Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods
overnight snow & pre-k procedurals
“Laura watched him do this, and then she watched him hang the meat on the nails in the hollow log.”
Certain cultural phenomena pass by our stations without stopping. I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie. I’ve never listened all the way through to a song by The Grateful Dead. And I had, until recently, never set foot inside the Little House on the Prairie extended universe. I’m not sure I even knew that Little House was a book, as opposed to a show or a movie or a line of toys or something. I only knew that it meant a tremendous amount to a tremendous number of people and that I was not one of them.
But my daughter recently brought home Little House in the Big Woods (the first, I now know, of Wilder’s nine books about her childhood) and I have since become delightedly conversant in all things Jack and Pa and maple candy. When my daughter and I put down Little House at the end of a chapter, she doesn’t clamor for a few more pages or resume her experiment with just how many of my soft spots she can drive her knees and elbows into; she stares off, quiet. Visiting the world of Little House is both thrilling and mysteriously reassuring. It leaves a strange and sacred hush in its wake, like overnight snow.
The prose is, first of all, strikingly clear and unmannered. “The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.” None of the strained folksiness of Thornton Wilder; none of the wide-eyed melodramatic whisper of the children’s entertainer. Just plain words plainly arranged (and the quiet wit of those repeated trees forming a linguistic mini-forest).
We meet the Wilder children — Laura, Mary, and baby Carrie — and the Wilder parents — Pa and Ma. And then, just as we’re settling in to this world of endless trees and eerily proximate predators (wolves, bears), we meet a dead deer hanging from a tree branch.
“Pa had shot the deer the day before and Laura had been asleep when he brought them home at night and hung them high in the trees so the wolves could not get the meat.”
This deer might, in other hands, be just a vivid bit of scenery. But for Wilder it’s an occasion to flex what turns out to be her bulkiest literary muscle: the meticulous observation of workmanship. The deer-meat must be salted and smoked, so as to last through the winter (winter approaches like an especially fearsome predator, in Little House), and this of course demands that Pa construct a smoker.
“Standing on end in the yard was a tall length cut from the trunk… cut a little door… fastened leather hinges…”
After a couple of paragraphs of this, I — who regard as magic any mechanism more complicated than a deadbolt — begin to feel that I might not fare so poorly in the woods. Wilder’s language is so straightforward, and her account of the construction so hypnotically detailed, that the material world seems to lie down in surrender.
“After the deer meat had been salted several days, Pa cut a hole near the end of each piece and put a string through it. Laura watched him do this, and then she watched him hang the meat on the nails in the hollow log.”
Meat, salt, nails, logs — everything purposeful, everything picture-able. If Wilder wrote IKEA catalogs, bookshelf-assembly would be as popular and as soothing a pastime as knitting.
The first time I read this scene I looked over at my daughter, thinking she might be bored — but she was staring raptly into the air in front of her face where imagined scenes get enacted. These deer-smoking logistics were, I realized, providing important emotional sustenance for her. The nature of that sustenance didn’t become clear until I happened to glance at my shelf of battered Ed McBain paperbacks: Wilder, it occurred to me, writes 87th Precinct novels for the overnight-diapers set.
The author of a procedural — whether it’s Ed McBain or Laura Ingalls Wilder — sets out the world in all its terrifying arbitrariness and indifference: muggers, wolves, murderers, bears. And then she offers the reader a ritual, all but religious in its majestic dependability, with which to navigate the chaos. (Laura watched him do this — she, and we, are glad to know the details of what Pa does, but even gladder at the mere fact of his doing: no message is so reassuring as that there is something to be done.)
The cops canvass the scene, the children gather wood chips. The detectives interrogate suspects, Pa places a roof on top of a hollow log. By the end of the ceremony the criminal has been apprehended, and the problem of winter hunger has been solved. The wolves will continue to howl, the cold will still bite, but this patch of wilderness — for now at least — has been tamed.