I first read this book, like many women my age, as a young girl. At some point my mother bought me the boxed set illustrated by Garth Williams. Since my youngest daughter is now reading at a fourth/fifth-grade level, I thought it was time for us to tackle these as part of our reading together time.
What a gift to me. As a girl, I focused on the adventures and wondered at how anyone could live without stores or in a world where Christmas gifts were a rag doll and peppermint stick and kids were thrilled. I still remembered Pa’s encounters with bears and the girls sleeping in the loft. What a different read as an adult, especially one who has lost her father.
This book is a love song to Pa. Pa is Laura’s playmate, her security, her provider, and her moral compass. Ma is there, but Pa is at the center. Ma and the girls go about their days, but the action begins when Pa walks in the door, hangs up his rifle, and begins to tell stories and, if they’re lucky, play his fiddle. Pa can do anything. He shoots deer and bears and processes the meat and hides. He carries hides to town on his back and comes home through the dark woods at night without a gun for safety. He rushes a bear with a club he grabbed from the forest floor and has enough humor to laugh at himself when he realizes it’s a tree stump. He teaches the girls to clean a gun and refill bullets. Pa teaches them gentle moral stories by telling of his own childhood or retelling stories his father had told of his. When Laura strikes Mary, Pa whips her, but then pulls her into his lap to comfort her and, when she asks if he prefers golden or brown hair, he replies that his own hair is brown. Pa is clever and brings a threshing machine to the neighborhood from which everyone benefits. He appreciate progress while valuing tradition. Near the end of the novel, Laura shows again Pa’s soft side. The family had not had fresh meat since winter and it’s now fall, but Pa comes back from the woods, rifle in hand, without meat. He tells them the story of letting a buck pass because he was lost in its beauty, then a bear, then a doe and her yearling fawn. Pa kills game to feed his family, not because he doesn’t value life.
The novel closes with a passage that took my breath away. As a child I’m sure it slipped right past me because it was not an adventure, but a piece of wisdom. Laura writes, “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 the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gentle rocking and knitting. She 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 not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Unless you are writing about the adventures of your childhood and the eyes through which you saw your father from the distance of decades when you father is gone and your love and longing for him has sharpened the value of what used to be now. What a gift to herself to relive those days and capture those memories so that little girls and older women could relive them as now and Pa through the eyes of his little Laura could be never forgotten.