therefore Laura had been four years old exactly sixty years ago) when she sent the book to the publisher, but the book wasn't actually published till the next year.

* The result of all that is: it is 1871. Laura lives with her Ma and Pa (Mrs Wilder includes a quick digression about how children "in those days and in that place" didn't say "Mother" and "Father" or "Mamma" and "Papa" "as they do now") and her sisters Mary and Carrie, in the little log house in the Big Woods.

* Historically, the future Mrs Wilder was only one year old when the Ingalls family moved away from the Big Woods in 1868, and three years old when they left "Indian Territory". She changed the chronology of her books, apparently at her publisher's request, to make it seem more "realistic" that she remembered everything she describes in the amount of detail she gives -- so in book-chronology, the Ingallses do not leave the Big Woods until 1872 or thereabouts (I'm not sure of the exact timeline).

* Historically, also, Caroline "Baby Carrie" Celestia Ingalls was born in 1870. In book-chronology that makes her about a year old at the time of Little House in the Big Woods, but in real historical time, Carrie was born in "Indian Territory" not long before the Ingallses left -- that is, she was born just before the historical happening that became the end of Little House on the Prairie, the (by some definition) second book in the series.

* You know, no offense in the world to Mrs Wilder (and her daughter / editor, Rose Wilder Lane) -- but could they possibly have made all this any harder to talk about? I DON'T THINK SO. O_O

* Okay. *deep breath* As far as I can figure out, the dates in these books are mostly accurate - which is helpful, anyway. It means I don't have much realignment to do with external historical dates, just where the Ingallses were at any given time. The "jog" in the timeline comes between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake; Plum Creek starts not long after Prairie ends, i.e. 1873 or so, when Laura is six or seven (historically the Ingalls family lived in Wisconsin for four years between living in "Indian Territory" and Minnesota, and the experiences Laura has in Little House in the Big Woods are drawn from that second stay in Wisconsin), while Silver Lake starts in 1879 when Laura was about twelve and her youngest sister, Grace, born in the gap between books, was about two years old both in the story and in reality. From there on, the two timelines are the same.

* Okay, let's get back to the actual book.

* We get a fairly evocative description of the little house and its setting in the woods, of how wolves sometimes prowl around and of how Pa hunts deer for food.

* It is almost winter. Mrs Wilder gives a long and detailed description of how the Ingallses preserve the deer meat with hickory smoke to keep it for the winter. (I recall that my favorite part of these books, when I was little - I was given the complete set when I was four - was the descriptions of these pre-electricity ways of doing things. I'm still majorly fascinated by simple "back to the land" techniques, and I'm pretty sure that started here.)

* Pa also catches a whole wagonload of fresh fish one day, from the nearby Lake Pepin (part of the Mississippi River), and these are salted down in barrels.

* There is also a pig, which ran wild in the woods all summer eating acorns, and is now kept in a pen by the barn to be fattened. When the weather is cold enough to keep the meat frozen, Pa will slaughter and butcher the pig. One night a bear nearly steals the pig, but Pa shoots at the bear and it runs away.

* And there is a garden, too, with potatoes and carrots and beets and turnips and cabbages and onions and peppers and pumpkins and squash, all kept in the root cellar under the house after they're harvested. There are deer in the woods, but Jack the brindle bulldog keeps them from eating the plants in the garden.

* One day it is cold enough to butcher the pig. Uncle Henry (Henry Odin Quiner, Ma's older brother, married to Pa's younger sister Polly "Aunt Polly" Melona Ingalls) comes over to help butcher the hog.

(Yes, they almost all have these "offbeat" middle names, except Laura Elizabeth Ingalls. I grew up in the kind of middle-American "heartland" area where demagogues and magazine columnists are always citing the Little House books as their idealized vision of the Good Old Days when everyone Had Good Old-Fashioned Family Values, which always consisted of whatever the particular claimant wanted people to Go Back To. And while we'll get more into that when we hit the later books where Laura and Almanzo are courting -- oh my word, will we ever -- this is as good a place as any to mention for the first time: the 1870s were not actually your idealized Everyone Was "Smalltown Normal" As We Perceive It era. People had middle names like "Odin" and went into debt and were sometimes criminals, and were basically normal people. Actually normal, not idealized normal made to convey a moral. That's all the OTHER Newbery books out there. *dry grin*)

* Anyway, back to Butchering Time! Laura does not like to hear the pig squeal when they kill it, even though Pa assures her it doesn't hurt, but once the pig is dead "Butchering Time was great fun".

