Chloe’s Book Club: Little House in the Big Woods

This is the book that hooked me, as a child, on Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be a pioneer girl like Laura. I wanted to experience sugar snow, and a country dance, and the sense of security that came from being inside a snug cabin on a Wisconsin winter night.

KAE cabin

I’ve reread the book many times for pleasure. I’ve also studied it as a novelist. Why does this book continue to captivate readers around the world?


Original edition. (Wikipedia)

There are many elements to admire, but for me, Laura’s gift for characterization comes first. Young Laura is captured on the page as a real, complex, endearing child.  Most of the time she is obedient and happy, but she also struggles in ways that are wholly believable and spot-on for a child her age.


One of my favorite scenes.

Here’s an example from the “Sunday” chapter:

“Did Adam have good clothes to wear on Sundays?” Laura asked Ma.

“No, Ma said. “Poor Adam, all he had to wear was skins.”

Laura did not pity Adam. She wished she had nothing to wear but skins.

Her frustration erupts with a declaration:  “I hate Sunday!”

I also sympathized when, later in the book, Laura slaps her sister Mary. Mary is often portrayed as perfect. But in “Summertime,” Mary knows just how to upset Laura—by saying her own golden curls are prettier than Laura’s.

There is much to admire in Ma, but her role in the hair color debate has always annoyed me. When Aunt Lotty comes to visit:

“Which do you like best, Aunty Lotty,” Mary asked, “brown curls or golden curls?” Ma had told them to ask that, and Mary was a very good little girl who always did exactly as she was told.

However, we see another side of Ma in “Two Big Bears.” When she slaps a bear after mistaking it for the cow in lantern light, she tells Laura to walk back to the house. Half-way there Ma snatches up Laura and runs the rest of the way. Pa isn’t home, and although Ma doesn’t speak of her fear, she reveals it by pulling in the latch string. Then she takes the sleeping baby (Carrie) from bed and sits in the rocking chair.

I missed the nuances as a child, but now, I understand why Ma wanted to hold the warm, drowsy child in her lap. While Ma and Mary are not my favorite characters, author-Laura drew them well.


Caroline/Ma and Charles/Pa (Wikipedia)

Laura’s close relationship with her father emerges very early in the book. When she is frightened by the wolves howling outside, Pa reassures her—but he also carries her to the window to see the wolves. This scene establishes Pa as protector, and also as a parent who wants to help Laura face her fears.

Pa plays games with Laura and Mary, and plays his fiddle at night so they can fall asleep. His character also emerges as complex and, overall, appealing.

His voice is also the last we hear in the book:

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of long ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep now.”

…(Laura) thought to herself, “This is now.”  She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now.  They could never be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

I’ve returned to this passage again and again. Why did so many of us, as children, wish we could have lived in Laura’s time? Is it the depiction of a lifestyle that appears, at least, to be simpler?

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

Reconstruction, Little House in the Big Woods, Pepin, WI.

I now know that it was not. Still, it’s fun to revisit not only the books, but the pleasure they gave me as a child. In my book Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery, Chloe does the same thing:

Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child. It wasn’t just that she and Kari had “played Laura and Mary.” Or that Chloe had turned a back yard bower into a private playhouse she called Laura Land—soft grass and green leaves magically transformed into a log cabin. Laura’s adventures had captivated. Laura’s struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood.

How about you? What was your reaction to reading Little House in the Big Woods? Have your feelings changed over time? Any favorite scenes? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.


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31 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: Little House in the Big Woods”

  1. Dianne B. Says:

    It has been a long time since I’ve read the Little House books. I don’t think my feelings have changed about the book. Favorite scenes would be the family party where Pa and his Mother are jigging. I think my favorite of the little House books would by By the Shores of Silver Lake. I am reading your book, Death on the Prairie and the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, bring back parts of the books. Your book is more than a mystery, its a travel in time, to the different Little House locations and I think the realization for Chloe that there is no place like home. Each of the Little Houses had special meaning for Laura though she realized that she could not write, in a children’s book, what a very hard life she did have. She had to combine a lot of good with some bad. I have also learned a lot about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family that I did not know before.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by! And thanks for the kind comments. I had wanted to write this book for a while, but needed to wait until the Chloe had grown to a place within the series where the “there is no place like home” theme would make sense. I so enjoyed revisiting the books and seeing the home sites!

