Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Calico Dreaming: Little House in the Big Woods

Sometimes I ask myself, "Do I spend too much time thrifting?" But if I hadn't gone to Housing Works on a particular day for a browse, I would have never scored all of these Little House books for just 50 cents! I'm missing just two: By the Shores of Silver Lake and These Happy Golden Years. I've been really eager to read the books since Wendy McClure's charming The Wilder Life book.

"How can we feel so much nostalgia for times in which we never lived or places we can never visit?" Natalie Merchant pondered in the introduction of her folk album, The House Carpenter's Daughter. She said the folks songs on her album "remind us of our humanity, of what we share."

I think of Natalie's words as I just finished reading the first of the series, Little House in the Big Woods, and about my visits with the Bergen County Historical Society (BCHS). Biscuits in the window of the Dutch Out Kitchen at a BCHS event.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote Little House in the Big Woods in 1932, a lean year for our nation economically. Flash forward, and we're in lean years now. Doesn't the humanity share in us a pull toward the most fundamental things: family, home, safety, love of friends, family and companion animals, seasonal delights, good food. Laura delighted in pancakes on a cold winter's morning in her childhood in the 1800s. Who doesn't delight in those now? She loved a good story to escape boredom and inspire and thrill. Me too.

You have to read the books with a grain of salt and understand the context of the times. As a vegetarian, the deer hunt, bear kill, and pig slaughter didn't leave me feeling "snug" and "cozy," although, yes, I suspect I wouldn't have been a vegetarian then. After that uncomfortable hog squealing when it was being killed, "Butchering time was great fun!" I kept thinking, "When do we get to the jam making?" Then there was the scene when Pa blew up a pig's intestine like a balloon and Mary and Laura play with it. Seriously! Although at least people were far more connected to the animals they ate instead of the sanitized meat in the grocery stores now. I don't know if most people would consume so much of it if they really considered how it was raised.

I loved the final chapter when Pa observing the beauty of the bear and deer in the woods was unable to kill them. Of the bear,

"He was a perfect mark to shoot at, but I was much interested in watching him, and the woods were so peaceful in the moonlight, that I forgot all about my gun."

Of the deer, again,

"It was a perfect shot. But he was so beautiful, he looked so strong and free and wild, that I couldn't kill him." He observed a doe and her yearling fawn,

"They stood together, looking at the woods and the moonlight. Their large eyes were soft and shining. I just sat there looking at them, until they climbed away among the shadows. Then I climbed down out of the tree and came home."

Laura said, "I'm glad you didn't shoot them" while Mary declared "We can eat bread and butter." Score one for the wildlife, at least for one chapter!

The books are viewed through a child's eye, and what a world it is.

"Laura loved to look at the lamp, with its glass chimney so clean and sparkling, its yellow flame burning so steadily, and its bowl of clear kerosene colored red by the bits of flannel. She loved to look into the fireplace, flickering and changing all the time, burning yellow and red and sometimes green above the logs, and hovering blue over the golden and ruby coals.

Photo, left of Mary, a re-enactor, at the BCHS Candlemas celebration. See my, "Cause for Cheer, Midwinter is Here" post for more photos.

In the chapter, "The Dance at Grandpa's,"

"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 looks so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.

Aunt Ruby's was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in a lighter wine colored. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it."

To see a modern re-enactment of calico dresses and a dance, see "It Happened at the Calico Frolic."

"Now came the best part of the churning. Ma molded the butter. On the loose bottom of the wooden butter-mold was carved the picture of a strawberry with two strawberry leaves."

"In the winter the cream was not yellow as it was in the summer, and butter churned from it was white and not so pretty. Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty, so in the wintertime she colored the butter."

I thought of the butter at the BCHS Pinkster Fest with the pineapple mold. Food was so precious to the pioneers who worked so hard for it, and I love that they made it beautiful.

I also thought of a passage in the short story "Mother's Love" from my friend Jennifer's (J.J. Brown's) new short story collection, Death and the Dream:

"Mother took the pie out of the oven and it hissed fragrant apple, maple, cinnamon steam through the knife cuts in the top crust. She was making her world beautiful. She was making her world delicious. It could be done, and if anyone could do it, she could."

Life is full of drudgery, whether it was for Ma doing household chores to our modern life for many of us in cubicles. Why not make it as beautiful and delicious as possible?

Laura loved winter, as do I. In "Winter Days,"

"The snow kept coming till it was drifted and banked against the house. In the mornings the window panes were covered with frost in beautiful pictures of trees and flowers and fairies.

Ma said that Jack Frost came in the night and made the pictures, while everyone was asleep."

She refers to a "snug" and "cozy" feeling that I so love of the season. All was calm, all was bright on a December eve in the Dutch Out Kitchen.

After an adventure in "Going to Town" to Pepin, Pa declared the saying...

" 'Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."

Like Pa, I love an adventure, but love being home. All snug and cozy.

