Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 4

Content Note: Animal Mistreatment

Chapter 4 is Christmas, so Laura will finally get a doll that isn't a vegetable! Woot!

Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter and and Peter (Junior?) and Alice and Ella come to play with Laura and Mary and they make snow angels and get presents and it's all very lovely, even when Ma breaks into Laura's OMG DOLL reverie to demand that she share her things because IF YOU ARE A VIRTUOUS PIONEER, ALL YOUR STUFF IS PUBLIC PROPERTY. Which, I guess if you live in the same 1-room house all your life, maybe it kind of is. But still.

Chapter 4 was always a little traumatizing for me, though, because there's this:

   “Eliza had a narrow squeak the other day, when I was away at Lake City. You know Prince, that big dog of mine?”
   [...] “Well,” Uncle Peter said, “early in the morning Eliza started to the spring to get a pail of water, and Prince was following her. She got to the edge of the ravine, where the path goes down to the spring, and all of a sudden Prince set his teeth in the back of her skirt and pulled.
   [...] “He tore a big piece right out of the back of it,” Aunt Eliza said. “I was so mad I could have whipped him for it. But he growled at me.”
   [...] “So then she started on again toward the spring,” Uncle Peter went on. “But Prince jumped into the path ahead of her and snarled at her. He paid no attention to her talking and scolding. He just kept on showing his teeth and snarling, and when she tried to get past him he kept in front of her and snapped at her. That scared her.”
   [...] “I turned right around and ran into the house where the children were, and slammed the door,” Aunt Eliza answered.
   “Of course Prince was savage with strangers,” said Uncle Peter. “But he was always so kind to Eliza and the children I felt perfectly safe to leave them with him. Eliza couldn’t understand it at all.
   “After she got into the house he kept pacing around it and growling. Every time she started to open the door he jumped at her and snarled.”
   [...] “How long did this go on?” Pa asked.
   “All day, till late in the afternoon,” Aunt Eliza said. “Peter had taken the gun, or I would have shot him.”
   “Along late in the afternoon,” Uncle Peter said, “he got quiet, and lay down in front of the door. Eliza thought he was asleep, and she made up her mind to try to slip past him and get to the spring for some water.
   “So she opened the door very quietly, but of course he woke up right away. When he saw she had the water pail in her hand, he got up and walked ahead of her to the spring, just the same as usual. And there, all around the spring in the snow, were the fresh tracks of a panther.”
   “The tracks were as big as my hand,” said Aunt Eliza.
   “Yes,” Uncle Peter said, “he was a big fellow. His tracks were the biggest I ever saw. He would have got Eliza sure, if Prince had let her go to the spring in the morning. I saw the tracks. He had been lying up in that big oak over the spring, waiting for some animal to come there for water. Undoubtedly he would have dropped down on her.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

*breath*

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

OMG OMG OMG SHE NEARLY SHOT THE DOG.

This is why you shouldn't keep guns at home, kids. Because your dog will try to communicate to your mom that there's a panther at the well and your mom will kill your dog.

Which: What? We've had dogs and cats all my life, some of them more strong-willed than others, but even I knew as a child that when something like this happens, the dog is trying to tell you something. It may not be "little Timmy fell down the well" or "panther!" but dogs are communicative creatures. But, no, let's just jump to the dog being irreparably ill and shoot it.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Also, Uncle Peter asks if the children received not COAL in their stockings, but SWITCHES. For whipping.

   “Well, well!” Uncle Peter said. “Isn’t there even one stocking with nothing but a switch in it? My, my, have you all been such good children?”
   But they didn’t believe that Santa Claus could, really, have given any of them nothing but a switch. That happened to some children, but it couldn’t happen to them. It was so hard to be good all the time, every day, for a whole year.

Chapters so far: 4. Mention of corporal punishment so far: 2.

And then Ma makes pancake people and they eat them from the feet up. And it is AWESOME. Now I want some pancakes.

19 comments:

Susi Quinn said...

Here's a really interesting blog post examining the Ingalls' finances (especially in light of the increasing amount of libertarianism on display as the series progresses), and comparing them to the described poverty of other contemporary characters. Pa does not come out looking too good.

It's nice being reminded about Laura being forced to share, too, given the series' general views on how the EVIL GOVERNMENT should not be allowed to force people to share their things. But it's OK when Ma does it? Property rights clearly do not extend to rag dolls...

Isabel C. said...

I can see that mindset being more common back then, both because dogs were more working animals (and the average person was more comfortable with the idea of killing working animals when need be) and...well, if you're living in the woods in the days before rabies vaccines, I could see being way more paranoid than anyone living now about your dog acting weird.