* We hear all about how the men butcher the hog, hams and shoulders and side-meat and all the rest of it. Mary and Laura have the pig's bladder, a little balloon-like ball, to play catch and kick-the-ball with, and they also have the pig's tail to roast over the fire in the cookstove and eat.

* After that one day when they butcher the hog and salt down the meat, Pa and Uncle Henry are done with their part of Butchering Time, but Laura and Mary and Ma have more work to do. They "try out" or process the pig's lard (fat) to use as grease and for cooking and soap-making later, and the "cracklings" (crispy brown bits around the edges) are skimmed out to flavor cornbread with.

* They also make the pig's head into headcheese, a concoction made by boiling the head (minus organs), mincing and seasoning the meat, and then mixing it with the gelatin from the boiled head, letting it cool, and slicing the resulting... stuff. (Personally I think it sounds even more gross than the Jello fruit salads that were a staple of church potlucks in the Midwest where I grew up, but that's personal taste, and also my having the modern habit of thinking of gelatine as a dessert.)

* Ma also makes sausage, and then they are done with Butchering Time, and it is officially winter by the calendar of what chores mark each season. Mary and Laura do not go outside anymore; instead they play in the attic.

* Mary has a rag doll named Nettie. Laura being younger, her only "doll" is a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief; this doll is named Susan, and Mrs Wilder notes that "it was a good doll" and that it "wasn't Susan's fault that she was only a corncob". (I think one of the major reasons this book series has lasted so long is that, like Beverly Cleary and a few other children's writers, Mrs Wilder remembers how she thought when she was a child, and so her books click with children who have a similar temperament to hers.)

* At night, Pa greases his traps - "small traps and middle-sized traps and great bear traps" - and tells the girls little jokes and stories, like the one about the man who cut two cat-flaps in his door (a big one for the big cat and a little one for the little cat), and when he's done he plays his fiddle. "That was the best time of all." :-)

* Can you tell I really like this book? I really like this book. ^_^

* Anyway, that is the end of the first chapter, and the next chapter is "Winter Days and Winter Nights". Pa goes out trapping in the winter; he catches muskrats and mink and foxes and wolves, from which he gets furs to trade at the store in town later on for things the family can't provide for themselves (like calico fabric for dresses). He also sets bear traps, hoping to catch a bear both for the fur and for the meat, before the bears go into hibernation.

* (Another digression on the "did this right-wing pundit even read the books before trying to draw conclusions from them?!" front: this series is always one of the book citations that come up when someone is trying to blame the rise of the divorce rate / teen delinquency / something else that is totally endemic to the modern era no really on the... how do I even explain this? This is one of those things that makes no sense outside a very particular mindset. Basically, you start with the conviction that Homosexuality Is Wrong Because kids need a mother and a father to raise them properly, and then you blame whatever societal ills will resonate most with your target audience on the fact that dads these days work jobs instead of farming, and are therefore not home all day with the mom and the kids1, so they aren't around to be The Firm Hand Of Authority like men should be *scarequotes* -- so you claim an epidemic of effective single moms, having to be Authoritative As Well As Nurturing OMG Inversion Of Nature, and effective deadbeat dads forced by circumstance. ...this still isn't making sense, is it? Anyway, my POINT was, that everyone cites Charles Ingalls - Pa - as a counterexample, as a Good Dad who didn't have to go off and work a job all day but was home with his family like a man ought to be. And my point right here is that they're wrong, because Pa Ingalls isn't employed by anyone else but he's still off away from his family all day - hunting, farming, clearing more land to farm - from sun-up to sun-down, making best use of the daylight, and during the time he's working, Ma is in charge of any discipline that the kids need done to them. [Not that the Ingallses are nearly as massively into corporal punishment as most of the people who try to use them as examples in this context, anyway, so the Need A Big Strong Man At Home To Beat The Kids Regularly section of the matter also falls flat.] DID YOU EVEN READ THE BOOKS PEOPLE. *koff*)

1: No, the people who make this claim never bring up the fact that sometimes moms work. They start from the belief of their target audience that men should work and women should stay home and housekeep, and go from there.