Check out the Little House cookbooks for more pioneer escapism. I did from the library. While My Little House Cookbook is more for the younger set, I thought of how many adults (myself included) rely on store-bought shortcuts for pancakes, strawberry jam, and creamy oatmeal. "For the Ingalls family, no matter where they were, mealtime was always a cause for celebration. The family worked very hard for their food, and at every meal they would come together and give thanks." Mealtime is a cause to celebrate. How many of us, especially women, start obsessing over body issues when thinking about food?

The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker has some interesting frontier history and recipes. I wish I had some Hasty Pudding, Johnny-Cake or blueberry pudding now.

Barbara Walker says, "Cooking was for Laura Ingalls Wilder a social experience and an apprenticeship. By cooking with her elders she learned something about food, something about human communion. Cooking remains one of the few household activities that adults and children older or younger can share in modern urban life."

Walker observes, "Perhaps her (Laura's) native gift of observation was sharpened when she became the "eye" for her blind sister Mary." I think that's an intriguing thought, for Laura, not "rich" in the way we'd say it, observes so much beauty everywhere in her books, which is I think what draws so many of us, myself included, to them nearly eight decades after she penned them. Do you see the beauty everywhere?

Just like Pa would have played! Arkansas Traveler.


  1. Wow, I am SO jealous of all those 50-cent Laura Ingalls Wilder books! I loved them as a kid but don't actually own any myself (the ones we had when I was little fell apart over the years!) Maybe I should start checking thrift stores and used bookstores and picking them up here and there. Buying the entire collection in a set costs a fortune!

  2. I never read the books as a girl but recently finished the set. Loved, loved, loved them! Yeah, Ma's racism and the code of women for the time disturbed me, but that's life, isn't it? Who doesn't have a racist person in their family? Life isn't all glittery all the time.

    Anyhoo, I'm so glad I finally read them. Thank you, public library! I also read Laura's diary of the trip from Dakota to Missouri ("On the Way Home" I think it's called). It was so fabulous to read about towns I know or have lived in throughout Kansas and Missouri. Nifty. Just nifty! I was most struck by how the simple pleasures were so meaningful. We've lost that in our disposable, consumer culture. I think it's worth reclaiming.

  3. I hit it the right day. Paperbacks are usually $3 here, but they were $1 since they had a big shipment of children's books and it was 50 percent off books that day! Paperbackswap has a bunch. I've never used that site but should!


    In Little House on the Prairie, Laura asks, "Why don't you like Indians, Ma?

    "I just don't like them..."

    "This is Indian country, isn't it?" Laura said. "What did we come to their country for, if you don't like them?"


    I so agree about the appreciation of simple pleasures (like Cate's great post on small joys!) Like the library. :-)


    A footnote to this post, I thought about Little House when I saw this New York Times article about how hard it is to get Americans to do farm labor even in a terrible economy.


    One farmer said people have gotten soft. Consider how hard people used to work for a living. Imagine building your own house, growing all your own vegetables and fruit, hunting your own game, etc.

  4. I kept thinking about that while I read the books--my god, we used to do *everything* for ourselves. Sheer the sheep, spin the yarn, weave the cloth, sew the clothes, cut the trees, build the house...um, I consider a day a success if I manage to bathe. I wouldn't have lasted 5 seconds. All this "progress" has made us wussies.

  5. So true! I think of Frontier House when modern families lived as if in Montana in 1883. How modern life didn't agree with some cast members at the end of the experiment.


    I should check it out from the library and watch the series again. I wonder how I'd fare trying to truly live as the pioneers did.

  6. I loved the "Little House" books as a child and read them (my own precious copies!) many times. I remember giving away the last 2 I had about 8 years ago when we were moving and I was purging. Then last fall, my son (then 9) and I got a copy of "Little House in the Big Woods" from the library. He was hooked!! We had so much fun and continued our way through the whole series, ending this spring. He was really sad when we read the last one. He's not your average 10 year old boy, he's very contemplative and sensitive. And we're homeschoolers, which is great because there were no macho "alpha" boys around to tell him that those books are only for girls. We had a lot of discussions about racism, sexism, and how lucky we are to have the easy lives we have today. (I've read a lot about Peak Oil issues etc. and life won't be so easy in the future when he's an adult, I fear.) We are also vegetarians and those parts about hunting etc. were gruesome to us, too. Oh well, it was good for him to read about life in the old days (even the "old days" before his old mom was born! ;-) and it was a fun way to learn about history. Thanks for a great post.

  7. Thanks Lilypad! Fellow vegetarians!

    When Ma says they are out of meat, Pa has to good into the woods with his gun. I think at least those animals had freedom. No prairie hens drugged up with growth hormones and antibiotics; no pesticides on Ma's vegetable garden either. People were more connected to what they had and where it came from, whether it be the food on their plate or the roof over their head (which Pa had to put on himself with wood he chopped down!)

    I think these books are great conversation pieces for all ages and sexes about what was good and bad in our nation's history, and as you said, make you appreciate the easier lives we have today.

    That's great your son enjoys them too. I'm hooked too. :-)