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

Reading these books as a kid, I was kinda traumatized by the 'forced sharing' thing because my mother had similar ideas. Also, my mother is a middle child, and so she unconsciously favored the rights of middle daughters over their older sisters. Unfortunately, I'm the oldest child in my family. So, my mother insisted I 'share' my Barbie with my sister, who promptly chewed off Barbie's feet. But I wasn't allowed to protest! Your sister is little - she didn't know any better! (She actually did do it on purpose. :-/) You're the older sister - you have to set a good example! Somehow, in my mother's mind, middle children get to always behave badly, and everyone forgives them because they're so lovable, while older sisters are responsible killjoys who no one likes.

One year my mother's mother got coal in her Christmas stocking instead of presents. She was traumatized by that all her life. Parents - don't do it!

OMG, the dog! Even reading the story, as a child, I knew something was Going On. Dogs Are Smart, etc.

If Aunt Eliza had killed Prince, then the cougar attacked and/or ate Aunt Eliza, what story would Uncle Peter have told? (When does the responsible killjoy get to be the hero?)

Ana Mardoll said...

That was awesome, thank you.

EdinburghEye said...

and...well, if you're living in the woods in the days before rabies vaccines, I could see being way more paranoid than anyone living now about your dog acting weird.

This.

It's clear also that Prince isn't Eliza's dog, he's Peter's. And he's the kind of dog that you wouldn't be allowed to keep today: “Of course Prince was savage with strangers,” said Uncle Peter. “But he was always so kind to Eliza and the children I felt perfectly safe to leave them with him.

Eliza would have shot Prince because she was scared of him - and because she was rightly afraid that Prince might have gone rabid, in which case even Peter, returning and expecting to be greeted by his dog, wouldn't necessarily have been safe.

Ana Mardoll said...

It's clear also that Prince isn't Eliza's dog, he's Peter's.

I... am personally not comfortable with this.

I realize that animal ownership is complex and difficult, but if you've lived with an animal for as long as Aunt Eliza apparently has (he's a full grown dog, who is around her and the children daily), it's YOUR dog. I don't care who bought it or trained it, you're still responsible for it, in my opinion.

And, sure, he may have been rabid. He may also have been protecting her from panthers, bear, snakes, cougars, or the eight billion other deadly things already introduced to us in these stories. That that didn't even cross Aunt Eliza's mind is rather disturbing to me, to say the least, especially since the dog has an established track record of being gentle with the family and dangerous around threats.

LOGIC, PEOPLE. It really did exist in the 1800s, I'm sure of it. :P

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

That was fascinating and informative!

I now find myself questioning the strong nostalgia of both my mother and my father-in-law.

For accounts of another woman whose life was deeply impacted by poverty, see Georgia O'Keeffe. I highly recommend the biography, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (the author is a woman, and writes as a feminist).

EdinburghEye said...

I realize that animal ownership is complex and difficult, but if you've lived with an animal for as long as Aunt Eliza apparently has (he's a full grown dog, who is around her and the children daily), it's YOUR dog. I don't care who bought it or trained it, you're still responsible for it, in my opinion

See gendered remit discussion in earlier thread.

Prince is (so Peter says) "savage with strangers": he's "gentle" with Eliza and the children, but there's no indication that he's trained to obey anyone but Peter. Eliza so rapidly jumps to the conclusion that Prince may have gone rabid and she should shoot him that I would guess (as an adult, considering the situation) that she's always been scared of Prince, and justly so: if he's savage with anyone he doesn't know and Peter has never let him regard Eliza as someone to be obeyed, Eliza may have regarded this big savage dog as a potential threat all the time.

No dog is to blame for becoming dangerous to humans - but dogs can be dangerous when their owner wants them to be, and Peter (threatening the children with "switches in their stockings") just plain doesn't sound like a pleasant sort of man.

I doubt if it would have mattered how scared Eliza became of Prince, or how little she wanted a big dog that she couldn't trust and couldn't control, he was her husband's dog and her husband wouldn't either get rid of him or let Eliza gentle him. If I met a married couple and the husband had a big dog who was warned to be "savage with strangers" and the wife seemed frankly scared of the dog and very protective of her children against the dog, and the husband was genially amused "oh, he's gentle with my wife/children", then I'd think I was looking at a domestic abuse situation.

My girlfriend has a dog, a huge friendly boxer. I cannot imagine that I would want to be with someone who bragged of how savage their dog was.

Ana Mardoll said...

Eliza so rapidly jumps to the conclusion that Prince may have gone rabid and she should shoot him that I would guess (as an adult, considering the situation) that she's always been scared of Prince

Well, okay. I'm more inclined to read this as coming from a society where the brutalization of children and animals is considered something that Good Christians Do, because Adam and the Fall and Dominate The Earth and Spare The Rod. But that's because I know (and knew) people like that.

