Sunday, January 22, 2012

Family Stories: The Ingalls Family

Little House in the Big Woods (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) was the first book I read aloud to my girls. Olivia was three and a half years old, Karina was two and Susanna was in utero. We had already read the My First Little House Books, which I had come across at our small local library, and Olivia kept wanting more stories about Laura. But there weren't any more of those books, so I decided to feed her desire by reading her the original book Little House in the Big Woods. It had the added advantage of being about a girl that was close to Olivia's age (Laura is four in that first book) and her family life in the big woods of Wisconsin.

I took it slow, reading only about half the chapter every day. I knew she had an excellent attention span and comprehension for someone her age (a result of being read aloud to almost from birth combined with no television viewing) but some of those chapters have long descriptive passages that were beyond her knowledge base and so could easily lose the attention of one so young. Olivia loved it. It delighted her to encounter the expanded episodes she was familiar with from the My First Little House Books. (I think the pace we took was perfect for her.)  To this day she remembers the story of Ma slapping the bear (thinking it was Sukey the cow), and cousin Charley's version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, where his trouble-making lands him in a yellowjackets' nest, and he has to wrapped in mud and linens to bring down the swelling.

Coincidentally (or maybe not) this is the first novel I remember being read aloud to me, and it made a big impression on my young mind, too.

For those of you unfamiliar with this book -is there anyone unfamiliar with this book?- it tells the story of a family living in the woods of Wisconsin in 1872. Pa is a tall hard-working brown-haired, brown-bearded man with twinkling blue eyes, adored by his little girls. Ma is quiet, gentle, and determined to teach her girls about manners, hard work, and self-sufficiency. Mary is the oldest daughter who, even at five years old, is always obedient and industrious. Laura is four years old, small in size but large in spirit, which frequently gets her into trouble in this and the subsequent books. Baby Carrie is the youngest. This is the story of their life in those big woods.

I remembered the books with such fond nostalgia from my childhood, but reading them as an adult gave me a whole new appreciation for them. What strikes me in reading these books is the background story that's taking place: the hardship the family experiences may be mainly from Laura's point of view, but the tension and thread under the surface is about these two adults who are trying to scrabble out a living while protecting their children as much as possible. Life was very hard for those pioneers and homesteaders. The mere act of living for pioneering people meant working from sunup to sundown just to make sure they had what they needed to see themselves through the cold winters. These are wonderful history books about the pioneering movement and spirit. The fact that Laura gives so many wonderful descriptions of what living that life entailed, means that we get a fascinating glimpse into the early settlement west. Despite what some critics of the books have said, Laura doesn't romanticize the life. She tells the good and the bad matter-of-factly. Some of the bad things that happen in this and the other books of the series have no easy, nicely-wrapped-up resolutions. She knows that life was hard, and yet they found comfort in the little things like Pa's fiddle music, an ongoing motif throughout the series. (See my post about Pas' Fiddle Project for a fun addition to your reading of this series.)

Our family has gone on to read more of the Ingalls family adventures in:
  • Little House on the Prairie where the family leaves the Big Woods because they were getting too crowded to Pa and journeys to the Kansas Territory. It tells of life on the trail in the covered wagon, the family building their log cabin and the problems of life on a flat prairie in Indian Territory (wolves, a prairie fire, etc.) (Be aware that this book contains some of the prejudiced attitudes of white settlers at the time. But I thought the scenes where Laura and her Pa discuss those issues were very poignant, since Pa recognized the problem that people like him were creating by their westward expansion -i.e. the Native Americans being booted off their land- but didn't know what to do about it. Toward the end of the book, this forced migration is something Laura witnesses.) In the end, the Ingalls family is evicted from their land by the U.S government as well.
  • Farmer Boy is about Almanzo Wilder (Laura's future husband) as a boy in on a large farm in New York state.
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek has the family leaving the Kansas territory and settling in a dugout on Plum Creek in Minnesota, before Pa builds a house with machine sawed lumber. In this book Laura and Mary go to a real school and church for the first time, and meet obnoxious Nellie Oleson. The family also has to contend with a plague of locusts, which forces Pa to walk to find a job three hundred miles away in order to feed his family and be able to buy grain for the next planting season. Ma and the girls has to cope with everything in his absence.
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake takes place five years after the family first came to Plum Creek and finds the family just recovering from a scarlet fever epidemic. Mary has been blinded by scarlet fever. and Grace has been added to the family. The family (Baby Grace has joined the family) moves to the Dakota territory, where Pa works as the pay clerk for the railroad company. And the family becomes one of the first to settle in DeSmet. (This one was our least favorite so far.)

That's as far as we've gotten in our reading aloud. We will probably revisit the series toward the end of this year, rereading Little House in the Big Woods for Susanna's benefit. She will be delighted to read about a girl who is her age. (She seems a little obsessed by that idea right now.) And my older girls appreciate it more at their "advanced" ages than they did at three and two.

 I would highly recommend the series for young boys. There are tons of exciting things that happen.

The books of the The Little House on the Prairie series:
  • Little House in the Big Woods
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Farmer Boy
  • On the Banks of Plum Creek
  • By the Shores of Silver Lake
  • The Long Winter
  • Little Town on the Prairie
  • These Happy Golden Years
  • The First Four Years


  1. As a parent of boys, I have to say that things vary. My guys have no qualms about reading books about girls -- my older son loves Tamara Pierce's books, adored Rodzina (and kept sneaking back to the CD player to hear "one more disk" when he was falling asleep listening to stories).

    On the other hand, my niece recoils in horror when I offer a book with a boy on the cover. Go figure.

    We didn't read the Little House books, but that's because my sister grabbed them from our house, so I didn't get a set until recently. I had forgotten how far apart Mary and Laura were in age; I thought it was only one year. I read The Ghost in the Little House about daughter Rose's help writing the books last year and liked it a lot.

  2. Then you've been smart, Beth. I can't tell you how many times in bookstores and at the library I've heard parents of both genders discouraging their boy from reading a "girl's" book.

    If your boys have no problems, it's because you never created a stigma. If parents do that early enough, that attitude can override any later peer pressure.

    Having said that, sometimes boys and girls go through the I-hate-boys/girls phase. (My older daughter's in that phase right now.) If parents continue to read aloud books with main characters of both genders, they'll swing round to reading without gender bias again. That's not to say that there won't be a preference for reading about characters of your same gender (that's probably natural.)

    You are completely correct about Mary's age. She is a year older than Laura. I'm not sure why I put that she was seven. I'll go change that now.
    I'd love to read the book you mention.

  3. You know I'm with you on the subject of reading all kinds of books to boys! My son loved the Little House books up to Little Town on the Prairie (he lost interest when Laura got older) but his faves are Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy.

    Also, using the "My First" books as a step toward (not replacement for) the unabridged books is way to build up to longer read-alouds; we did this with The Five Little Peppers, reading a heavily illustrated abridgement first and whetting the appetite for the full text which came next.

  4. That's why we've stopped the series, too, because Laura was getting too old. I really need to re-read The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie first to see if my girls will be ready for them.

    Excellent point about "My first" books and abridgements. That's the way I view them too. Unfortunately, I see too many people using them in place of the full version. (I'm talking about abridgements in general here, not with these specific books.)

  5. Well, I love this post because my girls have been practically obsessed with LIW for a couple of years now. That is all. :-)

  6. I think it's these books, along with Nancy Drew, that made me realize I was a reader. Sadly, I haven't been able to get my girls interested in either one of them! What's up with that?

  7. Amy, it's a good series to be obsessed with.

  8. Suey - Thanks for sharing that.

    What is up with that? I guess they just didn't sound interesting enough to them.