Monday, June 18, 2018

'The Long Winter' by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This year, I'm hosting a read-along of all of the Little House on the Prairie Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which you'll find here. We'd love you to read along and share your thoughts, if you feel so inclined. I haven't included a sign-up sheet of any sort, but kept it all very informal. Here we're up to the month of June, which is winter for me in Australia, so I didn't mind rugging up warm to read this book.

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The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn't arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. 

The title speaks volumes. At the start, Pa Ingalls thinks he's prepared for once in his life. He's had a history of being knocked down by sudden disasters such as prairie fires, grasshopper plagues and Indian rampages. This time he's decided to heed four warning signs that the coming winter will hit hard.

1) Muskrats are building the walls of their homes super thick.
2) Birds are flying south as fast as they can.
3) A couple of freak early blizzards have struck in October.
4) An elderly Indian man warns several fellows that a 'heap big snow' is in store for them.

Together, the four signs convince Pa to move his family from the new claim back to town, to weather the cold season. Living in a tight community with shops and a railway handy will guarantee a steady supply of provisions, right? Nope, not so simple, because the sheer magnitude of that harsh winter takes almost all the new settlers in town off guard. It turns out Pa's almost knocked out again, and Ma and the girls with him, as usual.

The blizzards are like vicious adversaries. They strike suddenly, last for days, obliterate everything in sight, and plunge temperatures far below zero degrees. They also occur back-to-back so often, there's barely time to draw a breath between them. Shops run out of groceries because trains can't make it through. No sooner is snow cleared from the tracks than there's a mountain of more. Several months straight of this push the Ingalls' and several others to the brink of starvation.

You can't help cheering them on when they improvise their own alternative sources of heat and light. There's no more coal, so Pa invents a method of twisting hay to use for fuel. The kerosene is through, so Ma makes a button lamp with the help of some axle grease and a strip of calico. Three cheers for team Ingalls, but unfortunately the blizzards have the upper hand when it comes to food, which is far harder to improvise.

Not everyone in town is equally disadvantaged. The Wilder brothers are confident their supplies will see them through, and hot pancakes with molasses and bacon become their staple. Sure, it might be a bit monotonous, but I can imagine my own boys being happy with delicious pancake stacks day after day, so I'm sure those two didn't mind at all. Almanzo even hides a stash of wheat which he intends to use for seed in the spring. But as winter wears on, he can't help sensing that some people won't make it unless someone does something drastic. There are rumours of a settler with an abundant wheat crop living miles out of town, so some daredevil will have to dash out between blizzards to find him and attempt to purchase some. Only then will it become life-saving wheat. Who better to take the risk than two fit young men like Almanzo and his friend, Cap Garland?

It's quite intriguing to see snippets of townsfolk who really lived. There's Mr Foster, who seems to bungle everything he touches, and the opportunist Mr Loftus, who intends to rip off starving people for all he can get. Then there's Mr Anderson, the settler who grew all that wheat. I hope he enjoyed his own company. And surely there were several people who weren't even mentioned. Cap Garland's family included his sister Florence, the school teacher, but did they have a mother? Did Mrs Garland attempt to stop Cap setting off on a rescue mission which might have cost him his life? Women like Ma wouldn't let their husbands go, so surely it'd hurt even more to let your teenage schoolboy son take the risk? I'm curious about this boy with the smile like the sun coming up at dawn, that changed everything. (Those are Laura's own words, which make it easy to wonder if she ever had a crush on him.)

The horses deserve a mention as some of the best characters too. Laura was good at writing animals, and they stand out with personalities of their own. First was Almanzo's fancy matched team. Prince went on the dangerous mission with him and Lady ran off with an antelope herd for a short time. She was adorable when she caught sight of Prince and Almanzo in the distance, and raced back to them. Then there was the Ingalls' horse, good old David, who Pa called more sensible than he believed a horse could possibly be. They all just happened to be caught in that terrible deadly winter, but did the best they could, and their humans would surely be nowhere without them. They deserve the mention as brave, unsung heroes. Of course there was also Sam the panicker, but hey, I can't blame him for freaking out. It takes all sorts.

There are always some cool lines in these stories, often from Pa, who is one of the best at one-liners. 'I beat the blizzard to the stable by the width of a gnat's eyebrow,' he says. And when Laura suggests he quit sugar to bring out the full flavor of his tea, he replies, 'A good, hot cup of tea brings out the flavor of the sugar, Half-Pint.' It made me laugh when he told Grace his nose was frozen, and Ma said, 'Stop worrying about your looks, Charles.'

The books in this series are all excellent, but this one has a sense of urgency and desperation all of its own. The stakes are so high, it reads like page-turning fiction, but all that happened was true. How amazing for 21st century readers like us to reflect that these people with no electricity in their homes sat through what was essentially a 7-month black-out in sub-freezing temperatures. Although there wasn't much natural light in the story, it throws heaps of light on the way some people were forced to live, and I love it. It's well worth a read, and as winter has set in here where I live, it was a good atmosphere to enjoy it.

Next up will be Little Town on the Prairie



  1. Hey there, The monthly meme over at the Classics Club is to introduce a fellow member to your readers...and I chose you! Here's the post:

    Also, I haven't read any of the Little House books but my mom absolutely loves the tv show so i'm quite familiar with the story. I may try to read a few and see how they are. Thanks for inspiring me and have a great week.

    1. Oh wow, that's a lovely bit of encouragement. I'll pop over and have a look :) Reviewing classics is fun, and so is sharing it. And about the Little House books, the best part is that they're written in such a way we can enjoy them at any age.

  2. I *love* when authors can use settings and, in this case, weather events so cleverly, so that they become effectively another character/antagonist in the novel. It's not always done well, but when it is... hoo boy! I go ga-ga for it :) Also, I love how you highlighted their little MacGyver methods for generating light and heat - necessity is the mother and all that... :D

    1. That's so true, Sheree! And for someone with Laura's memory, it would've been a wasted opportunity not to go for it. That particular winter put up such a good fight ;) And that same proverb about necessity being the mother of invention sprang to my mind too.

  3. Oh, yeah, I think Laura had a crush on Cap. ; )

    I thought about Mrs. Garland giving permission to Cap to go on such a venture, too. That whole trip was outrageous, I think, especially given that Almanzo had a whole wall full of wheat to feed the town. At that point, it doesn't matter that its your seed wheat. They risked their lives to go buy someone else's. I just didn't think it was such a wise venture. Even Pa could have killed his cow to provide meat for his family. Why did he wait so long? It wasn't like they were getting milk! I don't know. That's my 21st century brain, I suppose.

    Nonetheless, so many great lessons come out of this one.

    1. Hi Ruth, yeah, it's hard to miss the irony of Almanzo standing there, pressuring Mr Anderson to do what he refused to do himself, which is sell his seed wheat. He did reason that he surely wouldn't have enough to feed the town until the end of winter, but it's still surprising that he wouldn't consider trying first rather than risking his life. The word reckless does spring to mind. We can celebrate that it worked out well, but the story could have so easily been different.