Winter was coming. The days were shorter, and frost crawled up the window panes at night. Soon the snow would come. Then the log house would be almost buried in snowdrifts, and the lake and the streams would freeze. In the bitter cold weather Pa could not be sure of finding any wild game to shoot for meat.
The first of the Little House series of books is an idealised depiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s early years spent living in almost total isolation in the woods of Wisconsin in the 1870s.
‘As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.’
The story begins as the family make their preparations for winter. Meat is caught, skinned, salted and stored. Pa has to wait wait for the perfect moment to slaughter the family pig, so its meat will freeze as the snow arrives. He’s not the only one with his eye on the hog though. This is bear country.
Every available space in the little house is filled with food, even the attic where the girls play. And not a scrap goes to waste. Although she writes in an appealing, folksy style and fictionalised many of the less savoury aspects of their existence, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t scrimp on the hard details.
‘When Butchering Time was over, there were the sausages and the headcheese, the big jars of lard and the keg of white salt-pork out in the shed, and in the attic hung the smoked hams and shoulders. The little house was fairly bursting with good food stored away for the long winter. The pantry and the shed and the cellar were full, and so was the attic.’
There are more pleasant treats as Christmas approaches and family is expected at the little house.
‘Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and rye ‘n Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.
One morning she boiled molasses and sugar together until they made a thick syrup, and Pa brought in two pans of clean, white snow from outdoors. Laura and Mary each had a pan, and Pa and Ma showed them how to pour the dark syrup in little streams on to the snow. They made circles, and curlicues, and squiggledy things, and these hardened at once and were candy. Laura and Mary might eat one piece each, but the rest was saved for Christmas Day.’
Finally the gay ringing of sleigh bells is heard, bringing with it a sled containing cousins wrapped up in blankets, robes and buffalo skins. Despite the bitter weather, five year old Laura is permitted to play in the snow.
‘Each one by herself climbed up on a stump, and then all at once, holding their arms out wide, they fell off the stumps into the soft, deep snow. They fell flat on their faces. Then they tried to get up without spoiling the marks they made when they fell. If they did it well, there in the snow were five holes, shaped almost exactly like four little girls and a boy.’
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Little House in the Big Woods in her sixties, having previously failed to find a publisher for her much grittier memoir Pioneer Girl. Between 1932 and 1943 she wrote seven more stories about her early life presenting an not always honest account of the often grim reality. Then in 1947, fresh from success with Stuart Little, Garth Williams was asked by editor Ursula Nordstrom to provide new illustrations for the entire series. The New Yorker had never been west of the Hudson River and took his research seriously, visiting the Ingalls Wilders and making sketches from Laura’s photographs before visiting the original sites.
Garth Williams’s work became the definitive visual image for this classic series, which The New Yorker described as helping ‘children understand the American past.’ The books had previously been illustrated by Helen Sewell in a folk art style which was charming but didn’t quite capture the stories detail or sense of heightened reality. Compare these two very different takes of a scene where two cousins, both called Laura Ingalls, argue over whose baby is prettier.
Much has been written about the more troubling aspects of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in recent years – particularly the sequel Little House on the Prairie which features lines such as ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ But the books remain important documents, chronicling the life of early American settlers in the west. This was what Garth Williams found in the books, and took from his meeting with Laura Ingalls Wilder.
‘She understood the meaning of hardship and struggle, of joy and work, of shyness and bravery. She was never overcome by drabness or squalor. She never glamorized anything; yet she saw the loveliness in everything. This was the way the illustrator had to follow.’
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