Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A Girl's Education in Little House in the Big Woods

It was so hard to be good all the time, every day, for a whole year. "You mustn't tease the children, Peter," Aunt Eliza said. Ma said, "Laura, aren't you going to let the other girls hold your doll?" She meant, "Little girls must not be so selfish."


"So you see, Laura and Mary," Pa said, "you may find it hard to be good, but you should be glad that it isn't as hard to be good now as it was when Grandpa was a boy."

"Did little girls have to be as good as that?" Laura asked, and Ma said:

"It was harder for little girls. Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time, not only on Sundays. Little girls could never slide downhill, like boys. Little girls had to sit in the house and stitch on samplers."


Ma's delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked like ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker had made her clothes.

The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura and Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little criss-cross stitches. It showed how important a dance was, if Ma was going to wear the beautiful delaine dress.


Uncle George was home from the army. He wore his blue army coat with the brass buttons, and he had bold, merry blue eyes. He was big and broad and he walked with a swagger.

Laura looked at him all the time she was eating her hasty pudding, because she had heard Pa say to Ma that he was wild. Uncle George had run away to be a drummer boy in the army, when he was fourteen years old.

Laura had never seen a wild man before. She did not know whether she was afraid of Uncle George or not.


Ma and Grandma cleared away the dishes and washed them, and swept the hearth, while Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby made themselves pretty in their room.

Laura sat on their bed and watched them comb out their long hair and part it carefully. They parted it from their foreheads to the napes of their necks and then they parted it across from ear to ear. They braided their back hair in long braids and then they did the braids up carefully in big knots.

They fussed for a long time with their front hair, holding up the lamp and looking at their hair in the little looking-glass that hung on the log wall. They brushed it so smooth on each side of the straight white part that it shone like silk in the lamplight. The little puff on each side shone, too, and the ends were coiled and twisted neatly under the big knot in the back. Then they pulled on their beautiful white stockings, that they had knit of fine cotton thread in lacy, openwork patterns, and they buttoned up their best shoes. They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby's corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.

"Pull, Ruby, pull!" Aunt Docia said, breathless. "Pull harder." So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, "I guess that's the best you can do." She said, "Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married."

Caroline was Laura's Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud. Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses.Aunt Docia's dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them. Aunt Ruby's dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it. Aunt Docia's pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady's head on it. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eye, so it couldn't be used as a needle any more.

They looked lovely, sailing over the floor so smoothly with their large, round skirts. Their little waists rose up tight and slender in the middle, and their cheeks were red and their eyes bright, under the wings of shining, sleek hair.

Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with the little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin. The pin was flat, as long and as wide as Laura's two biggest fingers, and it was carved all over, and scalloped on the edges. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.


Ma was not sitting with her mending basket as usual. She was busy getting everything ready for a quick breakfast and laying out the best stockings and petticoats and dresses, and Pa's good shirt, and her own dark brown calico with the little purple flowers on it. The days were longer now. In the morning Ma blew out the lamp before they finished breakfast. It was a beautiful, clear spring morning.

Ma hurried Laura and Mary with their breakfast and she washed the dishes quickly. They put on their stockings and shoes while she made the beds. Then she helped them put on their best dresses‚ Mary's china-blue calico and Laura's dark red calico. Mary buttoned Laura up the back, and then Ma buttoned Mary. Ma took the rags off their hair and combed it into long, round curls that hung down over their shoulders. She combed so fast that the snarls hurt dreadfully. Mary's hair was beautifully golden, but Laura's was only a dirt-colored brown.


The storekeeper took down bolts and bolts of beautiful calicos and spread them out for Ma to finger and look at and price. Laura and Mary looked, but must not touch. Every new color and pattern was prettier than the last, and there were so many of them! Laura did not know how Ma could ever choose.

