Little author in the big woods : a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder /

"Many girls in elementary and middle school fall in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. What they don't always realize is that Wilder's books are autobiographical. This narrative biography describes more of the details of the young Laura's real life as a you...

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Main Author: McDonough, Yona Zeldis.
Other Authors: Thermes, Jennifer, (Illustrator)
Format: Book
Published:New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
Edition:First edition.
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ONE Early Journeys 1870-1871 Wisconsin-Kansas-Wisconsin The Wisconsin woods were very big. The house was very small. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was small too, a little girl in the big, big woods. She lived in a log cabin with her Pa, Ma, and older sister, Mary Amelia. The trees surrounding the house stood proud and tall. Oak, ash, and elm. Maple, butternut, and birch. The dense woods were home to many of the animals Pa hunted and trapped for their meat and skins. He farmed, too, in the clearings where the forest opened up and the land was exposed to the sun and the wind. To Laura, the woods around the cabin must have seemed vast and endless. There were no other houses, buildings, or streets, just the trees and the occasional sight of an owl as it flapped its great wings against the sky. In the winter, glittering white snow piled up against the sides of the cabin. In spring, the woods and fields were filled with flowers. Laura and Mary played outside, watched by their Ma and Jack, the fiercely loyal spotted bulldog that was their family pet. They had no reason to think of leaving. Everything they ever needed or wanted was right there. But Pa had other ideas. He had a yen to go out west. He wanted even more land, more space, and more opportunity. He'd heard that out west there were deer, antelope, prairie chickens, and wild turkeys. The land was level and the soil fertile. And best of all, it was free! In 1862, Congress had passed the Homestead Act. This meant that the United States government was offering 160 free acres of land to people willing to settle on the prairie and farm for at least five years. Once Pa learned that, he was all set to pack up and leave Pepin behind. But in the Ingalls family, Pa and Ma made all the big decisions together. In the evenings, after the chores were done, they sat by the table and talked over the pros and cons. They would be leaving their families behind. The trip was dangerous. Ma loved their snug little cabin and saw no reason to leave it. Pa pointed out that the land cost nothing. They could farm and make money. He could afford to build a frame house, and to buy a buggy and a team of horses. He promised Caroline fine clothes and jewelry too. Long into the night they talked. And the next night, and the night after that. Soon it was decided. They would go to Kansas! Once they made the decision, preparations for the long trip began. First Pa had to fit a white, waterproof canvas over their wagon's curved bows. The wagon would become their home while on their journey, and even after they arrived; it would take some time to build a new house and they would need shelter in the meantime. Then Ma started on the packing. Into the wagon went their clothes, dishes, books, and bedding. Patchwork quilts and tablecloths, pots and pans. Pa's fiddle rode up front, cushioned on a pile of quilts. In late April 1870, everything was ready. Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura said good-bye to all their relatives. Then they climbed into the wagon, with faithful Jack following alongside. Pa drove the horses to the edge of Lake Pepin. Fortunately, the lake was still covered in ice, so they could get the wagon across it. On the other side of the lake was Minnesota. For weeks they lived in the wagon, crossing the state of Minnesota, then traveling south through Iowa and Missouri, and finally heading west into the wide-open state of Kansas. Laura was too little to remember the trip. But Ma and Pa told her so many stories about it that the stories became a part of her. Eventually, it was as if she did remember the covered wagon, the unfamiliar landscape filled with woods, hills, creeks, and rivers, and the little rabbits that hid in the grass and prairie chickens that fluttered in the road. It was a long and hard journey. Sometimes it poured. Other times it was blisteringly hot. But when they stopped for the night, Pa played his fiddle and Ma cooked a good supper over the campfire. Even on the lonely, desolate prairie, Ma managed to make the girls feel at home. The family came to the Verdigris River, and when the horse pulled the wagon across, they found themselves in the frontier town of Independence, Kansas. But Pa had not come all this way to settle in a town. He wanted the expansive spaces of the prairie. They got back in the wagon and continued on for another 13 miles southwest. He kept looking until he found a spot that seemed just right. It was near a stream. The stream played a big part in his decision because they needed to be near water. And the trees that grew along the banks could be used to build their house and provide wood for a fire. Pa started in on the new house straight away. First he had to find the right trees--only the straightest ones would do. Next he had to cut them down and haul them to the building site in his wagon. It took several days to prepare enough logs--about 50 logs in all. Then he started to build. Day by day the walls of the new cabin grew higher, and then higher still. When it was high enough, he made a temporary skeleton roof from slender saplings. Over this he tied the canvas wagon cover. Later he would