Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes critical look-back at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick re-reads the first book in the 1932-1943 series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little House' books, 'Little House In The Big Woods'.
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
Did you know that a black doctor saves the lives of the entire Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie?
Es verdad. (There is also a not-particularly-sublimated gay sex scene in The Great Gatsby, but no one asked me about that.) I state this not because these are the most salient points at hand-or even points, really-but because I cannot figure out any other way to enter into a discussion of THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK OF OUR TIME.
But before I get into it, let me lay some still more supercharged imagery on you. (These are, like some 1800s Goodnight, Moon, seared on my brain.) Blacking on wallpaper. Black-eyed papoose. Sugar snow. Vanity cakes. Water splashed on freezing plants. Bad wells. Real white sugar, wrapped in brown paper. A tin cup and two pennies. Sprigging. (????) Jigging. (?????) Jack, the brindle dog. Baths in used bathwater. School for the Blind. Common Taters on the Axe.
I'm just going to end there, because if you remember that last one, you deserve some sort of valedictory bonnet. But my point is, more so than the madeleine, the Little House series (which, at age 8, I used to take to bed on the weekends and read, propped on a pillow, in its entirety, like some bon-bon popping lady of leisure), is a wholly sensual experience for the reader, frontier porn for the underaged. Those schooled in its world (said school being, of course, a clean, cozy room with fresh-cut planks, sun shining through its real-glass windows, a metal object bolted to the teacher's desk, a mechanical pencil sharpener!!!!!) are forever molded by its voluptuous embrace.
Before I begin, however, I must dispense with an offense against God.
First of all, Pa is tall and thin, with twinkling eyes. TALL AND THIN! Ma is rounded and pretty, with brown hair parted in the middle and round, rosy arms, not bland-blond and skinny, headed towards Lifetime. And speaking of Lifetime, Laura is round! Round and strong as a little french horse, for God's sake! She is not a snub-nosed monstrosity whose "Pa!!!!!!!!!!" could shake the outhouses of the dead! Okay, Mary. Mary is kinda right. Nellie is kinda right. But Carrie, well, who the hell cares about Carrie anyway. The house is NOT on a weird hill, Mrs. Olson is a beeeyatch she is not there for comic relief, and Nellie doesn't marry a Jew. (Although that was kind of awesome. And I'm not going to talk about 'Manzo, because I saw him outside of a production of "Three Tall Women", and he seemed like a nice, not-particularly-sublimated fellow as well.)
Anyway, back to Big Woods — which, you will recall, lays the groundwork for all the sublimated sensuality that comes thereafter, including Mary and Laura's epic, savage rivalry. Speaking of which, I have to lead with the fact that I had forgotten quite how much of Big Woods is devoted to animals and the disambiguation thereof.
That is, my friend, a pig's bladder. That Mary and Laura are batting about. Because, when you were 8, could you think of anything more fun than playing with the bladder of a freshly slaughtered pig? Why, that might be even more fun than getting to watch Ma skim off cracklings from the drained fat, then boil a whole hog's head and chop the meat to make headcheese! But you know what it could never be more fun than? ROASTING A PIG'S TAIL. That would be, and mark the quotes, "such fun that that it was hard to play fair, taking turns." Even before it was cool enough to devour entirely down to the bones, you and your sister would have to take turns tasting it-licking it!!!-as it cracked and boiled on a spit, and burn your tongues.
But I could go on forever about the deer, bear, muskrat, mink, foxes, wolves and other cadavers bloodily splayed, like so many credulous Trojans, across the narrative. So I will just note that, to be fair, Pa is a trapper, another fact I had forgotten while I was wondering whether he just kept wandering off all day so he wouldn't have to hang in the house with Ma, molding butter. That's why it makes complete sense that the chapter "The Long Rifle" begins with the wholesome image of him teaching the girls to make bullets:
Then there's the trundle bed:
That's all. I just liked saying — I like it still — "trundle bed".
But in Wisconsin's big woods, there is more to life than slaughtering, chopping, trapping, molding, and making beds. There is also thrusting hollow sticks into the mighty trees, letting the succulent sap drip out, then boiling it until it can be consumed in all its rich, slow-cooked delight.
Because it is time for the maple sugaring dance at Grandma's!!!!!!!! It's going to take all of my strength not to type the passage below in its entirety-it's taking all my strength to not type the book for you in its entirety — so bear with me as I recount Laura watching her Aunts Docia and Ruby get dressed:
Laura sat on their bed and watched them comb out their long hair and part it carefully...they had washed their hands and faces and scrubbed them well with soap, at the wash-basin on the bench in the kitchen. They had used store soap, not the slimy, soft, dark brown soap that Grandma made and kept in a big jar [not the slimy soap, do you hear that, you mothers!-Ed]....They fussed a long time with their front hair...They brushed is so smooth on each side of the straight white part that it shone like silk in the lamplight. The little puff on each side shone too, and the ends were coiled and twisted neatly under the big knot in the back.
Then they pulled on their beautiful white stockings, that they had knit of fine cotton thread in lacy, openwork patterns, and they buttoned up their best shoes....
"Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his two hands, when they were married"
Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stuff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And then 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 looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them. Aunt Ruby's dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in a lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved in it.
Aunt Docia's pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady's head on it [talk about disambiguation-Ed]. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eyes, so it couldn't be used as a needle anymore.
I am so sorry. But obviously I had to get the buttons with the whole castle carved on that in there. (Try spit-marking that, Elisa!)
But, as in the case of all charged imagery, the sprigged dresses and molded bullets would be all for naught did they not hide the great conflict in the narrative-viz, Laura's despair that everyone thinks Mary is prettier than she is. (You might think I'm being facetious here, Jezzies! I'm totally not.) While Mary's curls are "golden and beautiful", Laura's hair is "dirty and brown". The storekeeper tells Ma and Pa Mary is pretty-he says nothing about Laura. Laura gathers too many rocks by the shores of a lake and tears out her pocket-Mary is clean and neat and keeps hers nicely folded in her lap. Of course, the fucking bitch!!!!!!!
Across the entire series, one of the major themes is Laura coming into her own alongside that shadow-somewhat mitigated, of course, by the fact that Mary goes blind in book 3 or 4-and growing into her own marriage, which closes with its own books, The First Four Years and These Happy Golden Years. (One of them you have to buy outside the boxed set, cheapo.) But the intimations of the conflict are laid out over and over again-most poignantly, I think, in the picture below, wherein Laura has slapped Mary for telling her "Golden hair is lots prettier than brown", and been whipped. Tearily crawling onto Pa's lap afterward, she asks, "You don't like golden hair better than brown, do you?"
And do you know what Pa says?
"Well, Laura, my hair is brown."
Going off to weep now. Tell me when the bladder balloon is prepared for play.
Earlier: 'The Grounding Of Group 6': Have Fun at School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die
Are You There, Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
Related: Little House In The Big Woods
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]