* Okay, end digression. Where on earth was I?

* Right. One day Pa fetches home a dead bear and a dead pig. The bear had apparently stolen the pig from someone else in the woods, and had just killed it and was going to eat it, when Pa came across the bear and shot it dead. There's no way to tell whose the pig might have been, so Pa brought it home to freeze the meat along with the bear meat.

* "When Ma wanted fresh meat for dinner Pa took the ax and cut off a chunk of frozen bear meat or pork. But the sausage balls, or the salt pork, or the smoked hams and the venison, Ma could get for herself from the shed or the attic." As long as I'm doing the digressions about Idealized 1870s Life And What It Means For Us Today... this is a good example of one moral people draw from the Little House series that I do agree with. That is, that In Those Days ;-) gender-binary-separated chores made sense, because Men's Work was determined by what kind of things needed physical strength to do them - such as chopping frozen meat in pieces, or plowing fields - versus what kind of things did not, which was Women's Work. Whereas nowadays all the work to be done involves sitting at a computer, or at the very worst, using power tools; so the moral that is drawn is, it's perfectly fine these days for women to work jobs just like men. Which I agree with, as far as it goes. (I'd argue with the "these days" part, but that's a whole other digression and I just had one. ;P)

* It's by no means a perfect construction, because this Men's Work / Women's Work division only holds true as long as you are on the frontier and most of the work to be done is physically demanding. Once you reach the point where the men are no longer plowing and chopping and shooting all day, and instead are going off to colleges or founding new countries and telling the women they can't come too because they still have Women's Work to do, then it just turns into nastiness and oppression. Really properly, what ought to be the case is, that when the men (still assuming a heteronormative male/female pairing as the parents of a household - I can't address everything at once, okay?) find themselves with less than a full day at a time of physically demanding work to do, they ought to split the difference with their wives if their wives still have a full day's worth at a time of "their" chores. The men could take up laundry and dishwashing, or something; scrubbing laundry on a washboard is relatively hard work physically and takes a while. That'd free up the women to, you know, take a hand in the governing of a new nation or whatever, if the people who are arguing in favor of gender-binary-separated chores actually wanted free and equal representation and meant what they said about it being a shame the women were too busy to get out of the kitchen. ;P

* ...I'm on page 26. This is going to be a long post, isn't it? Not because the book is boring at all, but because it and its sequels have been used as a major linchpin of practically every argument about Traditional American Wossnames that I've ever read or heard -- and I've read or heard pretty much all of them. ALL. OF. THEM. O_O And I never got to dissect them before (because I grew up accepting the concepts being supported, pretty much without question), so you get all these bits of gender-relations philosophy that've been bouncing around my head half-formed for the last fifteen years. :P

* Anyway, getting back to the book: it is now deep winter, and on the glass windows in the front room of the house (it has three rooms: the front room with the stove and dining-table, the bedroom in the back, and the attic) are pictures left by "Jack Frost". Laura has a detailed imagining of Jack Frost as a little man dressed in white who carries "shining sharp tools with which he carved the pictures".

* We hear about Laura's and Mary's daily chores: they help Ma wipe the dishes clean after each meal, they make up their trundle-bed (which sits in the bedroom next to Pa's and Ma's big bed at night, and is pushed under the big bed in the daytime), and then they help with the daily work, according to the old mnemonic:

"Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday."

* Laura tells us first about the butter-churning, which she likes best of all the daily chores. In winter Ma colors the butter yellow with carrot juice, because the cream isn't naturally yellow while the cows are eating hay instead of fresh milk. (I don't know, it's a thing.) Mary and Laura get to eat the grated carrot boiled in milk after the juice has been squeezed out into the butter-churn.