Ma chose two patterns of calico to make shirts for Pa, and a piece of brown denim to make him a jumper. Then she got some white cloth to make sheets and underwear. Pa got enough calico to make Ma a new apron. Ma said: "Oh, no, Charles, I don't really need it." But Pa laughed and said she must pick it out, or he would get her the turkey red piece with the big yellow pattern. Ma smiled and flushed pink, and she picked out a pattern of rosebuds and leaves on a soft, fawn-colored ground.


Eva was a pretty girl, with dark eyes and black curls. She played carefully and kept her dress clean and smooth. Mary liked that, but Laura liked better to play with Clarence. Clarence was red-headed and freckled, and always laughing. His clothes were pretty, too. He wore a blue suit buttoned all the way up the front with bright gilt buttons, and trimmed with braid, and he had copper-toed shoes. The strips of copper across the toes were so glittering bright that Laura wished she were a boy. Little girls didn't wear copper-toes.

All text from Little House in the Big Woods.

Text copyright 1932 by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Text copyright renewed 1959 by Roger Lea MacBride.
Illustrations copyright 1953 by Garth Williams.
Illustrations copyright renewed 1981 by Garth FIlliams.

59 Comments / Post A Comment


I re-read most of the series last summer (I got up to the point where SPOILER ALERT the dog died and I just couldn't any more. Their lives were too hard! But also all the food sounded really good?!) which was really great and reminded me how formative these books were in my childhood.

But can we talk about how Laura grew up to be a libertarian? I MEAN, I guess it makes sense, she always took after Pa more, and he would obviously be an "off-the-grid" kind of man now. But it made me like the books less as an adult.


@emilies Do you mean when they (SPOILER) thought Jack died or when he really died?? Because when he didn't really die and then they see him again I cry buckets and I'm like PUT YOUR DAMN DOG IN YOUR WAGON NEXT TIME.


@ohbladi UGH. I FORGOT ABOUT WHEN HE ALMOST DIED. I was a snivelling wreck. No, things just got too hard when he finally left this world.


@emilies I think it was her daughter, Rose, the books' editor, who was the more staunch libertarian. I have to wonder how much of that was inserted there. I have some of Laura's other writings-- from newspaper columns she used to do, and it was much less glaring there. I feel the same way as you describe, reading the books now-- the horror in Ma's voice when she tells Laura not to depend on anyone else to help her, least of all the government-- and yet the later books seem to talk a lot about some of the robber barons who built railroads out west, how they took advantage of the little guy-- mixed messages it seemed to me. I totally understand that when you live in Dakota territory and your nearest neighbor is miles away and has little enough of his own, you are really on your own for the most part.


@emilies : Out of curiosity, what bugs so much about Rose or Laura being Libertarian? The times and places they lived in (particularly Laura) didn't give them many other options BUT to be utterly self-reliant, or reliant on an intimate family/town group.

(Also bear in mind that "Libertarian" as a political party was not officially established until 1971.)

...I'm just always weirded out by the distress and venom that many 'Pinners show when it comes to Libertarians. There are as many variations there as there are of Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, etc.

What in particular bothers you about Libertarian leanings?


@OxfordComma Problem is, they weren't utterly self-reliant. They relied on free government land to claim, they relied on bank loans, some of which they were unable to repay when they went bust and moved on (again), they even relied on/helped themselves to the railroad surveyor's store of goods to live on (and use for serving meals at a profit) the first year they moved to South Dakota. Frontier living relied on a great deal of assistance, usually from neighbors, but the big government land give-aways is what made pioneering possible.


@LotaLota : I think I see where you're coming from.
Do you see that as cognitive dissonance, then? Because I don't know of *anyone* who completely holds to their parties' "ideals".
I guess I don't see the conflict between distrusting the government/wealthy robber barons and also taking advantage of what they offered.

In addition to pioneers taking advantage of what was offered, their day-to-day survival was often due to their own determination. I...kinda feel like it isn't particularly fair to dismiss that out of hand. Being a pioneer was tough as hell, and required a certain amount of steel.


