Before Christmas I began reading Little House in the Big Woods to Huwyl. I’d seen it referenced on Ambleside online and thought it would be nice to have a longer read aloud book for bedtimes and shared reading. We had really enjoyed reading Stuart Little and then Charlotte’s Web, we I felt we were ready for some old fashioned good storytelling. I got more than I bargained for.
What I hadn’t realised is that I would completely fall in love with these books! I know these are considered classics but now I know why. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes with a simplicity that is completely disarming as she simultaneously conjours up such vivid images and sensations that it is hard not to feel that you are there with her. The life that she evokes, one of simple tasks that are essential to life, is fascinating and also humbling. To remind ourselves of what people lived with and, more noticeably, without.
In this book, following on from the first in the series Little House in the Big Woods, Laura and her family move west to the prairie. They travel across America on a wagon, carrying the essentials they need with them, to set up a new life for themselves on the High Prairie. The life that is described by Laura is one of resourcefulness and simplicity. The Ingalls all work on the basic tasks together, the children are involved with some of the house keeping along with their mother, and it is fascinating to witness the day-to-day of their lives. The simple foods that they eat, what is considered a treat and what is lacking in their lives that we would take for granted. Laura’s Ma makes their own butter and all their foods, she washes their clothes in a barrel and dries them on the grass, she is able to make maple syrup from sap and knows how to milk cows. Laura’s Pa builds their cabin from scratch in a few days and is able to craft doors and furniture out of tree trunks. These were people with skills who knew how to survive.
I find myself so in love with this book, it’s elegantly written style, the gentle humour and the affectionate depiction of character. I’m sure this is not lost on my 5 year old who, like me, is more than happy to dip into this world as we read together snuggled up on sofa or bed. I find myself reaching more and more often for this book as I am keen to find out what happens next and often can’t wait for him to ask for reading time!
Whenever we finish reading about Laura’s new life on the prairie I am slightly startled to be in a modern home, surrounded by furniture and possessions. I am caught wondering what would the Ingalls family make of this life of ours? Would they think this home to be a palace, or certainly a place of great wealth and privilege? Would they wonder at the array of toys the children have to play with (Laura has only one doll made out of a cob of corn and her sister a rag doll), would they be amazed at the entertainments offered to them? Would they even recognise the foods we eat?
I wonder all these things and think about the life the Ingalls lead. There is much about it that appeals, much to learn from them. The clear boundaries of expected behaviour, no uncertainty there, freedom from mortgages and bills replaced by resourcefulness and the ability to meet their own needs. I wonder what it would be to be free of the need for things, to have a simpler environment with each beautiful thing a noticed treasure to be exclaimed over and protected. I think about the childhood that Laura describes, running free in nature all summer long, shoes put away in the cupboard. No roads to be careful of, no fences to stop a headlong run along the grass. Abundant sunshine and abundant opportunities for exploration. These are images I linger over wistfully, hoping for the same freedoms for my boys, the same simple pleasures.
But I am on guard a little against my own romanticism and I remember that there were many hardships in those days that I do not have to face. I am a free woman and able to make choices for myself about what I do and how I do it. I am saved energy and time by the devices I own which allow me to explore my own thinking and creative impulses. I can take the time to sit with my children and learn, to read beside them, to teach them of the world. I can photograph them and chronicle our journey together, I can take the time to write and reflect. I am not bound to the home as many women were and are, I am here because I choose it, making it so much sweeter.
I am glad of hospitals and neighbours, of indian spices and chocolate from Switzerland. I rejoice in my education and the chance I have had to explore literature, history, art and philosophy. I am blessed by connection to those far away and their participation in our lives despite the distances of oceans and miles. I am grateful for warmth, for good health and for sweet comforts that make our days kinder and easier.
But. The lingering sound of the Ingalls children’s laughter echoes in my ears. The sound of the tall grass as they run through it, the splashing of their feet through the shallows of the river. The plop of the frog as they chase him along the bank. I can imagine their Ma, standing in the doorway of the cabin watching them, pausing for a moment in her chores and enjoying their liveliness and joy. I can imagine myself doing the same and I know that part of my love affair with these books is that they give me a glimpse of big sky and summer breezes, of a future I hope to have a part of. The past is describing to me what my future might look like.
The voice of Laura Ingalls, spoken aloud by many generations of parents to children, speaks truths that apply whenever we are born. Her simple stories of life and family love are always in style. As she said herself,
“As you read my stories of long ago I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good. “