Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

One of my strongest memories of the Little House books is of the infinite and infinitely comforting knowledge and abilities of Ma and Pa. They can do anything—they can move to the frontier and make everything they need to live, from their house to their food to their fun.

Of course, it is small Laura who watches all that Ma and Pa do and is impressed by them, passing it on to me. But her wonder is genuine and justified. Pa starts being awesome in the very first chapter, when after only a couple pages he demonstrates how to smoke your own venison:

Pa skinned the deer carefully and salted and stretched the hides, for he would make soft leather of them. Then he cut up the meat, and sprinkled salt over the pieces as he laid them on a board.

Standing on end in the yard was a tall length cut from the trunk of a big hollow tree. Pa had driven nails inside as far as he could reach from each end. Then he stood it up, put a little roof over the top, and cut a little door on one side near the bottom. On the piece that he cut out he fastened leather hinges; then he fitted it into place, and that was the little door, with the bark still on it.

After the deer meat had been salted several days, Pa cut a hole near the end of each piece and put a string through it. Laura watched him do this, and then she watched him hang the meat on the nails in the hollow log.

Just inside the little door in the hollow log Pa built a fire of tiny bits of bark and moss, and he laid some of the [hickory] chips on it very carefully.

Instead of burning quickly, the green chips smoldered and filled the hollow log with thick, choking smoke. Pa shut the door, and a little smoke squeezed through the crack around it and a little smoke came out through the roof, but most of it was shut in with the meat.

Huge portions of the book are taken up this way. Laura describes, slowly and carefully, in short paragraphs and usually with pictures to help (because let’s face it, you have to make yourself actually visualize this stuff for it to make any sense), how to do just about everything her parents have to do to run the household. Her whole life is, in fact, a continuous reel of such scenes, teaching her how to live. My parents had to do the same thing, but explaining how to balance a checkbook seems an awful lot less magical.

At the end of many of these lessons, we actually get the lesson, encapsulated, from the parent. “‘There’s nothing better than good hickory smoke,’ Pa said. ‘That will make good venison that will keep anywhere, in any weather.'” Anywhere, in any weather—this is teaching us what is important for the Ingalls family to begin with. And more on the latter of those things tomorrow.

5 comments to Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

  • I think, or like to think, that, given the equipment, I could make butter by following the instructions in this book. They seem so clear. I’m not as certain that I could cure that venison.

  • Butter? Pshaw, that ain’t nothing. Didn’t Pa teach you how to build a whole house, doors, hinges, chimney, and all?

    One thing I’ve noticed, re-reading the series much more rapidly than the first time around, is that a lot of the instructions are repeated, sometimes in nearly the same words, but always just a bit different, so you can triangulate a bit that way too. Just in case Laura’s mother wasn’t clear enough about the butter-making, Almanzo’s mother is there to help.

  • And he builds the whole house with little more than an exceedingly sharp axe. No, I’d better stick with the butter.

    Very interesting about the repetition in Farmer Boy and so on. I’ll bet we would find that in most series for young’uns.

  • Hi Nicole, happy new year, I enjoyed your post, and am glad I had a chance to read Li’l House in the Big Woods, on the heels of AR’s extended musings. I appreciate, too, the emphasis you place on the pictures in the book, which I found surprisingly useful, helpful.


  • Kevin—The pictures are, sadly, critical for me. I am terrible about visualizing descriptions in books. It’s my worst habit as a reader, and not one that works very well with this series. Lots of re-reading paragraphs I totally glazed over on the first time around.