The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Review

I love Laura Ingalls Wilder, and first read her “Little House” books as a child. I’ve read them several times since — when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I read them all again for a reading project for class. I read them again to my school classes. I read them again to my own girls. Every year, Barbara has a Laura Ingalls Wilder reading challenge, and this year for the challenge I read my favorite of that series, The Long Winter.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

There’s just something about The Long Winter. It’s so vivid. It has always made me feel so bad for the Ingalls family, and for all pioneers, really. Winter is depressing now, but it’s nothing compared to what people endured 150 years ago.

The Long Winter

Laura is 13 in this book, although some liberties have been taken here. Her future husband, Almanzo, is said to be 19. However, in real life there are 10 years between them. I did a little research, and the winter described in the book is supposed to be that of 1880-1881, when Laura would indeed have turned 14 (her birthday is in February). So, Almanzo would really have been 24 at that time.

The book begins with various events that foreshadow the challenges to come. Near their DeSmet, South Dakota home, Laura and Pa find a muskrat house with the thickest walls Pa has ever seen. Animals flee south to a larger extent than usual. Pa says, “I just don’t like it — the feel of the weather.” And most ominous of all is an old Indian who walks into the general store, warning the men there of a harsh winter ahead, one with “heap big snow” that comes around only every 21st year.

Surveyor's House in De Smet, where the Ingalls family lived for a time, but not during the Long Winter -- they lived in "Pa's store," which apparently no longer exists. -- public domain

Surveyor’s House in De Smet, where the Ingalls family lived for a time, but not during the Long Winter — they lived in “Pa’s store,” which was torn down after WW I. — public domain photo

Tough Times

Each time I read The Long Winter, I begin to feel like I’m there in the small house downtown with the Ingalls family, always watching for a cloud in the northwest, listening for the blizzard winds to hit the house yet again, waking to nailheads turned white and snow on the blankets. When, late in the book, Laura complains of “everything moving slowly” and nothing seeming real, we can almost feel her cabin fever and hunger-induced deprived state. The winter truly seems unbelievable, with a drift once covering the entire first floor of the house (Laura watches horses go by outside, level with the second floor). Pa digs a tunnel from the house to the barn so he can travel between the two unbothered by the winds. The family survives (barely) by continually grinding wheat for flour in the coffee grinder, when flour has run out. Wood is gone, and so they also twist hay into sticks to burn. And just when you think that the men may get a chance to dig out a train headed into town with supplies, another blizzard hits. It’s hard not to feel the hopelessness and helplessness.

Yep, it was bad -- train stuck in snow near the Ingalls' home - March 29, 1881 -- public domain

Yep, it was bad — train stuck in snow near the Ingalls’ home – March 29, 1881 — public domain

When much of the town nears the point of starvation, Cap Garland and Laura’s future husband Almanzo make a risky 20-mile trip, searching for a man who, according to rumor, has wheat. They make it back just as the next blizzard hits. And of course, by “wheat” don’t think of wheat flour. This is the grain kernels, which still need to be ground in order to bake.

Laura’s Personality

I found it interesting that bits of Laura’s personality start to come out in this book. In the earlier books, she is a child. But in this one, we see sparks from her. There appears to be a bit of rivalry between her and older sister Mary, although Laura seems to feel conflicted about this since Mary has become blind due to scarlet fever. Mary is that person we all know who is just too good to be true — and that can become a little annoying at times. When Ma suggests that the family put away some magazines that have arrived until Christmas, so that there will be something to enjoy then, Laura doesn’t want to. But Mary says that they should: “It will help us learn self-denial.” Can’t you just imagine Laura’s frustration? Also, since the family lives in town during the winter, Ma wants Laura and Carrie to attend school. Laura really doesn’t want to — but feels guilty about this, since Mary would love to go, but can’t because of her blindness. Throughout the book, we see Laura struggling to behave well despite her natural desires. I found it kind of refreshing to see the way people back then seemed to do a better job than we do today at “doing the right thing” despite their initial reactions. I can’t really imagine a big turnout at a “march for women” in 1880, for instance.

Here’s an article I found online about that harsh winter of 1880-1881. Turns out Laura’s book is largely corroborated. Interesting.







7 thoughts on “The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Review

  1. My, my, what a terrible winter they endured. It makes me feel guilty for the winterless winter that is coming to a conclusion in Indiana. People back then seem to come from better material! I admire their fortitude!

  2. I’ve never read this series. I need to do it some time. I enjoyed your review.

  3. I always feel a little guilty when I read this book, because winter is my least favorite season, yet I have never experienced a winter anything like that one. I always found it amusing that Pa doesn’t like the use of coal because he says people won’t know how to cope without it once they get used to it. That’s all too true – I think we’ve largely lost those skills necessary to live in a situation like that because we have become so dependent on electricity now. Yet I am not inclined to sign up for a survivalist class. 🙂 I always admire the Ingalls’ resourcefulness and perseverance.

    In one of the later books Mary does confess that though she often outwardly behaved, inwardly she did struggle with wrong feelings. That was refreshing to hear. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed so much your review of The Long Winter. What troubles those dear people (speaking of all the pioneers) struggled through. I have never known any suffering so great as they did.

    And I agree about Laura’s personality beginning to show through in this particular book. I imagine that the “spark” that we see coming through in her personality is a major reason that she survived the things she did…and why her words, penned all those years ago, still impart wisdom and evoke emotions in us today.

  5. Thanks for another wonderful review. It’s a wonder the family survived a winter like that. What hardships they endured.

  6. wow, that is so interesting- I loved this review- showing how history is reflected in her book. I am inspired to read her books again!

  7. I love Little House books! My mother used to read to us from HER third grade reader, one of the stories from Little House in the Big Woods. My first readaloud of the school year as a teacher was Farmer Boy, because it began with the first day of school, in the winter. It was interesting for kids to compare with their experiences. I taught a Little House class in Super Summer one year (remember Super Summer?) We sang the songs, made Pa’s buckwheat pancakes, and hand sewed Mary’s nine patch quilt square for pillows. And I remember reading The Long Winter for the umpteenth time during the blizzard of 1978 when we were snowed in with our four month-old baby. Laura has given us so many hours of enjoyment with her books!

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