I lean pretty leave-me-alone-y, but I still took advantage of my FAFSA, you know? (I also pay my taxes, but I'm not going to just accept a tax raise OR cut without examining the actual language and implications of the bill at hand)

For what it's worth?

Some Libertarians are total Ayn Rand-y douchebags.
Some Democrats are total government handout-y nitwits.
Some Republicans are total misogynistic morons.


But I'm willing to believe that most folks in each of those parties aren't those things.


This is one of my favorite@v


What about the part where her cousin dances on top of a bee hive and ends up swathed like a mummy?


Reading about Uncle George made me sad. I think I might be pegged in absentia as "the wild aunt" to my niece and nephew, even though I am not very wild at all (maybe only in comparison to the very sheltered life my brother wants to create for them). And perhaps a little scary. Just remembering how they looked at me like an insane person when I cracked open and ate a lobster tail in front of them once. :(


@harebell Oh god! The wild aunt, that is my dream. My brother already tells the story of how I used to eat carrots directly out of the ground, like a maniac or something, so he just needs to have kids and I can impress them with my untamed root vegetable skills.


ah ha ha. Depending on your brother (and his kids), that dream may be a lot easier to achieve than you think!
& some parts are definitely fun. I definitely am the crazy aunt who takes them on trips into the big city and finger paints with them and gives them butterfly eggs to hatch, and all that. And helps them stand on their heads. It has its pleasures!


Copper toed shoes need to make a comeback. I would wear the hell out of those!


"They braided their back hair in long braids and then they did the braids up carefully in big knots."


That is all.


@Kristen Haha--I did not notice "back hair" at first but now I do. And also sentences like "braided in braids" and this one: "The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons..."


Oh, how I wanted a cornhusk doll and a playroom full of cured meats.

Oh, how I still want a cornhusk doll and a playroom full of cured meats.


@thisisunclear CURED MEATS


@thisisunclear And GIANT PUMPKINS. I mean honestly.


@thisisunclear Don't forget the pig's bladder aka the pioneer's version of a balloon!


@Mae Every year I promise to grow a pumpkin with a jar of milk and a string (ya know, for science) but I have never gotten around to actually doing it. Some day though, some day...


@thisisunclear Ahh, I know. The Big Woods sounds great and Pa is a jerk for making everybody leave.


@adorable-eggplant Wouldn't ants just crawl all over that nasty, souring milk out there in the pumpkin patch? I think it's a cool idea but I really don't get it.


@thisisunclear Fear of just this sort of failure is 100% what has held me back from actually trying. Because yes, nasty puddle of ant milk is exactly what I'd expect.


@OhMarie Laura was very young when they left the Big Woods both times, so it seemed idyllic from her childish perspective. But the post-Civil War era was marred by a series of financial panics and depressions that had devastating effects on the country, particularly rural America. A good but chilling counterpoint to Little House in the Big Woods is Wisconsin Death Trip. It recounts the horrors and desperation of living in that vicinity of rural Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Many people starved to death, others went mad, many ended up committed to asylums. Gangs of roving homeless men would invade the small rural towns, terrorizing the inhabitants in their search for food and money. It was a very tough time for the country, and that area of Wisconsin was hit hard. That's why Pa pulled stakes and left.


@LotaLota Whoa, I had no idea - thank you for sharing that!


@stonefruit It really puts things into perspective, doesn't it?


@Jinxie seriously!


This is exactly every single passage from this book that I basically had committed to memory as a child. If there was no talk of outfits in my books, I was not interested.

A. Louise

I remember going to the craft store for the first time when I was little and seeing an entire wall of calico and just being in awe because in the books it was such a fine, fine thing to have.

Also, remember the time Ma put Mary's blue ribbons on Laura and Laura's pink ribbons on Mary and it was SUCH A SCANDAL?

