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.)