* Ma and Mary take turns churning the butter, since it's a very long job, but Laura is too small and not strong enough to lift the heavy churn-dash yet. Once the butter is done being churned - that is, when it's turned from cream into butter - Ma washes it clean in cold water, salts it, and uses a wooden butter-mold to form it into "pats" or blocks of butter, each with a strawberry and two leaves stamped on the top. Then Laura and Mary get to drink some of the buttermilk - the part of the cream left in the churn after the butter is removed.

* On baking-day, Laura and Mary get to make little versions of whatever Ma is cooking, from leftover scraps of dough - bread, cookies, and once Laura even makes a little pie in her "patty-pan" (a tin or china dish shaped like a small pie-pan).

* In the evening, Ma sometimes makes paper dolls for the girls. The dolls are cut from stiff white paper, their faces drawn with pencil, and the clothes and accessories cut from bits of colored paper.

(Oh man, this book is my childhood. I now have a collection of over a hundred commercially-bought paper dolls, which serves me as a reference library for historical and ethnic fashion... and it all started with making hand-drawn paper dolls like the Ingalls girls had. ^_^)

* At night when Pa comes home, Laura and Mary sit with him by the fire while he warms up, before he goes out to take care of the farm animals - milk the cow and so on - and bring in firewood for the night. He calls Laura his "little half-pint of sweet cider half drunk up", because she's so small; this will continue throughout the series, since Laura is only about five feet three or four inches tall when full-grown, and Pa is at least six feet tall.

* And when Pa comes home early, because his traps were empty (so that he didn't spend any time getting the animals out of them) or because he's shot some game earlier than usual, he plays with Laura and Mary. One game is called "mad dog"; Pa stands his hair up on end and chases Laura and Mary around the room on all fours, growling. The object of the game is for them to keep from being cornered by him where they can't get away.

* Laura and Mary usually win, but one time Pa corners them against the woodbox behind the stove, where they can't get out. "Then Pa growled so terribly, his hair was so wild and his eyes so fierce that it all seemed real. Mary was so frightened that she could not move. But as Pa came nearer Laura screamed, and with a wild leap and a scramble she went over the wood-box, dragging Mary with her." So she wins the game, and Pa says laughing, "You're as strong as a little French horse!", another of his complimentary nicknames for Laura that will stick throughout the series.

* I note at this point, because Pa as the "mad dog" is one of the illustrations in this book that has stuck with me for over twenty years, that illustrator Garth Williams did extensive research before illustrating this series -- talked to the elderly Laura Ingalls Wilder, went to every location mentioned in the books and made landscape sketches and photographs, collected photographs of all the real-life people on whom characters were based, etc etc etc. (You can see a photograph of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, aka "Pa and Ma", at the linked wiki page.)

* ...because Garth Williams is awesome. ^_^ You'll hear this again from me when we hit The Cricket in Times Square.

* There's a very pretty visual description of the snug little house at night, with Ma sewing by lamplight (Mrs Wilder mentions that there's salt in the bottom of the lamp's kerosene reservoir to keep it from "exploding"; it's incredibly hard to find any cited data about this online, since the people who talk about kerosene lamps are mostly back-to-nature/survivalist wackjobs of either a far-left or far-right stripe, or trying to sell you something, but the most reliable-sounding comment I saw mentioned that the salt might help remove water content from the kerosene and thereby prevent sputtering), and the dog and cat lying by the fireplace, and Pa telling stories.

* One story Pa tells the girls is "The Story of Grandpa and the Panther". ("Grandpa" in this story is Pa's father, Lansford Whiting Ingalls.) One day Grandpa was travelling home from town late, after dark, and while riding through the Big Woods he heard a panther scream.