And I have always and forever wanted to try the fresh maple syrup poured into the snow to make candy. It sounds amazing.

frumious bandersnatch

@A. Louise I spent my whole life dreaming of this candy and then I moved to a place that was relatively unpolluted and finally had a beautiful thick fresh snowfall and...

it was terrible.


@frumious bandersnatch How terrible? Morbid curiosity.


@frumious bandersnatch oh no! I used to do this with my mom, she would boil maple syrup and molasses together and we would pour it over the snow on the porch, and it was delicious. I'm sad you didn't have a good experience with it!

frumious bandersnatch

@stonefruit Maybe boiling it was the key!

I just got soggy sad cold diluted maple syrup, basically.

(I tried to then keep the shapes together and freeze them on a baking tin, because I thought maybe it just wasn't cold enough. Ohhh 11-year-old me.)


@frumious bandersnatch It has to be boiled in the first place to go from sap to syrup, so I would assume it needs to be boiled down more to become candy-like. (I LOVE maple candy but I have only had the kind made in a kitchen/factory.)


@frumious bandersnatch It's the amount of boiling. You will know you are there because all of a sudden it will get kind of grainy... and if you wait 2 seconds longer you will have maple syrup rock. Which is also delicious if you have the patience to chip it out of your kettle, but not nearly as pretty!

lucy snowe

Maple syrup snow candy is pretty amazing. I think ours had Kings Syrup in it, too? Very fun and nom. But it really pulls at your teeth. If you have fillings, be careful!


@lucy snowe We did it with molasses, too, and that was also pretty great.

Carrie W.

True story. I read aloud "Charlotte's Web" to my kids two summers ago and it went great. So next I started "Little House in the Big Woods". The problem? Charlotte's Web is all about saving Wilbur and the first chapter of Little House in the Big Woods is all about slaughtering a pig and the great things you can do with the bladder, the tail, and headcheese. Whoops!


I'm very excited to see the "the invisibility of women's work in the home" tag getting a workout.

dracula's ghost

God when Jack gets swept away in the river and then comes limping into camp at night all bedraggled and exhausted and they're so happy to see him they give him his own corn cake but he's too tired to eat it and just licks it once to show them he's grateful??? NEVER FORGET

Ma's palm print on top of the loaves of bread is all the sweetener Pa needs

Finding Charlotte all frozen in the mud puddle after Ma makes Laura GIVE HER (!!) to that bratty neighbor girl ("neighbor" = lives ten miles away)


Dipping girls' braids in the ink pot


When Laura and the friend go racing horses across the field and all the laundry falls off? Did I dream this one

Farmer Boy and when he finds the rich man's wallet and returns it and to reward his good moral judgment the rich man gives him a horse

when Farmer Boy gets his eye shot out by the potato

when he falls under the ice and almost dies and then gets a whipping

when Pa eats the swamp watermelon and gets sick

when they only have a quilt for a door and the wolf pack is prowlin' around all night and in the morning Pa is like "I'm putting a fucking door on this shit TODAY"


@dracula's ghost : OH MY GOD

When Pa survives on Christmas candy during the blizzard

When Laura boards in the house with the BATSHITINSANE family while she's teaching school

When Laura THUMP thump THUMPS her desk to get back at Eliza for bullying Carrie (because "not for nothing did Pa describe Laura to be as strong as a French pony")

(God, I loved her in that section!)



Almanzo and Cap Garland risking their lives to go in search of wheat so the town won't starve

It always amazed me that Laura had such a horrible experience with Eliza Jane and then turned around and married her brother. Must've been awkward.


@dracula's ghost Picking plums by Plum Creek and having to shoo away the yellowjackets!

And you didn't dream the thing about the laundry, that happens at the prospectors' camp run by Laura's uncle Hi! Laura and Lena have all these wild rides with the black ponies.

Also, allllllll the blizzards.


@dracula's ghost
the vanity cakes at the birthday party (also leeches!)