  2. Laura Gerold (Laura's Reviews) Says:

    This book looks great! I just read Little House in the Big Woods again with my five year daughter and we both loved it. Penelope loved how Laura had feelings that she could relate to, and I enjoyed things I had missed reading it as a child. It was the book that first hooked me as a reader and I read it countless times as a youth. We are heading to Pepin and Walnut Grove this summer and I am very excited!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Laura, one of the elements of the books I so admire is that they work for kids and adults at the same time. I know a lot of Caroline’s challenges went unnoticed as a child, but I sure pick up on them now. And enjoy your trip! The museum in Pepin was remodeled over the winter, and I’m eager to see it too. And the Dugout Site at Walnut grove is very special, plus there are some fabulous artifacts on display in the museum in town. If you want to see my virtual tour of the homesites, scroll back and you’ll find a post about each site.

  3. Lois Scorgie Says:

    I first read THE LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS in the late 1950s. I lived in Pepin. Laura’s adventure, picking too many pebbles on the beach on her visit to Pepin and not being able to stop was truly familiar to me. I spent hours wandering on the beach, gathering driftwood, pebbles and shells……oh, those beautiful shells ..My pockets and arms were overloaded as I staggered up the hill toward home.
    Even though I was very young, it was exciting I knew where the story took place.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, is there a place today where we can walk a beach near Pepin? I’ve been to the little one near the Marina, but (obviously) it isn’t the same. Although I still felt compelled to pick up a few shells and pebbles! I love that scene because it’s so ME. (And you too!)

      • Lois Scorgie Says:

        The beach you walked and the stony pier was where I picked my treasures and learned to swim. The Marina and all of the other buildings have filled in the waterfront since the 1970s.

        When Laura visited the town the business district faced the river. The train tracks were not built. There were buildings and, I assume, a boat landing next to the shore. I’m certain Laura and her family had a lovely stretch of beach to follow..

        Often I picture in my mind that gorgeous vista of Lake Pepin, just to feel serenity and calm.

  4. Annette Jackson Says:

    My paternal grandmother was born in 1876 in Minnesota, and the family also lived for a time in North Dakota. By the time I was born my grandmother was over 70, so she was almost 80 by the time I started reading the Little House series. Everything I know about her childhood I learned from my father, and apparently life on the land they farmed was a struggle just as the Ingalls family experienced.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Annette, I can only imagine how special the stories must be if they are relevant for your own family. I think so many of the settlers just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other as they faced challenge after challenge.

  5. dianegarland Says:

    I loved the Little House books growing up and still pull out three of my favorites to re-read every once in a while. I would like to visit some of the sites where she lived. It would be fascinating.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Diane, I hope you can visit some of the sites! There is something special about walking the ground where Laura walked. If you scroll down on my blog here you’ll see virtual visits of each site also.Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Becky Says:

    I love the description of butchering the pig. I wanted to have a pig’s bladder to play with after I read it the first time. My mother laughed at me because I had a brand new red ball to play with.

    These books have been my favorite since I read them. My dad bought me the series in the 70’s for Christmas. During our last move I lost some of them and had to replace them. My husband thinks I am nuts because they are “just books” but they are old friends to me.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      They are old friends for me also. Interesting that you were intrigued by the pig’s bladder. I couldn’t really picture it. There is/was on display at the museum in Pepin for everyone who wondered!

  7. Susan wadlow Says:

    Good insights. Loved those books as a child

  8. ggmjanette Says:

    I love this book, and I can recall so many of the scenes to mind. I grew up on a farm, so there were many times I identified with Laura.

    One of my favorite parts is the maple syrup/sugaring where the whole family gathers together. I love the candy making and especially the scene where the sisters are tightening each other’s corsets. Ma is put into a glamorous light in this scene.

    I really like the small details too. the way Ma colored the butter with carrot juice has always stayed with me.

    I also think this story resonates because it seems to be the only book where everyone is content and satisfied with where they are in life. I know that the reality of the Ingalls’ life make my sentiment a fallacy, but this book is heartwarming all the way through.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Janette – I also loved the maple syrup/sugaring scenes. Growing up in the Baltimore suburbs I had no context for this, but really, really wanted to try it. I also think you hit on something key – in this book (and in Farmer Boy) there seems to be such abundance. Once you’ve read the whole series you can never go back, but the *first* time you read Big Woods you’re in a world where all is basically well.

  9. Judy Says:

    I loved Laura’s food descriptions in all of the books especially Farmer Boy. the jackrabbit roasted for Christmas dinner with gravy, how thrilled the girls were with a tin cup, a penny and a peppermint stick for their gifts and when Mr Edwards weathered a bad storm to bring the girls something for Christmas. How about eating the pig’s tail and playing with the bladder like a balloon.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Judy, I find that as an adult, the descriptions of food catch my attention more than they did when I was a child–probably because I know that these characters end up facing such privations later. I loved *all* of the Christmas scenes!

