A Closer Look at the Text of Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder


The first sentence of Little House in the Big Woods reads as it is printed above. Before Big Woods was published, however, the story had originated as Pioneer Girl and then, it because See more about that transition Here.

When Wilder began the rough draft for Little House in the Big Woods, it was originally written as follows: “Once upon a time, long, long, ago….”

The words long, long, ago were changed to sixty years ago, and that would alter the text more than you might think it would. Hear PamelaSmith Hill, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder, A Writer’s Life, discuss that change and other issues regarding the text of Little House in the Big Woods, including why we still read the Wilder books today. [You can register for Hill’s course Laura Ingalls Wilder Here.]

Hill says that the Ingalls family was an archetypal Pioneer family taming the wild and yet, living as part of it. She adds that it could almost be argued that Pa and Ma were as much the focus of the book as was Laura herself.

The Sewell illustration of Ma and Pa.

Big Woods is written episodically from the fragments of Wilder’s childhood memories, and this episodic nature fills the book with the essence of a child’s wonder. Hear more about this is the following video, Part Two:

Big Woods takes place over the course of a year–from one autumn to the next. It tells about the wolves that howled outside Laura’s window at night. [Scanned images from Amazon]


It tells of smoking the meat:





It tells of butchering a pig, making sausages and head cheese, and the girls’ playing with the pig bladder, like it was a balloon.



It tells that at first, only Mary had a real doll and Laura’s doll was merely a cob of corn.


And then, it tells about the Christmas that Laura got a real doll.

In weaving these tales into the framework of a year’s time, Wilder gives the book Big Woods a mythical quality.

This mythical quality is enhanced as Wilders begins and ends the book with a reference to time:


The ending is as follows:

“She thought to herself, ‘This is now.’
“She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Wilder has the ability to write with the voice of a child, without writing down to her readers. She does not preach or spout moral. She merely shows how the episodes of her childhood strike her, as a child. The reader forms judgments about what is happening, but Wilder does not tell them how to feel.

There is very little dialog in Big Woods. Hill says that the dialog is short and sometimes clichè, but she says that in the Wilders books, this kind of dialog helps to underscore the routine and safe simplicity of Laura’s life. Hill also says that Wilder’s dialog also helps to bridge the gap for more modern readers to the past, about which the book was written.

Hill points out that the wild and dangerous frontier also becomes one of the characters of the book. The wilderness brings about the conflicts that are essential for the story.

Hill makes the point that fashion also plays a part of the story of Big Woods. We see this in Chapter 8: The Dance at Grandpa’s

Ma’s Delaine Dress – pages 128 – 129

“Ma’s delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked loke ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dressmaker made her clothes.

“The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura nd Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little criss-cross stitches….

Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby Get Read for Grandpa’s Party – pages 138 – 141

 “Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby made themselves pretty in their room. Laura sat on the bed and watched them com out their long hair and part it carefully.They parted it from their foreheads to the napes of their necks and then they parted it across from ear to ear. They braided their back hair in long braids and then they did the braids up carefully in big knots. …

“They fussed for a long time with their front hair, holding up the lamp and looking at their hair in the little looking-glass that hung on the log wall. They brushed it 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 the buttoned up their best shoes. They helped each other with their corset. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby’s corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers….

“Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses

“Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue with springs 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 lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it.”





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