Little House in the Big Woods was first published in 1932. One thing that always confused me was that the books was always listed in the fiction genre, which seemed to go against the whole idea that this woman was writing about her own childhood. Why not categorize it as an autobiography? Or a biography, as she wrote it in the third person? Well, it ends up that the publisher had Ms. Wilder make some important changes to this first book that made the resulting story not 100% accuurate. Namely, he wanted little Laura in the book to be five, not three (the real age), because he didn't think people would believe a person could have all those memories from the age of three. As a result, a whole period of the Ingalls's life was obliterated from the books, since Laura needed to be 6 to 7 years old in the next book, Little House on the Prairie.
Thus while all the tales from her childhood are probably pretty close to the truth, there is most likely some artistic shading of the details here and there. We all do this, really, when we tell a story from our early childhood. Some details stick in our brains and others don't, so we fudge it a little to make the story whole. Some memories -- for me anyway -- mix with other adult retellings and I often wonder how accurate my memories really are. So as I reread this story, I did so with a grain of salt, knowing some of the details were embellished.
So back to the animals. Within the first chapter, she recounts butchering day.
Then one day Uncle Henry came riding out of the Big Woods. He had come to help Pa butcher. Ma's big butcher knife was already sharpened, and Uncle Henry had brought Aunt Polly's butcher knife.
Near the pigpen Pa and Uncle Henry built a bonfire, and heated a great kettle of water over it. When the water was boiling they went to kill the hog. Then Laura ran and hid her head on the bed and stopped her ears with her fingers so she could not hear the hog squeal.
"It doesn't hurt him, Laura," Pa said. "We do it so quickly." But she did not want to hear him squeal.
In a minute she took one finger cautiously out of an ear, and listened. The hog had stopped squealing. After that, Butchering Time was great fun."
The story then goes on to describe the process of butchering the animal and preparing the animal parts for winter storage. Laura and Mary even go on to play a game of ball with the pig's blown-up bladder. So I read this all, as I mentioned, with a grain of salt. Not only for the accuracy of the child's long-ago memories, but as a reminder to myself that this was a very different time.
However, I find it interesting that she recalls being upset at the pig's being hurt. (I wonder if Pa actually believed that the pig didn't feel anything.) The thought occurred to me, "How many omnivore or carnivore babies or juveniles get upset when an animal is killed?" On all those National Geographic scenes, the young lions are totally into it. You never see one hiding behind the tree, waiting for the killing part to be over. Granted, some human children don't mind this and find it fascinating. But why are there so many children who are bothered by it? Doesn't that say something about where our tendencies lie? I've heard the scenario a couple of times that if you place a bunny and an apple in a crib with a mobile baby, the baby is not going to eat the bunny. He's going to play with it and snuggle it and you'll find him gnawing on the apple.
But it was the ending of the book that really captured me.
As soon as they woke in the morning they ran to the window, but there was no deer hanging in the trees. Pa had never before gone out to get a deer and come home without one. Laura and Mary did not know what to think.
After supper Pa took Laura on his knee while Mary sat close in her little chair. And Pa said:
"Now I'll tell you why you had no fresh meat to eat today.
"When I went out to the deer-lick, I climbed up into a big oak tree. I found a place on a branch where I was comfortable and could watch the deer-lick. I was near enough to shoot any animal that came to it, and my gun was loaded and ready on my knee.
"There I sat and waited for the moon to rise and light the clearing.
"I was a little tired from chopping wood all day yesterday, and I must have fallen asleep, for I found myself opening my eyes.
"The big, round moon was just rising. I could see it between the bare branches of the trees low in the sky. And right against it I saw a deer standing. His head was up and he was listening. His great, branching horns stood out above his head. He was dark against the moon.
"It was a perfect shot. But he was so beautiful, he looked so strong and free and wild, that I couldn't kill him. I sat there and looked at him, until he bounded away into the dark woods.
"Then I remembered that Ma and my little girls were waiting for me to bring home some good fresh venison. I made up my mind that next time I would shoot.
"After a while a big bear came lumbering out into the open. He was so fat from feasting on berries and roots and grubs all summer that he was nearly as large as two bears. His head swayed from side to side as he went on all fours across the clear space in the moonlight, until he came to a rotten log. He smelled it, and listened. Then he pawed it apart and sniffed among the broken pieces, eating up the fat white grubs.
"Then he stood up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking all around him. He seemed to be suspicious that something was wrong. He was trying to see or smell what it was.
"He was a perfect mark to shoot at, but I was so much interested in watching him, and the woods were so peaceful in the moonlight, that I forgot all about my gun. I did not even think of shooting him, until he was waddling away into the woods.
"'This will never do,' I thought. 'I'll never get any meat this way.'
" I settled myself in the tree and waited again. This time I was determined to shoot the next game I saw.
"The moon had risen higher and the moonlight was bright in the little open place. All around it the shadows were dark among the trees.
"After a long while, a doe and her yearling fawn came stepping daintily out of the shadows. They were not afraid at all. They walked over to the place where I had sprinkled the salt, and they both licked up a little of it.
"Then they raised their heads and looked at each other. the fawn stepped over and stood beside the doe. They stood there together, looking at the woods and the moonlight. Their large eyes were shining and soft.
"I just sat there looking at them, until they walked away among the shadows. Then I climbed down out of the tree and came home."
Lara whispered in his ear, "I'm glad you didn't shoot them!"
Mary said, "We can eat bread and butter."
Pa lifted Mary up out of her chair and hugged them both together.
"You're my good girls," he said. "And now it's bedtime. Run along, while I get my fiddle."
So assuming this was accurate, what does it say? To me, I believe that most of us don't want to kill and would prefer not to do so. Why else do so many people not want to know what happens in a slaughterhouse? If we're such huge carnivores or omnivores, it shouldn't bother us, right? It should make us salivate. But it doesn't.
And we don't run after the squirrels in our yard and feast on them with those "canine teeth" people swear make us carnivores. (I'd like to see someone try to dismember an animal using those teeth.) We don't go by a field of cows and have our stomachs grumble. Most people can only seem to tolerate the idea of eating an animal when it looks nothing like an animal. That doesn't strike me as a very carnivorous trait.
So that's some food for thought. I love rereading old favorites. Some interesting things percolate from these reads!
So, in closing,
1) Don't forget to sign up for the giveaway! (You have only until August 23, 2011...)
2) Here's a video on the making of the Little House television series that gets me all choked up. I'm such a sucker for Michael Landon's show. (And for Michael Landon. Who do I think I'm kidding?)
3) If you loved the show too, two books worth checking out are Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated and Prairie Tale: A Memoir.