If Eliza has always been justifiably afraid of Prince, that's another thing entirely. But he tears out the fabric in her dress and she's still in "scolding" mode, so it doesn't sound like she dialed straight up to I KNEW THIS WAS A KILLER DOG ALL ALONG. She gives no indication of being frightened until well into the growling phase.

Just my opinion; I guess it's subjective. And considering that we don't have anything to go one except an admittedly heavily edited text written by someone who was three years old when she heard the story second-hand, I reckon it will have to stay that way. :D

EdinburghEye said...

And considering that we don't have anything to go on except an admittedly heavily edited text written by someone who was three years old when she heard the story second-hand, I reckon it will have to stay that way. :D

True!

In the UK, there's a habit some guys have of getting a dog of a breed that's got a reputation for being "fierce", and then they train their dog to be fierce. I've never personally owned a dog (our family dog died well over 20 years ago) but my experience says: When a man brags of how savage his dog is, it's usually because he taught it to be that way. And usually because he likes the idea of having a savage brute obedient to his will - because he thinks like that.

If Eliza has always been justifiably afraid of Prince, that's another thing entirely. But he tears out the fabric in her dress and she's still in "scolding" mode, so it doesn't sound like she dialed straight up to I KNEW THIS WAS A KILLER DOG ALL ALONG. She gives no indication of being frightened until well into the growling phase.

True, though in this instance we're getting Eliza's public version of the incident, told in front of Peter and Peter's brother Charles, and, er, as you justly point out, as remembered by three-year-old Laura and retold as an adult to her daughter.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

as remembered by three-year-old Laura and retold as an adult to her daughter.

Not to be nitpicky (okay, I'm totally picking nits, but I don't mean to be awful about it, just trying to help with context!) but Big Woods comes from two periods in Laura's life - both when she was 3/4 and when she was 7/8, so while this story could have been told at age 3 and it's something Laura remembers only vaguely, or has put together from stories retold later, it's also possible that she was much older and she did remember more of the details.

I don't think it changes the arguments much or at all, but I do think that it shows how completely fabricated the story is in many ways - perhaps based on a true story, but with a LOT of wiggle room and so on. As the discussions go on and Ana goes through the book, I'm beginning to get even more set in thinking of this in terms of tropes and storytelling and much less in terms of "this is how things really were", except as the jumping off point and reasons why certain tropes or storytelling choices were made.

Ana Mardoll said...

In the UK, there's a habit some guys have of getting a dog of a breed that's got a reputation for being "fierce", and then they train their dog to be fierce.

Ugh. People like that. No. Just no.

Ana Mardoll said...

Thanks -- I didn't know about the 7/8 time.

THIS MAKES IT VERY HARD TO DECON.

★☆ keri ☆★ said...

Oh, yeah, it really messes things up, doesn't it?

Her chronology is something like:
Birth - 3/4: Big Woods house
4-6: Independence, Kansas
6-7: Kansas/Oklahoma squatting
7/8: Big Woods house again
8-10: Minnesota (Plum Creek, &c)
10-11: western Minnesota, "Silver Lake" and hotel work
... actually, around here it gets murky for me, because the Anderson biography I read didn't go into details, but they lived in Iowa for a while. I can't remember if it was between the Plum Creek place and Silver Lake, or between Silver Lake and moving to De Smet. There's a lot of little moves and things that are glossed over or completely ignored in the retelling, because it made the narrative too messy.

At any rate, Wikipedia has tons and tons of documentation because there's a subset of America that is absolutely obsessed with the whole Ingalls Wilder story. I just glanced at it and was almost frightened - I had no idea it was such a Huge Deal, nor do I really know where it comes from. (At least, the huge size of it. Is it just more socially acceptable because of the Americana? or because it's based on a Real Person's Life? Or am I just unaware of the equally big following/research for the Betsy-Tacy books or Little Women &c.? I know Nancy Drew fandom is big, but it's not quite the same extent... /semi-rhetorical)

Amaryllis said...

Chiming in belatedly as I catch up after work: when I read this, my first thought was "of course she thinks the dog's got rabies." Before the development of the rabies vaccine, any previously well-behaved dog who showed signs of escalating aggressiveness was assumed to be rabid and, well, likely to be dealt with accordingly on the principle of Better safe than sorry. Rabies is a truly horrific way to die, for both the dog and for any human unfortunate enough to be bitten.

On the other hand, in today's "lets compare Wilder and Alcott" segment, there's a chapter in Jo's Boys where one of her sons teases an out-of-sorts dog and gets bitten, in the absence of his parents. His brother treats the bite and they both wait to see if any symptoms of rabies develop. But they don't shoot the dog out of hand; they lock him in the barn and wait to see if he's got rabies either. Spoiler: everyone was okay. But Jo and "Father Bhaer" reacted to the whole thing as if their son had been in serious danger of death, when they heard about it.

