Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Little House In The Big Woods is the first in the famous series of pioneer books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They are deservedly famous. There's history, there's a strong moral code and there's some fabulously sensuous descriptive writing. Easy to read aloud, you could begin with stories at bedtime and end in a Year 6 cross-discipline project if you were educating your children at home. It's a classic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 137 Date: May 1992
Publisher: Mammoth
ISBN: 0749709316

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Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little grey house made of logs.

Oh y'know; just those few words are enough to bring on nostalgia and send me rushing upstairs for the thirty-year-old, dog-eared Puffin copy of Little House in the Big Woods which still has pride of place on my bedroom bookshelf. There reside all my favourite, most read volumes. The first instalment of a long series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods is set just before the Ingalls family pushed further west to the prairie of television fame. I must have been six or seven years old when I read it first and lord knows how many times I've gone back to it since then. I'll tell you what I like about that opening sentence; it's the big B and the big W in Big Woods. I remember clearly reading this very first page for the very first time long ago, and I remember clearly jumping straight in to the world of a little girl living in an isolated house with her family in those Big Woods. That big B and big W send me straight back there even now. It's a magical piece of writing, don't you think? It worked for me at six and it works for me now at well past thirty-six.

Laura lives in the log cabin with her Ma and Pa, her older sister Mary and baby Carrie. They are a "full day's walk" from the nearest town and all around them are those Big Woods. The Ingalls family were to become pioneers, the early settlers of the American Midwest. Frontier life had a lot more humdrum struggle than romantic adventure and this book, together with the others in the series, tells of the hard work facing the Ingalls. It also paints a very happy picture of their family life. The first thing we learn about Laura, apart from the "littleness" of her and the "bigness" of those Big Woods, is how safe and secure she feels lying in her trundle bed listening to wolves howl outside because her Pa is there to protect her. With small, homely incidents like this Wilder takes children easily into a past world and makes it easy for them to imagine. And she makes the grown-ups amongst us smile with recollections of our own.

Little House opens in the autumn and Ma and Pa are busily gathering food to last the winter. One of the most vivid series of scenes in the book comes here with the storing of the winter provisions. Pa hunts venison, Ma smokes it, Pa catches fish, Ma salts them, Pa and Uncle Henry butcher the pig, and Ma spends days salting and preserving. It still strikes me even now, how the Ingalls family made use of every last part of that pig. It was a life where nothing went to waste and a life in such direct contrast to today's throwaway society. It gives pause for thought for children now perhaps, adults too. Autumn leads to winter and Wilder goes on to describe their family Christmas. Mary and Laura go tobogganing in the snow with their cousins, they make maple sugar and attend the sugaring-off dance at Grandpa's. Summertime brings cheese-making, and honey-gathering. And finally the Ingalls year takes us back to autumn and the hard work of the harvest, allayed by "the wonderful machine" - a corn thresher. My favourite part comes when Laura's naughty cousin Charley gets his comeuppance. I won't tell you what that is; I'm not giving it all away in this review. Much happens during a year in the Big Woods, and despite the slimness of this volume, I've given you only the bare bones.

I had wondered if Little House in the Big Woods was really a book for little girls, but I really don't believe that's so. I think this has partly to do with children's hunger for the stories of long ago and partly to do with the way in which Ingalls Wilder's writing pays such particular attention to the senses. Snowballs are cold when they are thrown against cheeks. The sun is hot as it beats upon shoulders and necks. Food - and its smell and its taste - is a recurrent theme. Children are creatures of the senses and they identify very clearly with such descriptions.

Little House in the Big Woods would make an excellent set text in school - or in a home education environment. It is an approachable, accessible read for any child of eight and up and its simple, but evocative style makes it suitable for reading aloud to children a year or two younger than that. With its "birds eye" view, it's perfect for a discussion of what life was like for a child in nineteenth century frontier America. And it has some very strong messages about personal responsibility which could be used in a citizenship topic or two. Interesting too, from a holistic approach to reading with children, is the underlying sibling rivalry Laura has with Mary, but which Laura knows is not productive. Any teacher or home educator would find this an interesting discussion starter I think. But really, y'know, that's the boring stuff. Little House in the Big Woods is, more than it's anything, a wonderfully satisfying read and much-loved by most of the children who read it. And that, to my mind, is recommendation enough.

There are a whole series of "Little House" books leading right up to and even beyond Laura Ingalls' marriage to Almanzo Wilder almost twenty years on from this one. They are all just as good. And even better, as the series progresses, so does the reading level expected. Ingalls Wilder's books really do grow with their readership. Americana in children's fiction began perhaps with the likes of Tom Sawyer and Little Women but found worthy descendants in Wilder's Little House books. The best children's fiction can be read - and enjoyed - by adults too. We all, in the end, read for delight. But, as adults, we read with a critical mind searching for that delight. Little House in the Big Woods captures the part of us always wanting to become the child still within and, as historical testament, it informs and entertains. It satisfies on all counts. I think of Little House in the Big Woods as a cross between oral history and excellent storytelling for children. I think that Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing for herself as well as for her young readers.

It comes recommended for all children of eight and up - including boys! - and for any home educators looking for an anchor to a cross-discipline topic. Neither would it be an embarrassment on an adult bookshelf. It's a lovely, lovely book.

If you are looking for more fictionalised history books for children, try our review of War Game by Michael Foreman.

Booklists.jpg Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the Top Ten Biographies and Autobiographies.

Booklists.jpg Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the Top Ten Books About America.

Booklists.jpg Little House In The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the Top Ten Books With A Christmas Theme.

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