Little House in the Big City

In 1976, when I was in the 4th grade and had discovered the joys of reading books, my mother shared with me her own childhood literary passion. One afternoon, in a sun-dappled room in our old Victorian home, she told me that when she was my age, she had discovered and loved the epic pioneering Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I took my mother's recommendation and began reading the first book in series, Little House in the Big Woods, first published April 6, 1932.

I brought that little yellow paperback to school. On its cover was a beautiful, tenderhearted illustration by the talented artist Garth Williams--the very same illustrator of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. The cover of the Little House book depicted the Ingalls family in their one-room cabin set deep in the woods of Pepin, Wisconsin in the early 1870s. In this illustration, the patriarch of the family, Charles Ingalls, affectionately called "Pa" by his beloved little girls, is seated. He has a wooly brown beard and his eldest daughter Mary is on the chair with him, standing behind him with her arms draped around his strong shoulders. Caroline Ingalls, "Ma," stands in the scene, holding her infant daughter Carrie up to her cheek. The family looks on towards the foreground, where the younger Ingalls daughter, Laura, is holding a new doll, a joyous new Christmas gift. Until this point in Laura Ingalls' young life, she had only a corn-cob that she blanketed and clutched through the night, a make-shift doll, a necessity for a family facing constant economic hardship.

I carried my copy of Little House in the Big Woods day in and day out to Myrtle G. Schumann elementary school, where I attended the 4th grade in Long Lake, Minnesota. When it came time for the daily hour of study hall, I read this book and fell enraptured by its themes of familial love, the dangers of the pioneering life, and the bonds between daughters and fathers. When things were particularly bleak for the Ingalls family, the winter howling outside their lone log cabin in the deeps of the forest, inside, there was always a fire in the hearth. As the Ingalls girls burrowed under heavy quilts to go to bed, Pa told them stories and played his fiddle until his daughters drifted off.

Boys teased me for reading these books. The Little House stories were for girls, they said. I didn't possess the insight or maturity then to understand that that kind of thinking is a cliche. For whatever reason, most likely because I loved the books, I ignored those boys and their jibes and I just hid my paperbacks a little lower to the desk and continued reading, undaunted. I barreled through the entire Little House series that year.

Today, more than thirty years later, I have my own beloved daughters--ages twelve, eight, and four. When my first daughter was born, I rushed out to the local bookseller and bought a hardcover copy of Little House in the Big Woods, hoping that one day she would discover in the pages the very same magic that my mother had found as a little girl and that she shared with me.

Perhaps being a bit overzealous, when my eldest turned four, I showed her the Little House in the Big Woods book I had purchased for her upon her arrival in the world on May 9, 2004. Her honey-brown eyes zeroed in on the drawing of the smiling Laura Ingalls holding her doll.

"Can we read it tonight?" my daughter asked, excitedly. "Can we?"

"Sure," I said.

And at bedtime, after the bubble bath, after the teeth had been brushed, after the comfy pjs had been wiggled into, Mai-Linh, my little love of a girl, climbed into her bed and we began reading Little House in the Big Woods. And she listened. Closely. My daughter loves books. She always has. Ever since my mentor and friend Ray Bradbury told me to place books in her crib when she was just a few days old. "So she gets used to books being around her," he wisely instructed.

And so, to my utter amazement, and to my wife's glee, my daughter, Mai-Linh, sat night after night, under her covers, and listened to three or four or five pages of the Little House book. She was keyed in. Engrossed. And she asked questions:

"Why do they live alone in the woods? Why has Laura never seen a town before? Why does she have a corn-cob for a doll?"

And then there was the more difficult question:

"Where is Laura today?" which launched us into a long and delicate discussion of mortality. Mai-Linh has had an unfair exposure to this subject in her young life. When she was two, our beloved family pet died. "Sage" was an old soul of a six pound, seven ounce Maltese--gentle, sweet, easy-going, breath that could strip car paint, and a tiny canine heart that brimmed with love.

In November 2007, in a tragedy that makes no sense at all (and will never make sense) my kind and good Mother-in-Law passed away in on the job accident. Mai-Linh was three-and-a-half. Old enough to ask questions. Old enough to wonder about death. Old enough to ask what happens after we are gone.

We have carried on through these deeply sad experiences, as all families must do, and we have found joy in little things like reading books before bedtime to our children.

And so, over the course of six weeks, we read Little House in the Big Woods in its entirety. Oh, we had to skip the occasional graphic section on hunting and skinning an animal (actually, there are several of these passages), but we read the book all the way through. And when we had finished and closed the book, Mai-Linh took it and clutched it to her chest and she closed her eyes and said, "That's the greatest book in the whole world."

She fell asleep that night holding Little House in the Big Woods in her tiny arms.

A few weeks later, my wife and I took our girls to the local library. It is near our Chicago home. It is a spacious, well-stocked, regional library that we love and visit weekly. When we think about moving to a new neighborhood and a bigger house, we inevitably say, "But what about the library?"

And so, on that breezy summer evening, Mai-Linh asked to go the library after dinner. We did just that. My wife had Le-Anh, our peaceful, happy, little one strapped to her chest in a sling. Le-Anh was one at the time. Our third born beauty was still years off from arriving. When Le-Anh was a baby she smiled all the time; she went with the flow and giggled and gleamed and drooled with the outcropping of first baby teeth. That night, on out way to the library, Mai-Linh wanted to ride in the stroller--something she hadn't done much of since she learned the freedom of walking.

While we roamed through the children's section of the library, my wife found a copy of the second book in the Laura Ingalls series, the classic, Little House on The Prairie. She showed it to Mai-Linh, whose eyes beamed.

"Can we check it out?!"

Of course, we did. And we walked home, Le-Anh still smiling in the sling and Mai-Linh sitting in the stroller holding close her paperback copy of the Little House on the Prairie. She was getting tired, her eyes growing heavier as the day grew dark. The sun was setting all orange out over western Illinois and the air had that summer night stillness to it that, yes, one can even find in the big city.

Mai-Linh fell asleep that night, in the stroller, as we walked home from the library. Little House on the Prairie had to wait another day.

But that halcyon summer moment was not lost on me. It's a moment I owed to my mother, gone now for a too-long 21 years. I am indebted to her for introducing me to Laura Ingalls. And as my young family and I strolled down the darkening, leaf-canopied streets towards our own little house, it reminded me of the beautiful ending of Little House in the Big Woods, the book Mai-Linh had recently finished.

It is getting late on a cold and bitter winter's night and Laura and her sister Mary have climbed into their trundle beds. As they always do, after they have said their prayers and snuggled deep under warm covers, as Ma sits in a chair and knits, as the fire burns and crackles in the hearth, Pa takes out his fiddle and plays a sweet and melodious lament. In this final scene in the book, Pa glides his bow across the fiddle's strings and sings the old New Year's Eve standby, "Auld Lang Syne."

"Shall old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?"

In the light of the fireplace, when the song is done, Laura asks:

"What are the days of auld lang syne, Pa?"

"They are the days of a long time ago," Pa said. "Go to sleep, now."

And as the book concludes, it reads:

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle,
softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the
Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on a bench by the hearth,
the fireplace gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening
on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and
knitting.

She thought to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight
and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought,
because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

That night, walking home with my family, I couldn't help but think those words myself and smile.

Now is now.