As the title suggests, setting is extremely important in this novel; the cabin, the woods, the wild animals, and the isolation are all presented before the characters are introduced. Wilder, who moved often as a child but always remained a country girl, conveys a strong sense of place in her writing. The book describes the events in and around the Ingallses' cabin in the Wisconsin woods during the year that Laura celebrates her fifth birthday. It is the early 1870s, and the area is sparsely populated with self-sufficient farmers and woodsmen who make their own tools and find their own entertainment.
The story begins and ends in the winter, with the family cozy inside the house, watching the fire, listening to Pa's fiddle and his stories, occasionally looking out at the wind, snow, dark trees, and even the wolves that howl near the cabin. As spring approaches, this snug world opens up somewhat, and Laura's view broadens. At sugaring time the Ingallses join their extended family and friends at a party. In the summer Laura's world expands again as she takes her first trip to town. Autumn finds her among the extended family again as they do the harvesting and canning. Constantly alert, Laura takes in all her surroundings, but she seems content when winter closes in once again. Most of all, she seems to love the warm house with her father, mother, and sisters around her. Apparently this place is the secure, dependable core for her life as well as for the...
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Little House in the Big Woods begins like a fairy tale. Within a few lines, the narrator reveals a strong sense of her audience as youngsters in a different world from that of the little house. The storyteller is the older Laura—the grandmother speaking to grandchildren. But once little Laura appears, everything is viewed through her eyes and understood through her consciousness. The point of view is consistent and believable.
Other stories, usually told by Pa, punctuate the story of the Ingalls family and their year in the Big Woods. Some of these stories are about "the old days" when Laura's grandfather was young; thus the reader sees a pattern of storytelling being handed down. Pa often tells stories about animals and sometimes about the dangers out in the Big Woods. Full of detail, they move to a climax and then end quickly. The same narrative pattern is used to tell the story of the Ingallses' year in the Big Woods. Instead of building to a single crisis, the novel is episodic. Any little crises are soon resolved, but they last long enough to lend a touch of drama.
The style is simple and matter-of-fact. The author seems to have given some attention to making the novel easy to read, but the style is natural, not condescending; it seems appropriate to the thoughts and actions of a little girl. In fact, in the later Little House books, as Laura grows up, the style becomes gradually more sophisticated. Although Laura relates her...
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For generations, librarians, parents, and teachers have recommended the Little House books as wholesome fare for young readers. Many readers still admire the virtues exemplified in these books: hard work, honesty, generosity, adaptability, endurance, resourcefulness, and humor.
Some adults may feel that the world of the Little House is so long ago and so "good" as to seem irrelevant to young people now. Although the social environment of the books is much different from today's, Laura is easy to identify with, thus bridging the time gap. The characters are all good people, yet Laura has enough inner struggles to make her seem real.
Of course, the book's main social significance, other than its presentation of a coherent set of values, is its preservation of a vanished way of life. Details about recipes, building techniques, daily life, folkways, and crafts contribute to the reader's understanding of life in a very different society.
Some readers may worry about the female role models: Ma is patient, mild, obedient to her husband, known for her tiny waist; golden-haired, compliant Mary is the model for girls. But Laura, while she sees that blonde curls and demure behavior are cultural ideals, does quite well without them. Wilder's own view was that the farm wife had always been a full partner in a business enterprise.
The tone of this book is optimistic, even carefree. The later Little House books show, along with more...
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Topics for Discussion
1. How do you think Ma and Pa want Laura and Mary to act as little girls? How do you think they want them to be as adults? What do Ma and Pa do to train them? Are there any differences between Ma's way and Pa's way of raising children? Do you think Laura's parents are too strict? Do you agree with Laura that Charley's parents are not strict enough? Why?
2. What are the most frightening parts of the story? What keeps Laura from being afraid of all the frightening things out in the Big Woods?
3. What kinds of things make the children feel jealous of one another? How do the parents and children handle the problem? How do you feel about Laura's comment that it isn't fair that Mary is prettier, neater, and more polite?
4. Name all the ways you can think of in which the family uses animals. How do you think they feel about animals? Do you feel the same way? Why or why not?
5. How does living in the Big Woods affect the family's activities and life together? What do the girls miss by not living in town? What do they gain by living in the cabin?