[Quick note: "panther" in most places refers to a black-colored version of any large cat in the Panthera genus, such as a jaguar or leopard. In North America, it refers to a cougar, puma, mountain lion, or catamount - these are all regional names for the same species of big cat. Scientists currently do not believe that black-colored pumas exist, but in this story right here, Pa / Mrs Wilder implies that a "panther" is specifically a black puma, comparing it to a version of Black Susan the cat that is bigger and fiercer than Jack the bulldog. Garth Williams follows this guide and draws a black puma in the illustrations for the story.]

* Then Pa screams like a panther. You can hear a cougar scream at that link. "Laura and Mary shivered with terror." (It's a fun sort of scared, Mrs Wilder makes sure to assert.)

* Anyway, Grandpa and his horse are both very scared - Grandpa especially so, because he isn't carrying his gun, so can't shoot the panther to keep it from killing him - and they run away from the panther, down the road through the woods. The panther chases them, leaping from treetop to treetop, trying to get close enough to pounce on them and kill them.

* Grandpa gets home just in front of the panther, jumps off his horse and runs indoors, and the panther jumps right onto the horse's back where Grandpa just was. The horse screams in pain and starts to run away into the Big Woods, but Grandpa grabs his gun off the wall, runs to the window, and shoots the panther dead. And Grandpa swears never again to go into the Big Woods without his gun.

* This leads very naturally into the next chapter, "The Long Rifle", about Pa's gun - which, like Grandpa's, is always kept loaded, since it's a muzzle-loading rifle which takes several minutes to load properly, and it's needed for protection (as we saw in that story) as well as for food-getting. The rifle hangs on hooks over the door, where Pa can grab it quickly if he needs it in a hurry, and the children are absolutely not allowed to touch it ever; which they accept as the sensible piece of gun-safety it is.

* Tangential note, because I feel strongly about this: in modern times with breech-loading guns, pre-assembled cartridges, and pre-filled magazines of cartridges, there is ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE to keep a loaded gun in the house. None. According to a US Center for Disease Control study of just 16 of the 50 states, 112 people died from loaded-gun accidents in the year 2005 alone (the latest year for which I could find data), and more than half of these people were in their own homes. 27 of the deaths were caused by "playing with gun", indicating that children were not taught proper gun safety as Laura and Mary are here.

Anyway, if you hunt for food or sport, you can load your gun once you get to the place you'll be hunting at; if you target-shoot at a gun range or on the back forty, you can load your gun right before you start shooting; if you keep the gun as protection against home invasions, then (1) you had better be absolutely willing to kill the invader and risk criminal charges for use of excessive force, AND (2) you should be 100% totally proficient with the thing.

Which means you have to not only be able to grab and load your gun silently in the dark (or unlock your gun safe silently and take it out), but then be able to sneak up on your intruder, flip on the light, make sure the intruder is armed and is not your teenager, AND THEN fire off a killing snap-shot in the .2 seconds or less before they shoot you first.

Did "load the gun" sound like the hardest part of that to you? If it did, you're wrong. The hardest part is "see the intruder clearly" after switching on a light that will blind you just as much as it will blind them... and remember, the intruder only has to see you clearly enough to fire at a blurry shape, because they know you're not their teenager sneaking around.

(If you're the kind of person who also keeps infrared night goggles around and can tell an armed intruder from an unarmed intruder or your teenager through them, congratulations. You're an incredibly smart and prepared protector of your home, and you should totally be able to learn infrared gun-loading or gun-safe-unlocking very quickly. :D)

I'm not saying people shouldn't defend themselves. But your first line of defense against home invasion should be A CELL PHONE. Call or text the cops and stay quiet. If you're a female-bodied person or have some other good reason to fear being lynched or raped in the night, certainly feel free to keep a baseball bat or a knife by your bed - again, assuming you are willing to use them to kill if necessary. (Never threaten anyone with a potentially deadly weapon unless you're willing to kill them.)


* Anyway, where was I? Right. Mrs Wilder tells us how every evening, before he starts telling stories or playing the fiddle, Pa makes the bullets for the next day's hunting.

And that's where I got distracted by the most biased retelling of the Finnish Civil War ever, so we'll pick up on Thursday with... more Little House, or a biography of Madame Roland on interlibrary loan, or both! ^_^

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