By Jennifer L. Rogala
Writer's Infusion Critiquer
Several years ago, I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic Little House in the Big Woods. I don’t remember loving or hating the book when I first read it way back in the fourth grade, but I was surprised by my horrified reaction to the book after reading the first chapter as an adult. I didn’t know how my animal-loving kids would react, or if I would even let them read it.
The book starts with five-year-old Laura describing the family’s preparation for the coming winter. The prep is necessary for their survival and takes weeks to complete. One task is butchering the pig. Laura doesn’t want to miss out on Butchering Time because it’s “great fun” for everyone - except the pig.
First, they slaughter the pig by slicing its throat. Then Pa boils the body until it’s scalded, scrapes any hair off the skin with a butcher knife, hangs the carcass from a tree, and carves out its insides. Then comes the “great fun” part. Pa takes the pig’s bladder, blows it up like a balloon, and ties the end with a string so that Laura and her sister Mary can play ball with it. They roast the pig’s tail on a stick and eat it the way we do marshmallows at a bonfire. My first reaction to this scene was horror. My kids would be devastated when the pig dies. Remember Babe? Remember Wilbur, Piglet, and Porky?
The gore continues when Ma takes over. She scrapes the pig’s skull and boils it so all of the meat falls off the bone. She finely chops the meat, seasons it, and lets it cool. This is called head cheese, which is a jellied, seasoned loaf made of the pig’s head meat - including the tongue and brains (Eww!). Ma chops anything that’s left and molds it into sausage balls. The bones go to the dog. Nothing is wasted, and Laura ate everything on her plate. I can’t even get my kids to eat the crust of their sandwiches.
By the end of the two-day pig slaughter extravaganza, they have bacon, sausages, head cheese (Eww!), jars of lard, cracklings, and kegs of white, salted pork. In the attic hangs smoked hams and shoulders.
Although my initial reaction to the pig slaughter scene was horror, by the time I finished the book, I had a renewed appreciation for pioneers like the Ingalls family and the hardships they faced just to survive. My children would learn so much from the Ingalls' hard work and perseverance.
I’m lucky to live in the big city. While I have the benefit of driving to the supermarket, Pa had to walk six miles through the snow carrying furs on his back to trade for sugar and salt at the closest store. My kids can grab a candy bar from the checkout aisle, but Laura didn’t get her first piece of candy until she was five, and it was so special to her that she couldn’t bring herself to eat it. And while my family has access to forms of entertainment that are too numerous to list, Laura had only one doll, no books, and was stuck indoors for three months every winter.
I realized what a hypocrite I was. What was I thinking? I mean, I eat bacon at breakfast, grilled chicken for lunch, and turkey on Thanksgiving. I buy a real tree every year for Christmas. I wear leather shoes and suede jackets. I take medicines that were tested on mice or rabbits. I watch football and admire the beautiful spiral Tom Brady puts on the pigskin.
I’m not about to switch to a vegan diet or clear out my medicine cabinet. But I have found myself reevaluating what I considered inconveniences in my life. Tasks like laundry, grocery shopping, and loading the dishwasher don’t seem so daunting anymore. And yes, my daughters will read the whole Little House series. Shame on me. I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, and I was considering creating a do-not-read list for my kids. I was going to, gulp, censor a Classic like Little House in the Big Woods. Now that was the biggest horror for me.