Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“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.” Thus begins the first of nine books based on the frontier existence of the Ingalls family, fixing the time at 1873 and introducing the main character of the series. The simplicity of presentation fixes Laura’s perspective as the lens for the story, and all facets of the tale remain true to a child’s point of view. Wilder’s use of capital letters heightens Laura’s wonder at her surroundings.
It is fall, and the snug Ingalls home bursts with harvest foods, colorfully cataloged. The themes of family safety and self-reliance emerge as central to this book and to the whole series. Complete but easy-to-understand descriptions of building a smokehouse and slaughtering a pig make it clear that even children knew the basics of preparation for winter. This recitation of essential frontier knowledge became one of the most valuable and interesting aspects of Wilder’s contribution to later understanding of pioneer life.
Small details deepen the sense of the cares and dangers of such a life, as well as Ma’s determination to create some beauty for her family:Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene, to keep the kerosene from exploding, and there were bits of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty. It was pretty.
Small touches which helped make life lovely are highlighted in this and all the following books.
Pa’s fiddling, singing, and storytelling on winter nights establish him as the reassuring center of folklore and continuity. A spring dance celebrating syrup-making at Laura’s grandparents’ home, summertime cheese-making, and honey collecting round out the year’s progress toward harvest and reinforce the satisfaction this family feels with their remote life in the woods. Without glossing over danger or hard work, Wilder has managed to portray frontier life appealingly, with warmth and confidence at its core.