Lucy Larcom was one of the editors of Our Young Folks and a popular writer for other periodicals; her memoir, A New England Girlhood, is a standard source for those exploring the childhood of early 19th-century white New England women. In “Red Riding-Hood”, she interprets a popular folktale, not retelling it, but distilling it to the moral a reader could draw from it.

Like all the folktales we love, “Little Red Riding Hood” is capable of many interpretations. Just finding a version of the story to stick to is complicated: many versions have Red rescued at the end; many versions have her swallowed by the wolf—the end! (She’s disobeyed her mother, who told her not to dawdle on her way to grandma’s house.) Red’s cloak has been interpreted as the blood of menstruation; it’s been described as the red sky of dawn. Red has been interpreted as the sun swallowed by the night; she’s been interpreted as a young person undergoing a puberty rite. The wolf commonly gets interpreted as the danger that surrounds us: the night, the harshness of winter, the two-legged predators we may meet in everyday life.

Lucy Larcom makes Red into a careless innocent shirking her duty to her grandmother, and the wolf into … something mysterious and unpleasant. The wolf, in fact, doesn’t even enter the poem; it’s a shadow of something unnerving, a hint that unpleasantness awaits girls who don’t stick to the straight path, a warning that in a sunny landscape “a wolf may lurk among the flowers.” The emphasis here is on Red, who must understand that “[s]turdier feet than yours have stood/ Careless on ruin’s brink.” To an adult reader, there’s an unnervingly adult layer of interpretation; but to a child, it was a reminder that it was important to do one’s duty—a common moral in 19th-century works for children.
“Red Riding-Hood,” by Lucy Larcom (from Our Young Folks, February 1869; p. 127)

Well, little Red Riding-Hood,

Pleasant it was to play

In the green fields and the shady wood

Through a golden summer day.

Wrong, was it, plucking the flowers,

Watching the redbreast’s flight,

All heedless of hurrying hours

And grandmamma’s doleful plight?

Poor little Red Riding-Hood!

Wolves, and not babies, think;

Sturdier feet than yours have stood

Careless on ruin’s brink.

Buds over the door-sill twined

Laugh in the breezeless blue;

And wise fear ruffles not the mind

Of a girl-bud young as you.

Dear little Red Riding-Hood,

Sorry enough you are!

Grandmamma? O, she is kind and good;

And you did n’t stray so far!

Nevertheless, nevertheless,

In this tangled world of ours,

The end of wandering none can guess,

And a wolf may lurk among flowers.

Copyright 1999-2019, Pat Pflieger
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