I notice, also, that a question asked earlier seems to have been answered here. That is, Aunt Eliza seems to be able and willing to shoot a gun, if she needs to. And if she has the gun.

Makabit said...

To defend Charles Ingalls...for whatever reason...I would argue that the comparison to fictional families in stable, settled, East Coast settings isn't really fair. The other families are fictional, even if the Marches are based on Alcott's own family, and their finances are at the convenience of the plot. I'm not sure the counterexamples are particularly honest or realistic.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert are both examples of plot pretty much doing as they like with the financial situation. "Gosh, we could lose the farm! This will turn up at just the right moment for the heroine to decide to be self-sacrificing!" "It's such an embarrassment to have a mortgage! Fortunately, this will be paid off by the end of the book by a hardworking teenage girl!" The Cuthberts are comfortably, although not affluently, middle-class. They're able to buy Anne clothes, even fancy ones, when Matthew gets it in his head, jewelry, education, and while they do their own work, they live pretty comfortably. Their finances don't become really troublesome until Marilla is left on her own without enough resources to go on running the farm, and there's never any question of her going hungry. Both books are set in settled land, where the claim to the property is legal, and the property itself is worth something. The Ingalls land is never worth anything except what they can get out of in harvest.

The Marches are a really weird financial situation. They're 'poor', but in such a genteel way that they have a full-time housekeeper, and Marmee spends her days doing volunteer charity work. Yes, the older girls work, essentially as babysitters and company for elderly relatives, and their work brings in necessary money, but their incessant harping on their INCREDIBLE, HEART-WRENCHING poverty is basically nonsense. There are people in the city they live in who are starving. We even see them briefly--the poor German immigrants who Marmee gives Christmas breakfast to, and who manage to kill Beth with scarlet fever. There is never any question of the Hummels aspiring to the kind of life the 'poor', self-pitying Marches grouse about constantly.

What the Marches mean by 'poor' is 'unable to keep up the genteel lifestyle we're supposed to have because we're white, Anglo-American, and from a good family'. They can't have a piano. This is shown to be a dreadful hardship.

Anyway. Ranting now. (Little Women is overdue for dissection, if no one's done it yet.)

My original point here is that showing Charles Ingalls as a failure for not living up to the standard set by fictional families living in a completely different environment is, perhaps, unfair. The man had some issues--this business of jerking his family off to a new chunk of land every few years starts to seem pathological--but these other people doing so much better than he is in poverty are living in the East, own valuable assets a frontiersman couldn't accumulate, and can have all the dresses the author needs them to, because PLOT, and also nearby stores that aren't selling calico that's been dragged by oxcart all the way to Kansas.

It just seems unfair to judge a man for having financial trouble when fictional people manage much better. It's like beating myself up for not having money to go shopping when all the chick lit characters are constantly buying new shoes.

Erin Winslow said...

Consider also that the Alcott family that the March family is based upon were Trancendentalists, a sort of 1840s version of Flower Power. As Martha Saxton explains in her biography of Louisa May Alcott, the girls were ordinary kids who wanted to have the same toys, clothing, etc. as their friends and they felt ill-treated by their parents' choices to be anti-materialist and "at one with nature." At one point the parents even decide that the entire family will subsist on nuts, berries and other things "given freely by nature" and, of course, everyone gets sick after a few months of such an unbalanced diet. The youngest sister, the one Amy is based upon, had a more normal, middle-class life because the sisters had worn-down the parent's resistance by the time she came along.

http://www.amazon.com/Louisa-May-Alcott-Modern-Biography/dp/0374524602

cjmr said...

The kids and I went on a field trip to one of the homes that the Alcott family lived in during the 'high Trancendental' period of their lives--when the girls were young. ( Fruitlands ) It wasn't huge by our standards, but it was good-sized for the time. OTOH, the house was usually full of not only the Alcotts, but one or two other Trancendentalist families and a few students. During this period the Alcotts really were poor, not just genteel poor, as the men in the family traveled around the area/country preaching Transcendentalism (taking what money they had with them) while the women and children were left to try to run the farm themselves and 'make do'. That experiment lasted less than a year.

They were finally able to purchase the house where Louisa started writing with Mrs. Alcott's inheritance.

Makabit said...

Yes, all of this. "Little Women" cleans up a lot of how ungodly flaky the Alcotts were. The father in the book is off at the war, suffering terribly, and Jo yearns to be a boy so she can join him, but in real life, Bronson Alcott simply couldn't earn a living, and borrowed money from more affluent relatives and other Transcendentalists to keep going.

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