Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 1

I wanted to do something fun without committing to a multi-year thing, so let's all watch me completely abuse the concept of "Let's Play" in the context of a Little House on the Prairie binge reading. (Really, you're lucky I didn't call it Liveblogging. I'm older every day, you know.) Posts to be posted when they are posted. Standard Ana-stuff applies: there's stuff about Little House that I love, stuff that I hate, and stuff that I'm ambivalent about; an attack on 19th century attitudes does not mean I want to dig up Wilder's ghost and snark at her, etc.

Little House in the Big Woods: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 of Little House in the Big Woods opens strong with the kind of imagery that makes me love these books: the Ingalls are storing away food for winter. That might not sound like a world-beating plot, but OH MY GOD NINETEENTH CENTURY FOOD PORN:

   Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.
   Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads. The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic’s corners.
   The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves.

And that's AFTER the venison and BEFORE the bacon, both of which are thoroughly saturated in gorgeous-smelling hickory smoke. I like Big Woods best of all the books by far, and I think it's half because food porn, half because cozy forest setting, and half because none of the annoying assholes that show up later in the series. It's increasingly clear to me that Big Woods was the zombie apocalypse escapist novel of my childhood.

One thing that strikes me, though, and it's something I'm not sure I'd have thought of if I'd not just read Robin Maxwell's "Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan", and it's how gendered the roles are so far and how passive the voice is. I know that this is the nineteenth century plus Laura is just a little girl here plus Rose's heavy editing hand -- I don't care for the moment. What I see so far in this chapter is that Pa is doing all the masculine things (trapping, shooting, fishing, butchering) and Ma is doing all the feminine things (gardening, cooking, child raising) and the girls are mostly ... watching things.

   All that day and the next, Ma was trying out the lard in big iron pots on the cookstove. Laura and Mary carried wood and watched the fire. It must be hot, but not too hot, or the lard would burn. The big pots simmered and boiled, but they must not smoke. From time to time Ma skimmed out the brown cracklings. She put them in a cloth and squeezed out every bit of the lard, and then she put the cracklings away. She would use them to flavor johnny-cake later.
   Cracklings were very good to eat, but Laura and Mary could have only a taste. They were too rich for little girls, Ma said.

There's not a whole lot of "you'll need to know this when you're older" training, possibly because that would be too much like work and school, and therefore wouldn't be as romantic and interesting. Or maybe Ma and Pa were just biding their time until the girls were older. But more than that, Maxell's take on Jane got me thinking, because Maxwell makes the point -- multiple times -- that when you're in a survival situation (like the Ingalls are described here as being, living off the land and storing enough food for winter, and basically on their own barring the occasional help from a relative, a couple of things may become clear.

One, gendering roles is foolish. If someone does something well, they do it. If Ma aims better than Pa, she does the shooting; if Pa has stronger arms better suited for laundry, then he does laundry. In a survival situation with a very small group of people, gendering roles becomes actively harmful to the survival of the group.

Now, you could make the case that the roles are gendered because they were pre-gendered, so to speak. Which is to say, Ma is the better cook because she was trained to be the better cook because gendering was part of her educational plan. And Pa is the better hunter because yada yada. And this makes a degree of sense, but leads to Maxwell's second point.

Two, when in a survival situation, you spread knowledge as much as you can. Hypothetical example: Ma teaches Pa to cook during the long winter hours; Pa teaches Ma how to shoot and aim. The idea being that when you're in a very small group, if one person is knocked out by death or disease or disability, you can't afford to lose one-half or one-third of your survival skill repertoire. Maxwell's Tarzan teaches Jane not because he isn't capable of taking care of her, or because she needs to be his equal; he teaches her because he needs her help. Redundancy systems, people! Very important in your survival novel.

Of course, this doesn't mean that people dropped into a survival situation are going to grok all this instinctively. That's the Noble Savage myth cropping up, the idea that if we just get far enough away from civilization, we'll magically shed all our human-othering bullshit tendencies. Alas, no.

So it's not surprising to me that Ma and Pa engage in this behavior. It's just kind of ... food for thought. Alongside the food porn for thought.


Ana Mardoll said...

Also: I blogged this while watching Blade. So ignore any references to ninja vampires.

Anthony Rosa said...