put on a more secure roof, made from wooden logs that had been split into thin slabs. But there were other, more important things to do first. He had to dig a well. And he had to build a log barn, to protect the horses from thieves and from the packs of wolves that roamed the prairie. After the building came the backbreaking work of plowing. Although Pa often traded work with neighbors for help with building, he worked long days alone in the fields with his sod plow, breaking up the tough grasslands into fields where he could plant. He planned to grow wheat, potatoes, corn, and other crops. The tall grass was thick and not easy to cut. The underground root system was so strong that Pa had to get off the plow and hack it with his ax. But he was strong and determined. He got the job done. Laura and Mary were too little to help with building a house or plowing the land, and Ma could not do much because she was watching them. But as the girls grew older, they pitched in more and more. Although Ma and Pa didn't meet too many settlers, they did meet Native Americans, who in those days were called Indians. They did not know it then, but they had settled on an Indian reserve. Sometimes the Indians they saw came to their cabin and asked for food. Other times they just barged right in and took it. Ma never tried to stop them. She and Pa thought it best to try to get along with their Indian neighbors, not fight with them. One day when Laura was three, Pa took her and Mary on a long walk in the prairie. He was taking them to see an Indian camp. The Indians were all off on a hunting trip, so the camp was empty. But Laura and Mary were excited to find the ashes where the fires had been, and the holes from the tent poles. Then Laura saw something bright shining up from the dust. When she leaned down to pick it up, she saw that it was a bead. And look, there were more of them! Red, green, and blue beads, strewn around the camp. Since the beads were scattered all over, it didn't seem like the Indians cared too much about them, and it didn't feel like stealing. Laura and Mary filled their apron pockets. Pa helped. They didn't leave until the sun started to go down. Laura couldn't wait to show Ma the beads. She would be so surprised. But Ma had her own surprise. They found her dozing in bed, holding the girls' brand-new baby sister with jet-black hair in her arms! Mrs. Scott, a neighbor, had helped with the delivery. Back then there were few hospitals. Babies were born at home with help from family members, friends, or neighbors. Ma named the new baby Caroline Celestia and decided they would call her Carrie. Life with the new baby was even busier. Ma had all her regular chores of cooking, cleaning, washing, and mending. Added to that was taking care of the baby. Soon Ma and Pa noticed that the Indians were showing up more often. They were from the Osage tribe. Pa had not known that he had built the cabin along one of their old trails. He had been in such a hurry to start that he hadn't filed a proper claim on the land. If he had, he might have chosen to build somewhere else. The Indians were angry with the white settlers for moving onto their land. There was talk that the Indians might decide to wage war on them. Night after night, Laura and her family could hear their loud chanting and war cries. The sound was terrifying--even worse than the howling of wolves. Meanwhile, far away in Washington D.C., the government was trying to decide what to do about the Indians. Over the years, white settlers had been forcing them off their ancestral lands, and there was now a lot of tension between the two groups. Feeling threatened, the Indians were attacking the settlers. The settlers were retaliating against the Indians. Something had to be done. In 1870, Congress voted to pay the Osage $1.25 an acre for their land in Kansas. They also voted to give them new land in Oklahoma. The Osage accepted their offer. They would leave Kansas and head to Oklahoma. Laura and her family were watching on the day the Indians left. To Laura, the long line of Osage on foot and horseback was fascinating. She loved the different-colored ponies and was curious about the children riding bareback. Some of them didn't even wear clothes! After the Indians left, things settled down. No more surprise visitors. No more war cries in the night. Fall turned to winter, and the Ingalls family all came down with whooping cough. Kindly Dr. Tann--an African-American doctor who had treated the Osage--came to help. A lot of folk cures were prescribed for whooping cough: eating the skin of a snake, drinking white ant tea, tying a bag of live bugs around the throat. Perhaps Dr. Tann used some of these methods to cure Laura and her family. Perhaps not. Whatever he did, it worked, because they survived and got well again. Soon after they had recovered, Pa got a letter from Gustaf Gustafson, the man who had bought their house in the Big Woods. Mr. Gustafson had been paying off his debt a little at a time, but he was unable to keep up with the payments. Instead, he wanted to head west and asked Pa if he would take the house back. Ma thought of the time and effort that they had put into their prairie home. What a waste it had been. But Pa didn't see it that way. He thought of the hunting in the Big Woods and the fishing in Lake Pepin. He was willing to go back and reclaim their former home. As they always did, Ma and Pa talked the matter over. And in the end, the lure of the journey won out. The covered wagon would be packed up once more, and the Ingalls family would make their way back to Wisconsin. Text copyright © 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jennifer Thermes Excerpted from Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Yona Zeldis McDonough All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.