Posts Tagged ‘Little House in the Big Woods’

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

March 16, 2016

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?

(Wikipedia)

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.

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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.

(Wikipedia)

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!

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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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Chloe’s Book Club

March 10, 2016

Have you read the Little House books lately? Readers have told me that after reading Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mysterythey were inspired to revisit the classic series that inspired my mystery.

KAE cabin

That delights me. And what could be more fun for Laura fans than having a chance to chat about the books?

Next week, I’m starting a new feature here on the Sites and Stories blog—Chloe’s Book Club. We’ll move through the Little House books one by one. I’ll share my thoughts about them, and I do hope that you will share yours.

First up, of course, is Little House in the Big Woods. If you haven’t read it lately, now is the time…

(Photo by Kay Klubertanz)

(Photo by Kay Klubertanz)

And then, please join me here next Thursday, March 17!

Laura Land Tour: Pepin, WI

November 19, 2015

Thanks for joining me for a blog tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites!  Whether you’re an armchair traveler or planning your own road trip, I hope the tour helps you envision the many places Laura called home.

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (Kay Klubertanz photo.)

Replica of the Ingalls family cabin near Pepin, WI. (photo by Kay Klubertanz)

Laura was born seven miles north of Pepin, in western Wisconsin’s wooded hills above the Mississippi River. Many decades later she immortalized the location in the first book in her Little House canon, Little House in the Big Woods.

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1932 edition. (Wikipedia)

Today Pepin, which marks the starting point of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway (linking Laura sites across the Midwest) is often the first stop for fans.

For those steeped in the setting Laura described, the initial glimpse of the Pepin homesite can be a bit of a shock.  In my new mystery, Death on the Prairie, protagonist Chloe Ellefson and her sister are taken aback when they arrive:

Chloe felt a puppy’s tail happy wiggle inside when she saw a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside. She pulled into the small lot and parked.

Little House Wayside, Pepin, WI

Then the inner happy wiggle subsided. “But…where are the woods?” she asked. The Wayside was a grassy picnic area, with a replica cabin representing the home were Laura was born. The few saplings sprinkled through the grounds were too young to provide shade. Picnic tables were scattered about, most occupied by other Laura sojourners wearing sunglasses and hats.

“Evidently the Big Woods have become the Big Cornfields.” Kari’s voice was hollow.

clipping, Museum Pepin WI

Clipping showing the Wayside as it looked in 1979 during the official dedication. Death on the Prairie is set in 1983, and the landscape would have looked more stark to Chloe and Kari than it does to visitors today.

The Wayside was created on a triangle of land that had been part of a large modern farm.

countryside

Countryside beyond the Wayside.

Of course I wish that the woods remained,  but on my first visit I was soon caught up in the magic of simply being right there—the place where Laura and Mary played. I wrote a blog post about that visit titled “Looking For Laura,” a phrase I later used as name for the fictional conference Chloe attends in Death on the Prairie.

Laura fans need a place to linger, and the Wayside is important. If you can, take a picnic and give yourself a chance to savor the day.Wayside

Dedicated volunteers in Pepin have also created the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in downtown Pepin. (Open May – October.  It’s always a good idea to check hours before traveling.)

LIW Museum Pepin

Visitors can see Wilder family heirlooms and artifacts relating to local history.

Rose Wilder Lane doily

Rose Wilder Lane was Laura’s daughter.

The Pepin beach and Marina are just a few blocks away.  Although the beach area has changed dramatically since Laura was a child, it’s still a pretty place to stop and reflect.

Lake Pepin is actually a wide stretch in the Mississippi River. Historians believe that the Ingalls family crossed the ice-covered lake a bit north of Pepin (closer to Stockholm) when leaving Wisconsin.

Alfred Waud, 1874

This 1874 print by Alfred Waud suggests the local landscape as it was in Laura’s day.

If you can, take drive along the river on Highway 35, which is quite scenic. If you’re coming from the east/southeast, leave Highway 94 at Osseo and take Highway 10 west, which is also lovely.

Mississippi River backwaters near Pepin

And if you want the true Chloe experience, you can stop in Osseo for coffee and pie at the famous Norske Nook .

NorskeNookCarolHighland_lg

There are other Nook locations, but Osseo is where it all started.  (Photo by Carol Highland, Library of Congress.)

 

NorskeNookCeamCheeseMapleRaisinPie_lg

A waitress told me that the Cream Cheese-Maple-Raisin pie is one of the favorites. The things I do for research…

If you’re eager to visit Pepin, the Museum will also be open Saturday, December 5, 2015, for Pepin’s Hometown Holiday celebration.  Or, put Pepin’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Days (held annually the second full weekend in September) on your 2016 calendar. This festival is also an all-volunteer effort, and it’s charming.

DSCF0705 - Version 2

Some of the excited young “Lauras” at the 2014 event.

Or, simply wait for some soft spring day, and go relive some memories from a favorite childhood book.

KAE cabin

Looking For Laura

August 2, 2011

Like countless other girls, one of my earliest introductions to historical fiction came in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic “Little House” series. Since I went into museum work and now earn my living writing historical novels (or, in the case of my Chloe Ellefson series, novels about history), those books and others like them obviously had a big impact on me.

Although I’ve lived in Wisconsin for decades now, I only recently made my first visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House Wayside, outside Pepin, WI. My older sister was visiting from the east coast. She loved the books too, so we made our way there to the spot where Little House In The Big Woods was set.

The big woods are long gone. Aside from a few trees scattered about the picnic area, the cabin is surrounded by cornfields. (Not suburban sprawl, thank goodness.)

Today, a replica log cabin sits on the site of the original Ingalls cabin. There is no museum. No interpreters. No gift shop.

Aside from a single display, the cabin is largely empty.

My sister and I knew all that, and we went anyway. We wanted to see the spot where Laura and her family had once lived.

When we arrived, two little girls wearing sundresses and bonnets were racing in and out of the cabin.  “They’re so excited,” their mom told me. “We’ve been re-reading the book in the car.”

The next car that parked at the wayside carried three adults. Flanked by a younger couple (her children, perhaps?) an elderly lady walked slowly across the lawn and visited the cabin.

While we lingered, a slow but steady stream of people came and went. One van held what appeared to be three generations of Little House In The Big Woods fans.

Watching the visitors became as meaningful as visiting the site itself. All of us, young and old, had felt compelled to visit this place that we felt we knew so well. What a testament to Wilder’s storytelling! As a reader, it was moving to walk on this ground, so many years after reading the book. As a writer, it was moving to witness the power that stories still have, even in this modern age of computer games and sound bytes.

A brochure printed by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, Inc., of Pepin, Wisconsin says this:  “We trust that all who come to Pepin through the inspiration of Laura’s books will visit …Little House Wayside at the site of her birth.  …It may not be what you expect, but as Laura said, ‘Now is now. It can never be a long time ago.'”

Except in our imaginations, and in the pages of a talented author’s books.

The Sugar Bush

March 26, 2011

Like countless other children, I was introduced to maple sugaring in the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. I was a suburban kid. Descriptions of “sugar snow,” and Garth Williams’ delightful illustrations, were magical.

I was reminded of Wilder’s charming tale last week while visiting Washington Island, WI.  I saw lots of maple trees being tapped, and the air smelled like woodsmoke.

As far as I know, the people who make syrup on Washington Island do so for themselves, their families and friends, or a local restaurant. Two years ago a friend on the island gave me a Snapple bottle filled not with tea, but with syrup. It was a little thinner and paler than what I was used to, and tasted divine.

The sap is as thin and clear as water.

Each year I spend a week writing near Egg Harbor, also part of WI’s Door County peninsula, in late winter or early spring.   That’s how I discovered Jorns’ Sugar Bush.

The home-based outlet is always open.

The Jorns family has been making maple syrup in this area since 1857!

Ferdinand Jorns emigrated from Hamburg, and eventually settled in Door County,

After Ferdinand died, Dora Dow Jorns raised twelve children. One of them was Roland Jorns’ father.

The current master, Roland Jorns, has been making syrup since he was ten years old. The work agrees with him:  Mr. Jorns is 82, and would much rather be working outside than anything else.

Today, with the help of his youngest son, he taps about 6,000 trees. They could double that if they had enough workers. (It’s not just the work of tapping and condensing. Every one of those pails must be washed.)

Mrs. Jorns showed me how the spiles (spouts) have changed over time.

A lot has evolved over the years. Among other updates, Mr. Jorns introduced a reverse osmosis machine in 1978, an innovation that removes 80% of water from the sap and therefore reduces resources needed to produce syrup. His light amber syrup has won many awards. He has also served as president of the Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Council, and represented our state at the North American Maple Syrup Council.

I love stocking up at Jorns’ Sugar Bush, which is open year-round.  I love chatting with Mrs. Jorns, and picking out my purchases in a simple space made special by family mementos.

I love seeing maples being tapped, knowing that spring must be right around the corner.

Two of the thousands of buckets used each year.

And I love the taste of maple syrup so much that I rarely cook or bake with sugar anymore.  I’ve shared the following recipe with readers, and it’s received  rave reviews.

First in the Chloe Ellefson Series

Chloe Ellefson, the protagonist of my series, is not an autobiographical character. We do have a lot in common, though! She’s a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large living history museum where I was once a curator. And we both spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Like me, Chloe loves to cook and bake with local ingredients.

This cake is easy and luscious. I use whole wheat flour, farmers’ market blueberries, free-range eggs from a local farm, and Jorns’ maple syrup. Substitute as your options dictate; the cake will still taste great.


Chloe’s Maple Blueberry Cake

2 c. blueberries, fresh or frozen (don’t thaw)
3 c. flour
½ c. butter, softened
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
¾ c. maple syrup
2 t. vanilla
3 eggs
1 t. baking soda
½ t. salt
6 oz. vanilla yogurt
2 T. lemon juice

Glaze (optional)
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
4 t. lemon juice

In a small bowl, combine blueberries and 2 T. flour.  In a separate bowl, combine the baking soda, salt, and remaining flour.

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and cream cheese.  Add maple syrupe, lemon juice, and vanilla, and beat until mixture is light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with the yogurt.  When everything is well blended, fold in the blueberries.

Transfer to a 10-inch fluted pan well coated with butter or cooking spray.  Bake at 350 degrees for 65-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes.  Remove from a pan to a wire rack.

If desired, whisk glaze ingredients until smooth and drizzle over cake.  Enjoy!

The Gift of Bees

October 1, 2009
Little House Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

Growing up a pastor’s kid in suburban Baltimore, I knew almost nothing about the Midwest and it’s history.

What little I did know I gleaned from books.  Like thousands of other American girls growing up in the 1960s, my first exposure came from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series.   My hardcover copies, graced with Garth Williams’ lovely illustrations, still have a place of honor on my bookshelf.

The first book, Little House in the Big Woods, is rich with the details of life for this family as they made their home in Wisconsin.  For example, I remember being intrigued by the descriptions of Pa getting honey from “a bee tree.”  Before reaching the honey, he needed to chase away a hungry bear.  Pa brought home a wagon’s worth of honey in pails and buckets, two washtubs, and a washboiler, all “heaping full of dripping, golden honeycomb.”

Laura felt sorry for the bees.  “But,” Ingalls Wilder wrote, “Pa said there was lots of honey left for the bees, and there was anotherlarge hollow tree nearby, into which they could move.”

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

Caroline and Charles Ingalls

This scene, like so many in the book, firmly places the Ingalls family’s endeavors within not just their own clearing, but the surrounding natural environment.  To fully appreciate their experience, readers must imagine much more than the methods used to harvest wheat or churn butter, or the joy taken from family gatherings.  As the book’s title makes clear,  the little farm was a tiny part of a much larger historical landscape.

When I started working at Old World Wisconsin, many memories from the “Little House” books suddenly became relevant.  I kept a journal in those early years.  Here’s one July entry:  “I came upon a swarm of bees today as I walked the path from Schulz to Koepsell (two farms in the German area).  I heard them first, and looked up.  They were dark against the sky, and quickly disappeared over the trees.  Their buzzing song was wonderful.”

Twenty-six years have passed since I saw those bees.  I spend a lot of time outdoors, but I have never again seen a swarm passing overhead.

The historians responsible for designing the layout of Old World Wisconsin might have clustered the buildings together, creating an “architectural park” to display the 19th-century homes and service buildings.  Instead they chose to spread the buildings out among the Kettle Moraine’s ponds, prairies, and woods.  Their choice ensured that visitors—and interpreters—can get at least glimpses of the natural world that the people who lived in those homes understood intimately.

No visitors were in sight when I saw the swarm that summer day.  Since I couldn’t share the moment, I simply savored the unexpected dark swirl against the sky, and its “buzzing song.”  One more detail from Little House in the Big Woods shifted from imagination to experience.  And I came one minuscule step closer to understanding the world of the immigrants I spent my days interpreting.