I remember reading these books when I was in grade school. This is going to be fun. *grabs popcorn*

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

You know, I loved the "in the middle of the woods, being all survivally" aspect of this book as a kid, too, but weirdly when I reread it as a teenager, it seemed to me that wasn't the case at all. It's almost like the narrative plays up the 19th century rural life to make it seem more wildernessy to modern ears - I mean, the book was published in what, the 1920s or 1930s, when I'd guess a huge portion of the kids who would read it would have electricity and running water (not all, of course, but it feels like the series is meant for middle class kids who live in towns and cities, if that makes sense? when I compare it to the series books of the day...)

Or maybe it's just in comparison to the later books in the series, when the Ingalls lived in Oklahoma or their early years in South Dakota and there literally was no one within a day's ride. Here in Wisconsin, it's a matter of a couple of hours to walk to relatives' places, less if they take the wagon. They're rural but that's the nature of living on a farm - they're not isolated.

There's also the idea that the girls are just watching their parents at this point, not really doing much. I found it fascinating when I read Laura's biography to learn that most of the stories in this book come from when she was 3 or 4 years old, and then later when she was 7 or 8, in between the Oklahoma and Minnesota (Plum Creek) years. When I then reread Big Woods, it became a lot more apparent to me that the book has a lot to do with the perspective of a small child.

I read this series dozens of times between the ages of 6 and 14. I'm not really sure where the appeal lay, but it was certainly there. I was utterly obsessed for quite some time and tried to learn absolutely everything I could about Laura and being a "pioneer". (I also really loved the books about Rose that McBride wrote.)

Naomi said...

Also, I want to know how Ma keeps her hands clean while dealing with pig fat all day. Ack.

Isn't there a soap-making chapter later on? In one of the books, at least?

Or maybe I'm remembering something from this book, which I was also fascinated by as a kid: It made an interesting, much-less-romantic counterpart to the Little House books. (Which is probably why my mother bought it, then left it in my reading nook where I would stumble across it.) I definitely remember a soap-making chapter SOMEwhere.


Brin Bellway said...

I also remember reading about soap-making at some point. However, while I did not read Huckleberry Hill, I'm pretty sure I had a make-your-own-soap kit as a child.

EdinburghEye said...

I made my own soap when I was 11! For Science!

In one of my favourite Jane Austen commentary-books, Jane Austen and Food, the author Maggie Lane outlines how gendered skills were in Austen's time (in England, of course): that there were a huge range of housekeeping skills that a woman learned and taught to her daughters, which men never did: a man without a wife or a close female relative literally could not "keep house" because he didn't possess the skills to do so.

Yes, it would have made sense if Pa and Ma had learned each other's skills - but humans don't necessarily logic their way through situations.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...


That sounds fascinating! Is it like the book What Jane Austen Wore and Charles Dickens Ate or whatever the title is, but possibly more social/historical context than just lists? I've been meaning to get it from the library for aaaaages (literally, something like 15 years at this point, since I first saw it in my HS library!) but haven't quite got around to it because it looks like it's just lists of things, like an encyclopedia or something, and I don't generally care for those kinds of books.

Rowen said...

I've had a lot of people refer to that book, but I've also had the people at various Jane Austen societies turn their noses up at it. What usually gets brought up is that Jane Austen is Regency and Charles Dickens is Victorian, so there's a big difference in subject matter (imagine someone trying to lump in the 70's and World War One in the same era). But, I also haven't read it, so there's that.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

@Rowen - That's another reason why it's been 15 years since I learned of the book but haven't read it. The context (or lack thereof)...though it always seemed that it was meant for people just trying to make sense of their literature classes, and not so much for historians. But I referred to it because it is a fairly well-known guide to customs and things.

EdinburghEye said...

I haven't read WJAW&CDA (or heard of it - sorry!) Jane Austen and Food is a detailed historical/literary examination of how food was prepared and stored (and who by) in Jane Austen's time - the book quotes from many of her letters, and cites other family letters, not only the novels.

Maggie Lane also looks at how Jane Austen uses a character's relationship with food - what they eat, what they like to eat, how a woman's class and personality was judged by her relationship with food and the preparation of food - and how men are (generally) judged for being greedy about food and selfish in their personal relationships. It's a great book even if you're just interested in finding out about white soup and French bread, and why it mattered that Elizabeth Bennett prefered a roast to a ragout, but it's also a fascinating read if you're interested either in women's history or in the minutiae of Jane Austen's novels. (There's a whole chapter exploring how food is used in Emma!)

It's absolutely not an encyclopedia, but the index is great.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

Oooh, Jane Austen and Food sounds even more interesting now! Thank you so much! :)

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