Saturday, June 13, 2020

On reading the classics (thoughts on Little House in the Big Woods)

For all the reading I do in contemporary children's literature, I have plenty of big gaps in my knowledge of classic children's literature.  Lately, I've been participating in a small book discussion group which (for reasons of convenience and economy) has been focusing on classics (Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan, and now the Little House series). One doesn't really review a classic, but I thought I would take a small diversion from my usual blogging activity and talk about my amateur observations about what makes a book like Little House in the Big Woods so different from my usual diet.

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical stories about life on the frontier in the mid-19th century.  This book covers a full year of life in the Ingalls' homestead near Pepin, Wisconsin.

For the reader, whether young or old, the most striking thing in this story is how very hard everyone worked in those days for the barest form of survival.  Yet as exhausting as the endless tasks seem, the story always manages to fit in some warmth and fun, be it a special treat from Ma or Pa pulling out his fiddle and singing the girls to sleep.  For as hard as the family worked, there is never a doubt of how much Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura, and little Carrie love each other.  Danger comes mostly in the form of wild animals, but the family approaches the dangers quite pragmatically.  When Laura grows fearful of wolves, Pa shows her one so she can size the creature up for herself.  While the children misbehave and test limits, the no-nonsense discipline style of Ma and Pa leave no doubt that expectations are set and enforced.  Laura's childhood in the Big Woods is obviously a happy one.

There are probably many reasons for the book to appeal to young readers, but the key draw is the fine detail and Wilder's inexhaustible supply of historical facts.  Children delight in all the things that Laura's family did, the foods they ate, and the way that they lived.  Far more vivid than a history book, curious minds find plenty to mine in the book.

There are a number of striking contrasts with a modern book (the obvious contrast would be Linda Sue Park's Prairie Lotus, but I think we can speak more broadly about most contemporary children's books) that I would call out:

The unquestioned authority of the parent.  As adults today we live in a world where we are attuned to the complexity of ethics and morals.  We have seen power abused and question authority as a matter of course and live our lives as cynics.  And, for better or worse, we transmit that same doubt and skepticism to our children in the books we write for them.  Yet not once does Laura ever question the decisions of her parents.  The idea of such a rebellion is seemingly outside of her comprehension.  Nor, for that matter, do Ma and Pa ever really give her grounds for doing so as they are near-perfect in their judgments and actions.

Childhood on the periphery.  In your typical contemporary book, the focus is entirely on the child.  The parents (and adults in general) are either absent, ignored, or deceased.  Parents make at best brief appearances and the involvement is inconsequential to the story at best.  Frequently, they are a force to be defeated or outsmarted.  Little House though is really a story about Laura's parents.  For the first three chapters, Laura and Mary play virtually no role at all, except to be a task to which their parents  attend.

Focus on concrete tasks over emotions.  For readers who like to get inside of their protagonist's heads and feel their emotions, Little House in the Big Woods is a frustrating experience.  It's all about doing things and the other feelings or emotions we encounter are exhaustion and fatigue.  In the second half of the book, we learn how dreadfully dull Sundays are for Laura and we are introduced to her feelings of inadequacy in comparison with Mary over the color of their hair.  However, these matters are not key parts of the story but rather opportunities to learn lessons on (and over) Pa's lap.  The book is in fact one lesson after another, all rolling up to the big message:  life in the big woods was about working hard, being honest, and caring for each other.  It was not particularly concerned with your feelings and emotions.

Nothing I've said here is particularly original or earth shattering, but more thoughts spinning in my head as I leave Laura and return to my pregnant teens, runaways, and dystopian warriors in the modern world.

No comments: