rereading Little House in the Big Woods: violence against children

I recently finished reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic Little House in the Big Woods (1932). Like so many people–and by people I pretty much mean women–I have fond memories of the Little House books. Apparently, I didn’t have especially thorough memories of them, though.

Because I sure didn’t remember the extensive and rather enthusiastic references to whipping, spanking, and the general “tanning” of “hides.” Practically all of Pa’s lovingly-remembered fireside tales involve a child ‘earning’ some form of physical attack from an adult. After a few, Noah asked if we could skip those, because he found reading them stressful. And no wonder.

Laura, who is very young, has internalized this logic. On Sundays, the children aren’t allowed to do freaking anything, including playing with the dog; when Laura cries in frustration and boredom one Sunday, “she knew she deserved a spanking” (86).

There’s something chilling about the matter-of fact tone here:

“That makes no difference,” said Pa. “It is what I say that you must mind.”

Then he took down a strap from the wall, and he whipped Laura with the strap. (185)

Santa Claus might bring you a switch, if you’re bad. And the universe at large may punish you justly, too: when a child is “naughty” and ends up feverish, covered head-to-toe with yellow jacket stings, Pa announces blandly “It served the little liar right” (211). Pa is supposed to be this awesome guy, the warm and wise daddy. I hate him.

I’ll tell you one thing: when the book articulates the idea that “children should be seen and not heard,” Noah found it puzzling to the point of laughable. And good on him, too.

(Also, Eric says to mention that this is the most boring book ever. This is not, strictly speaking, even close to true. And I rather like the paired stories of mistaking a stump for a bear and a bear for a cow. But I get where he’s coming from.)

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2 Comments

  1. Erin
    Posted 28 January 2013 at 5:29 PM | Permalink

    Oh god don’t even read the second one that’s so full of racism the pages almost spontaneously combust. But yeah whenever people complain about how children are so “misbehaved” because of “permissive” parenting, I think of Pa and Laura, and beating children into compliance. Laura and Mary are well behaved, polite, submissive, unselfish. What happens to poor Laura’s soul? I mean that seriously. Her whole life is circumscribed by absolute parental authority and norms of feminine behavior. Are we supposed to admire this world? I don’t, and I don’t think it creates emotionally balanced people. But I do still love the books.

  2. Posted 30 January 2013 at 4:19 PM | Permalink

    You know, I remember reading those and also finding a lot of things laughable or thinking the rules were really harsh, but putting them into a mental box labeled “history”. As in, this is how they used to do things, just like they used to have covered wagons and cornhusk dolls, and now we’re updated and smarter than that. I wonder if I had understood, in my happy childhood bubble, how many kids are still raised that way, if I would have been more upset by it – and how I would react to it now. But I really loved those books as a kid and I agree with you that they aren’t boring!

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