6. Compare the kinds of fun you had when you were five years old with the kinds of fun Laura has. Did you do any of the same things for fun that Laura does? What differences do you see between your kind of entertainment and Laura's? Who do you think has had more fun growing up, you or Laura? Why?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Talk to an older person in your family or neighborhood about what he or she did as a child. Talk about fun and games or about working and making things. Or ask the person to tell you a story about his or her childhood. Write a report or story about something you learned from this interview.
2. Write a diary entry that Laura might have made on an important day if she had been old enough to write. For example, what would she have written after the visit to town, after the dance at Grandpa's, or after her fight with Mary? Or write a diary entry from the point of view of Ma, Pa, or Mary.
3. Laura explains to you how she and her sisters and cousins have fun in the Little House. Try writing a letter or story to Laura, explaining how you have fun. Remember that Laura lived a long time ago and may need to have some things carefully explained.
4. Pretend that fifty or sixty years have gone by, and you are now a parent or grandparent telling children a story of something that happened to you when you were a child. How would you start your story? What would you need to explain? Plan and tell your story.
5. Choose a scene you like in the book and rewrite it as a short play. With two or three classmates, act out the scene for the class.
6. Laura Ingalls was born in 1867, so when she celebrates her birthday in the book, it is 1872. Use reference books to find out what was going on in America at that time. If Pa had...
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Little House in the Big Woods is the first the eight books in the Little House series. In Little House on the Prairie, the Ingalls family leaves the Wisconsin woods to settle the wide Kansas grassland. The book shows the adventures of the journey as well as the building of a new house and furniture. On the Banks of Plum Creek finds the family living in Minnesota, where the girls go to school and the crops prosper until grasshoppers destroy the vegetation. In the next book, By the Shores of Silver Lake, the family has moved to Dakota Territory. Laura has taken on increased responsibility because of Mary's blindness and the arrival of a baby sister, Grace. The Long Winter, one of the most highly praised titles of the series, describes the blizzard-ridden winter of 1880-1881, when the new community of De Smet nearly runs out of food and fuel. Little Town on the Prairie tells of more pleasant days in the town, with an adolescent Laura completing her schooling and hoping for a teaching job. At age eighteen, in These Happy Golden Years, Laura is teaching school and being courted by Almanzo Wilder. At the end of the book, she begins her married life. Farmer Boy, the second book published in the series, deals with Almanzo's rural New York boyhood.
Laura Ingalls Wilder fans may also wish to read these works published after her death: On the Way Home: The Diary of a Trip from South Dakota to Mansfield,...
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For Further Reference
Anderson, William T. "'It Is Better Farther On': Laura Ingalls Wilder Fol- lowed Her Western Vision to the Little Houses on the Prairie." American West 21 (May-June 1984): 35-43. This wellwritten short biography of Wilder emphasizes her movement in space and time. Includes a discussion of various Wilder homesites to visit.
Cooper, Bernice. "Authenticity of the Historical Background of the Little House Books." Elementary English 40 (November 1963): 696-702. Establishes the historical accuracy of details within the book.
Flanagan, Frances. "A Tribute to Laura Ingalls Wilder." Elementary English 34 (April 1957): 203-213. One of the many "tributes," this shows how highly teachers regarded Wilder's books for style, values, and sense of security.
Garson, Eugenia, and Herbert Haufrecht, eds. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Songs and music from the Little House books and from the era in which they are set.
Moore, Rosa Ann. "Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: The Chemistry of Collaboration." Children's Literature in Education 11 (Autumn 1980): 101- 109. Shows how Rose Wilder Lane advised her mother on the manuscripts.
Segel, Elizabeth. "Laura Ingalls Wilder's America: An Unflinching Assessment." Children's Literature in Education 8 (Summer 1977): 63-70. Points out that Wilder observed the problems as well as the strong points of...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Anderson, William. “The Literary Apprenticeship of Laura Ingalls Wilder.” South Dakota History 13 (Winter, 1983): 285-331.
Erisman, Fred. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1994.
Mac Bride, Roger Lea. New Dawn on Rocky Ridge. Illustrated by David Gilleece. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Spaeth, Janet. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Walner, Alexandra. Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Holiday House, 1997.
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