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.
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.
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.
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.
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.