Mary's going-away-to-school clothes

The Christmas barrel at the end of the long winter

Blackbird pie

Dr. Tan and the malaria (and those bitches made poor Laura literally drag herself across the floor to get them all water!)

The surveyor's house

Mr. Edwards swimming across the river to bring them their Christmas presents

And if I ever see any buttons that look like blackberries I'm buying the shit out of them.


@Mame16th : I had forgotten the Christmas barrel!


@Mame16th "Ma always could beat the nation cooking."

dracula's ghost

CHRISTMAS BARREL!!!!!!!!!!!! The muff she covets and then gets! I was trying to remember Mr. Edwards' name too, so thank you. He brings them oranges right?

dracula's ghost

@dracula's ghost
Also when they are all starving and dying in that blizzard and the whole family sits up all night braiding hay into logs for the fire? Jesus


@dracula's ghost And then Laura's hands get all chapped and torn up and she can't touch the silky threads she's given as a Christmas present without them catching, but that's okay because her hands will just get better!

But also when she and Mary and Pa go out into the prairie and she and Mary find those brightly-colored beads! And then they make them into a necklace for Carrie, because Mary was a little twerp at that age.


@dracula's ghost I thought the rich man didn't reward Almanzo at all, and implied Almanzo was a thief by counting the money to make sure it was all there? And his dad finally let him raise the horses he'd been coveting the whole book?


@dracula's ghost the blacksmith threatens to beat up the rich man if he doesn't give almonzo more than a nickel, so almonzo sets up a bank account with his $200 reward and asks his dad if he can buy Star-whatever, and his dad just gives him the horse.

Nora Buckbee

I can't believe how much of this book I remember even though I haven't read it in, what, 15 years? Probably? All these descriptions seem so familiar! I'll have to go back and re-read the books now.


Last summer my sister-in-law and I were shelling walnuts on my grandparents' patio, when my brother came by and asked, "Are you guys playing The Long Winter?" To which we replied, "Yes! We love to play The Long Winter!"
And we do, she knits and I sew and embroider, and we both like to can and preserve things, and we blame much of this on the Little House books.


@Mame16th You know, I'd somehow never put my obsession with those books together with my love of "homestead-y" stuff but it makes total sense. Though The Long Winter is not a book I'd want to live - months of twisting hay sticks in an icy lean-to isn't my idea of a good time.


IIRC, there was a bit in one of the later books where Carrie and Laura have a conversation about never having seen Ma's ears, because she always wore her hair over them? So strange from the modern viewpoint to see someone every day of your life but not know what her ears look like.


Oh god so much of this is incredibly familiar. Uncle George! Blackberry buttons! BRB going to go reread all of these right now


I am pretty sure most of my corsetry kink can be attributed to the lines about Pa being able to span her waist with his hands. Do you think that's even true? Even for someone with really big hands, that would be a freakishly small waist.


@glitterary Corset training + malnutrition can do wonders for a lady's waistline.


My husband and I just finished reading, chapter by chapter at bedtimes, the entire series to our five-year-old daughter. We, ahh ... elided some of the harsher parts (like the time the Ingallses got home-invaded by the Indians -- eep!), but overall the whole thing was pretty great to share with her. Of course it led to a whoooole lot of conversations and teachable moments (I blogged some of them back in July at my joint, damnkidsgetoffmylawn), such as:

--The one about Jack dying:
Me: Pets ...[choking sobs, tear-swabbing] ... don't live as long as people so ... [honking nose-blow] ... they -- they die [more sobbing] ... and Jack was a good dog ... and ... oh honey, I'm sorry, this is ridiculous [laughing through FLOODS of tears], I'm crying about s-s-omebody else's dead dog from a hundred and fifty years ago! [weeping, nose-blowing, furious tear-mopping]
Kid Gleemonex [wrinkling brow, reasonably, dry-eyed, though possibly worried about my sanity]: But Mommy, Jack was old. He died and went to Kevin, just like your Daddy did.

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