  10. Angela Says:

    I love this book as well! I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it. In fact, I read one chapter of a Little House book, so I’m always in the process of re-reading the entire series.

    And I just finished a project for my blog where my sister and I tested out that part in Little House in the Big Woods where Laura’s relatives put baked potatoes in their pockets to stay warm in the winter. It was a really fun experiment! Now I’m on the look-out for other projects I can try from other books in this series.

    One of the things that I always related to really well in the Little House books was that Laura didn’t always fit in. She was kind of a tomboy in a world that expected all girls to act like prim and proper young ladies. She tried to be good and quiet like Mary, but she never totally fit the mold.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Angela – I love that you tried the baked potatoes trick! And I think your observation about Laura not fitting in is spot-on. What child doesn’t feel that way at times? Author-Laura managed to recapture that feeling perfectly (and Garth Williams did too.) Thanks for sharing.

  11. Jill Nisbet Says:

    I am so glad you are doing this. I have always wanted to discuss L aura with others who understand. Loved Death on the Prairie and can’t wait for the next one.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, I’m so glad you joined the conversation! Next up is Farmer Boy. And–I’m happy that you enjoyed Death on the Prairie. I’m finishing edits on the next one, A Memory of Muskets, right now!

  12. Kathleen Says:

    One of my favorite parts of Laura’s books are how descriptive they are, it almost seems you could make cheese, weave straw hats and smoke meat yourself just from reading the books. I’m sure this is simplified to a great extent but you certainly can recognize the processes they used back then which are still possible today. Don’t count Ma out though, Pa was the fun parent, Ma was sure and steady and I really admire how she kept her standards high for her girls even though they faced great financial hardships. They may not have had much but they were clean, educated, fair to others and learned manners, not an easy task to maintain by yourselves in the middle of nowhere.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Kathleen, I agree. I’ve studied Laura’s descriptions, trying to learn how she made so many things visual for readers. As an adult, I especially appreciate the understanding they’ve given me into a variety of historical processes. And…I hear you about Ma. I should give her more credit, especially her insistence on educating the girls.

  13. QNPoohBear Says:

    I loved the books so much in elementary school. I grew up more than 100 years later (my mom was a little girl when author Laura died) in a suburban New England neighborhood. I wanted to be Laura, I was so enchanted with this strange world. The story is so descriptive. My favorite scene from Big Woods is when Laura gets her beloved doll Charlotte. I always wanted a Charlotte of my own. When the first American Girl catalog landed in our mailbox, I HAD to have the pioneer girl Kirsten. She has her own tiny rag doll like Charlotte. Years later, Kirsten is to me like Charlotte is to Laura.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I was lucky enough to have been given a Charlotte doll when I was a kid–but somewhere along the way, it disappeared. I wish I still had it. I look at all of the repro dolls sold in the gift shops, but none of them will do. I’m very glad that in the end Kirsten was able to fill that void for you! (When I started writing for AG, I hoped they would offer me a Kirsten project. It took a while, but I was able to write one mystery about her, The Runaway Friend.)

  14. Jill Nisbet Says:

    This was the first book I read.. My favorite part was the sugaring off dance . Can you even imagine how scary it was when that panther was leaping through the treetops? To say nothing of Ma slapping a bear! My mother who is 94 actually experienced some things that they did in the books so it didnt seem so obscure to ms.j loved to hear her stories of the olden days too.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, I think the sugaring off dance is close to the top of most readers’ list of favorites! As a child, I understood how frightening the panther scene was; I don’t think I fully got why Ma was so frightened in the bear scene until I was grown. Spooky, especially for a woman out there alone with a young child.

  15. Ruth Oberg Says:

    So much attention has been given Little House on the Prairie when Little House in the Big Woods has remained, for me, true North for nearly 60 years. Today, I baked cornbread and picked the cold snap to home butcher our two fattened Hogs. The frozen meat chickens and lambs are being shared with family and shuffled in our two chest freezers to make room for the Hogs. Laura had a way of making awkward and rebellious feel natural, not naughty. The desire for a real doll, like Mary’s, instead of her corn cob doll, Susan. We are smoking some of the lamb, chicken and pork. I see Laura joyfully running to Pa’s firewood stump to gather only the cleanest, greenest hickory chips. Laura got so hungry when Ma would head to the attic with the hatchet and hack off a hunk of the good bear meat. As a former legal professional who never planned to retire, it took a while for me to realise that I’m exactly where I always wanted to be.

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