The Book that Made Me a Reader
Christina Baker Kline on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s
Little House in the Big Woods
Christina Baker Kline (Orphan Train) will appear at the Center with Amor Towles (Rules of Civility) to discuss her new novel, A Piece of the World, on April 5th. RSVP here to see these two great writers in conversation.
“Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs. The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.” Is there not a hint of Hemingway in these opening lines of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1871 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age narrative? This—the first in her series of eight novels for children—is the book that made me a reader.
I was six years old; we had recently moved to Maine from Tennessee, and my father read it aloud to my sister Cynthia and me, one chapter at a time, before we went to sleep. As soon as he reached the end, he started on the next one, Little House on the Prairie, which inspired the TV show (which I liked well enough—though it always bothered me that Pa was beardless on TV, unlike the Pa in the book and my own Pa). While my father made his way through the series with us, night after night, I re-read Little House in the Big Woods by myself, sounding out the words.
Laura’s life was hard, harder than mine (which felt hard enough, starting first grade in a strange new place with a funny accent that other kids teased me about), and I was emboldened by her example. Even more than Wilder’s deceptively simple prose, the homey, comforting illustrations by Garth Williams provided assurance that Pa would keep the family alive and Ma would keep them clothed and fed and Laura would figure out how to evade one calamity after another. If that family in the big woods could survive bears and “huge wild cats” and blizzards, I could endure Mary Snow Elementary School. By the time I was twelve I must’ve read every book in that series at least half a dozen times. Many years later, I read Wilder’s posthumously published memoir Pioneer Girl, and learned that her real life was a little more complicated than the version she created to be read by (and to) children—as real life usually is. But I am grateful that she was able to convey the sights and smells and sounds of her pioneer childhood in a way that triggered the imagination of this lonely six-year-old girl, turning her into a passionate reader. And I have no doubt that my early obsession with the Little House books led me to create female characters in my two recent novels, Orphan Train and A Piece of the World, who must dig deep to find the resources to survive in remote and inhospitable landscapes.
Christina Baker Kline is the author of the novel A Piece of the World (2017), about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World. Kline has written five other novels—Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines—and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Her 2013 novel Orphan Train spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1. Her adaptation of Orphan Train for young readers is Orphan Train Girl (coming out May 2017). Kline lives in Montclair, New Jersey, and Southwest Harbor, Maine, with her husband, David, and their three sons.